Guest Blog – ‘Glimmers of Hope’ revisited by the BTO’s David Noble

David Noble: I am the Principal Ecologist for Monitoring at the BTO and have been producing and reporting on annual updates of the Wild Bird Indicators for what feels like forever. My twitter name is @AparaNoble

The recent publication of the government’s annual update of the Wild Bird Indicators has led to a difference in opinion on what messages are best to communicate to the wider world, and here I respond to some comments made about BTO’s Press Release, discussed in Mark Avery’s blog on 7 November titled ‘UK bird populations continue to suffer very badly’.

The Official National Statistical Release about the Wild Bird Indicators  is, as is typically the case in such national statistics, neutral in tone with 40 pages encompassing all of the Wild Bird Indicator lines (farmland birds, woodland birds, breeding wetland birds, seabirds and wintering waterbirds), as well as providing supporting species information.  These indicators are produced by BTO and RSPB under contract, using long-established methodologies and derived directly from the outputs of the key bird monitoring schemes in the UK. For farmland birds, the key source is the BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey (BBS), an extensive and rigorously-designed 25 year old monitoring scheme with data collected by an army of volunteer birdwatchers at more than 4,000 sites across the UK. You can, in fact, glean some early insight into what the indicator update might look like each year by perusing the BBS results published in mid-summer.

The key outputs of the indicator publication are: (i) the latest level of each indicator in 2018 and (ii) the measures of change using the smoothed trends over both the long term (since ca 1970) and the most recent reliable five-year period (in this case 2012–2017). We also report the % of species either increasing, decreasing, or showing little change, over those long- and short-term periods.

So far so good. I am sure that Mark and we at BTO are in complete agreement with those figures.

The issue is that in our BTO Press Release on the day of indicator publication, we called it ‘Glimmers of hope for UK’s wild birds’ and focussed on some of the differences in the proportion of decreasing and increasing species in the long  term and the short term. Specifically, Mark has taken exception to our highlighting of the fact that fewer of the farmland species now show the annual rates of decline that they did over the longer term and a quote from us stating that this could be a response to more nature-friendly management. Instead Mark has focused on the fact that the overall farmland indicator has continued to decline to its lowest point ever which, as it is our calculation, we obviously do not dispute.

Our defence, if you like, is as follows:

We think it is vitally important when communicating scientific evidence to the media to present the good as well as the bad news.  Doom and gloom alone does not motivate action – our volunteers expect their efforts to recognise good when it is there. Whilst for birds this has often tended to mean focusing on species-specific successes, such as targeted wetland management and an increase in Bitterns (some of these examples are quite well rehearsed now), there is also a need to recognise the benefits of broader-scale wildlife-friendly farmland management. Highlighting success where it occurs is especially important because good Environmental Stewardship schemes, whether funded by government, voluntary schemes or through other mechanisms, are considered key to improving the state of nature on farmland, a habitat which covers more than 70% of the UK.

Our press release uses words like ‘grim’ to indicate the backdrop of severe long-term declines, and the ‘glimmers of hope’ also reflects the idea of a light in the tunnel and hence in our opinion not wholly positive. Although the trajectory of the farmland bird indicator has not yet been turned around, and that is bad news, decades of studies by BTO, RSPB and other scientific institutions have demonstrated the positive effects of specific AES options at the field level. Moreover, work by researchers such as Baker et al. (2012) and as yet unpublished updates have found evidence of significant positive effects on some target species at the national scale. The short-term good news on farmland birds in this latest report is particularly significant, not least because the species involved are farmland specialists, such as Linnet, Skylark and Yellowhammer, birds for which a number of key agri-environment schemes options have been designed. There is always a danger that environmentally-friendly land management policies could be eroded by changing UK or European politics as well as issues arising in other sectors, which makes it vitally important to recognise success, even when limited.

BTO is committed to doing what it does best, undertaking rigorous and detailed analyses to provide the evidence and get beyond the rhetoric. In our press release, we paint a picture of change that captures both positives  and negatives, articulating to the wider public the alarming bird declines whilst providing hope that through individual and collective action, there is some evidence that the future could look brighter.  

Baker, D.J., Freeman, S.S., Grice, P.V. & Siriwardena, G.M. 2012. Landscape-scale responses of birds to agri-environment management: a test of the English Environmental Stewardship scheme. Journal of Applied Ecology 49: 871-882

Mark writes: I’m grateful to the BTO for bothering to reply to my blog but their response is unconvincing. David writes that the BTO owes it to their volunteers to find some good news in amongst the bad – my point was that I am one of those volunteers and do not expect the BTO to try so hard to accentuate the positive when the overall trend, and the recent trend, is so clearly awful. Other panglossians will be pleased to listen to Candide every evening this week at 11:45 on BBC Radio 4. ‘Glimmers of Hope’ was the BTO’s choice of headline for their press release, not a phrase buried deep in the text: I remain disappointed, as a BTO member and volunteer, by this departure from the straight facts.

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12 Replies to “Guest Blog – ‘Glimmers of Hope’ revisited by the BTO’s David Noble”

  1. Great that David has made a response and thank you for making the effort but I am with Mark on this. Agri-environment has been around for nearly 30 years. It was intended to reverse biodiversity declines but has failed to do so. Yes, in places it has slowed the rate of loss and decline but it was meant to do more than that. It is not just about prescriptions - many of the positive actions have been known about for a good number of years but getting land managers to make the effort is clearly problematical (which is a nice way of saying that in the main, they are not interested in doing many of the key actions). The fundamental problem is that agri-environment as currently pushed is not fit for purpose and the most depressing thing is that nobody seems willing to challenge those charged with developing agri-environment over its failure and the clear need to consider different approaches. It is too easy to keep banging on about prescriptions and there is a whole industry based upon maintaining the status quo. A more fundamental review is required. Public payments for public goods sounds great but I hear that farming interests are lobbying for 70% or more of the funding to be exempt from the public goods test i.e. business as usual, get the cash for the minimum effort. The challenge to Government needs to be focused upon working in an entirely different way and not just "tweaking" existing approaches. Being optimistic about the current approach serves only to let people off the hook to effect change and allows the can to be kicked down the road for a bit longer.

