Press release – New UK Red List for birds: more than one in four species in serious trouble

New UK Red List for birds: more than one in four species in serious trouble

Greenfinch. Photo: Ben Hall/rspb images
  • The UK Red List for birds now stands at 70 species, a net increase of three from the last update in 2015.
  • Swift, House Martin, Greenfinch and Bewick’s Swan added to the UK Red List, a growing list of birds that are under threat.
  • The length of the UK Red List has almost doubled, from 36 to 70 species, in the last 25 years.
  • However, in better news, the White-tailed Eagle moves from Red to Amber as a result of conservation work.

The latest assessment of the status of all the UK’s 245 regularly-occurring bird species – Birds of Conservation Concern 5 – shows that 70 species are now of ‘highest conservation concern’ and have been placed on the assessment’s Red List. The newly revised Red List now includes familiar species, such as the Swift, House Martin and Greenfinch that have been added for the first time.

The report placed 70 species on the Red list, 103 on the Amber list and 72 on the Green list. Worryingly, the Red List now accounts for more than one-quarter (29%) of the UK species, more than ever before, and almost double the figure (36 species) noted in the first review in 1996. Most of the species were placed on the Red List because of their severe declines, having halved in numbers or range in the UK in recent decades. Others remain well below historical levels or are considered under threat of global extinction.

Birds of Conservation Concern 5 is a report compiled by a coalition of the UK’s leading bird conservation and monitoring organisations reviewing the status of all regularly occurring birds in the UK, Channel Islands and Isle of Man. Each species was assessed against a set of objective criteria and placed on either the Green, Amber or Red List – indicating an increasing level of conservation concern.

The report adds to a wealth of evidence that many of our bird populations are in trouble. Amongst the new additions to the Red List are the Swift, House Martin and Greenfinch.

Swift and House Martin have both moved from the Amber to the Red List owing to an alarming decrease in their population size (58% since 1995 and 57% since 1969 respectively). These join other well-known birds, such as the Cuckoo and Nightingale, already on the Red list, which migrate between the UK and sub-Saharan Africa each year. Work to address their declines must focus on both their breeding grounds here and throughout the rest of their migratory journey, which requires international cooperation and support.

The familiar garden bird, the Greenfinch has moved directly from the Green to the Red List after a population crash (62% since 1993) caused by a severe outbreak of the disease trichomonosis. This infection is spread through contaminated food and drinking water, or by birds feeding one another with regurgitated food during the breeding season. Garden owners can help slow transmission rates by temporarily stopping the provision of food if ill birds are seen and making sure that garden bird feeders are cleaned regularly.

Previous Birds of Conservation Concern reports have highlighted the plight of farmland, woodland and upland birds. This report adds more farmland and upland species to the Red list. Fifty-nine species of bird remain on the Red list from previous assessments; many of these, such as Starling, Curlew and Turtle Dove, are continuing to decline. As outlined in the 2019 State of Nature report, our bird populations face many pressures both here and abroad. These include changes in the way land is managed (particularly farmland which makes up 75% of the UK’s land area), climate change, urbanisation, invasive non-native species and pollution.

The report also raises concerns over the status of wintering waterbird populations, with species such as Bewick’s Swan joining the Red list. Pressures include illegal hunting abroad, the ingestion of lead ammunition, and the impacts of climate change. In addition, many of these wintering waterbird populations have been affected by ‘short-stopping’, whereby they have shifted their wintering grounds north-eastwards in response to milder winter temperatures.

There is concern that the European wetlands they are now spending more of their time in may be drained or exploited in other ways and some are without protection altogether. Ensuring these areas are designated, protected and managed appropriately will become even more critical in safeguarding the ongoing survival of many of our migrating waterbirds.

