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.