    1. I'd like to echo essentially everything 'A' has said. My impression is that the emphasis on current-style agri-environment schemes has led to perhaps 20 years delay in really getting to grips with the problems in mainstream British farming.
      I was disappointed that David quoted Baker et al. (2012) as evidence of statistically significant positive effects of agri-environment schemes. The authors acknowledge that the multiplicity of statistical tests employed (about 250 in the study as a whole) could lead to 'type 1 errors', i.e. falsely positive results, but I think they downplay the importance of this problem. If you apply simple corrections for multiplicity, very few of the so-called positive results remain significant. For example, the only robustly significant result for Wild Bird Seed plots after correction is that they have an apparently disastrous effect on Corn Bunting populations.
      I think that there is now ample evidence that Wild Bird Seed plots do not provide adequate seed during the 'hungry gap' period, and so do not address probably the major issue for small farmland birds. Others have publicly highlighted the lunacy of paying farmers to place the various forms of pollen and nectar plots to boost insect numbers where they are surrounded by areas routinely sprayed with insecticides.
      We need a radical re-think of the approach, and only reward farmers for genuinely high-nature-value forms of agriculture.

  2. Thanks for the response David. It makes sense on some level but I think it betrays a particular, and damaging, response to the 'doom and gloom' criticism.

    When we are accused of doom and gloom, we need to rally by saying "X is declining, Y is declining, but we have solutions and here is how we could change this situation [insert policy/case study here]".

    What we mustn't do, is censor outselves and say "X is declining but Y is declining by less than last year" in order to spin a good headline out of bad news. The public and press psyche does not handle nuance well - most policy makers don't have as long as we do to consider the details of these figures. It will result in complacency and provides easy defensive lines to agents that should be given any to reach for.

  3. Chancellors of the Exchequer are prone to saying that "the deficit is reducing" when what they mean is that the rate at which public debt is increasing is slowing. But the public probably often suppose that they are announcing that public debt is falling. This strikes me as similar - though with an added twist that, by analogy, only the less-growing bits of the growth in public debt are highlighted.

  4. Hats off to David Noble for a thoughtful, well-reasoned blog, and long live the BTO!

    As football managers say after their teams lose yet again, it is important to see the positives even when results are dire.

    But it is also essential to be realistic and totally honest.

    If, as David claims, environmental stewardship schemes are deemed ‘key’ to their recovery, I fear there is little hope for our farmland birds.

    On my own birding patch, wildflower field margins are areas where predators have long learned to congregate. What chance success for the nest of a corn bunting, a yellowhammer or a linnet if myriad carrion crows and magpies are lined up aloft hedgerows, relentlessly casing the joint?

    The gravest menace to farmland birds is surely the continuing widespread drenching of the soil and crops on the rest of the fields with chemicals.

    The practice makes for fantastic yields, so farmers are scarcely to be blamed.

    But the downside, as well know, is that most of Mother Nature gets hammered.

    I understand the BTO receives some modest financial or other support from the agri-chemical industry, but I would prefer it to forfeit this in favour of speaking out strongly (even angrily) on why we are where we are.

    1. James - do the BTO get some money from the agrochemical industry? I wouldn’t worry too much about that. BTO gets a lot of money from the statutory agencies though.

  5. James, that's why in many cases, especially where waders are concerned, predator control
    should be part of the package, receiving funding if necessary.

    1. Look at the increase in waders at RSPB Dovestone, which has all been achieved without any predator control. Predator control is only required where artificially high numbers of game birds, usually Red Grouse create a surfeit of predators in response to their numbers. If habitat was properly managed- rewetted, despite claims by MA in real terms the number of drains blocked is a tiny percentage, some tree cover allowed and a little grazing allowed ( not Sheep!) and grouse numbers allowed to fall ( walked up would still be possible) We might get to a situation on most upland where waders did well without the incessant need to control natural predation.

  6. Yes, I was wondering that, too, Mark - more specifically, my amazement that there are respectable scientists on the 'advisory' panel for Hen harrier brood meddling. I am sure there has not been overt arm twisting, because the civil service doesn't work that way - but people can sense the nuances, and I suspect Defra has been working very hard (on behalf of it's Ministers) to try and paper over some of the cracks in the Government's disastrous record on biodiversity.

  7. Trapit, if the balance of Nature were allowed to reassert itself, there wouldn’t be any need for the predator control option.

    I note your important observation about safeguarding waders, but surely predator control compounds the many wrongs we already impose on nature and wildlife?

    1. James, as you say yourself, the problem with restricted areas of habitat, especially linear ones, such as conservation headlands, is
      that predators use them to their advantage.
      It is money down the drain, encouraging birds of concern into these
      areas, just to feed generalist predators.
      If only we could turn the farming clock back sixty years.

  8. This is all to do with taking a balanced view. One does have to present a realistic report. If things are really grim then I think this needs to be said but at the same time one needs to explain why they are grim and not just rely on the figures. What also needs to be said is any positive action that is being taken to halt and reverse the bad trend and how likely these actions are to have an effect.
    Taking this approach should give a fair assessment at the same time not discouraging volunteers.


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