The 2021 assessment does however contain some good news and demonstrates that targeted conservation action can make a real difference. The UKs largest bird of prey, the White-tailed Eagle, moves from the Red to the Amber list as a result of decades of conservation work including reintroductions and increased protection for this spectacular species. The population, however, remains low at just 123 pairs nationally. White-tailed eagles became extinct in the UK as a result of extensive habitat change combined, particularly in the 19th century, with persecution. Before their re-introduction, the birds last bred in England and Wales in the 1830s, in Ireland in 1898 and in Scotland in 1916.

The RSPB’s CEO, Beccy Speight said “This is more evidence that the UK’s wildlife is in freefall and not enough is being done to reverse declines. With almost double the number of birds on the Red List since the first review in 1996, we are seeing once common species such as Swift and Greenfinch now becoming rare. As with our climate this really is the last chance saloon to halt and reverse the destruction of nature. We often know what action we need to take to change the situation, but we need to do much more, rapidly and at scale.  The coming decade is crucial to turning things around.”

The BTO’s CEO, Prof Juliet Vickery said “It is both sad and shocking to think that the House Martin, a bird that often, literally, makes its home under our roof, has become Red-listed. As a long-distance migrant to Africa we know very little of its life outside of the UK, but possible causes include a lack of food, as a result of insect declines, and fewer nest sites from refurbishment of housing and the move to plastic soffits. Putting up artificial House Martin nest cups to provide safer nesting sites may not be the whole answer but it’s a simple positive step many of us can take.”

The GWCT’s Director of Research, Dr Andrew Hoodless said: “BoCC5 sadly adds more farmland and upland birds to the Red list. We need to better understand the effects of climate change on some species, as well as the impacts of changing habitats and food availability along migration routes and in wintering areas of sub-Saharan African migrants. For many Red-listed species, however, improving breeding success in the UK is vital – we can and must make real and immediate improvements to this through better engagement with UK farmers, land managers and gamekeepers to encourage adoption of effective packages of conservation measures.”

JNCC’s Director of Ecosystem Evidence & Advice, Steve Wilkinson, said: “It is concerning to see three more long-distance migrants added to the UK Red List.  We will continue to work with overseas partners to better understand the challenges faced by birds such as house martin and swift as they make their annual round trip between the UK and wintering grounds in Africa. Only through co-operation with countries along these flyways, can we hope to protect migrants like Bewick’s Swan whose distribution is shifting in a rapidly changing climate.”

The changing lists20152021
Red67 species70 species
Amber96 species103 species
Green81 species72 Species
Total species244245
House Martin. Photo: Tom Marshall/rspb images



17 Replies to “Press release – New UK Red List for birds: more than one in four species in serious trouble”

  1. Nightingale should be moving north with CC but instead it’s moving south and declining. The reason isn’t at all complex: 500,000 hectares, roughly half, England’s woodlands are not managed. It will surprise most people that we have large scale land abandonment in England but that is effectively what it is. There are huge areas, especially in the SE, of stood over coppice – dark, with zero ground flora or shrub layer, once the habitat of Nightingale, Dormouse, woodland butterflies and ancient woodland flora, now completely useless to them. Quite a substantial area is in conservation ownership where lack of forestry skills, lack of understanding of the history and ecological value of these woods and fear of members reaction to tree felling mean the management desperately needed for early succession species just doesn’t happen. Deer are a massive added problem, again both the practicalities of management and public attitudes. Yes, there may be things going on elsewhere, but for many red list species we really don’t have to look beyond our own shores for the causes of their problems.

    1. Yes, deer are the problem in ancient woodland in our neighbourhood – everything browsed to head height. I just checked what Benedict Macdonald says in ‘Rebirding’: “Once populations become isolated… [they] are already too small to survive typical fluctuations of a normal population.” I fear we are already too late.

    2. Re coppicing Roderick the good news is the real expert in the proper conservation version of it is on the way back. Not for them the incidental creation of a shrub layer and a sunlit ground flora as a happy by product of making bean poles or charcoal for barbecues. No, in the process in situ they create lots of dead wood too, some of which they take into water where it’s a tremendous boost for aquatic invertebrates and fish, and even helps keep houses dry when it rains hard. It certainly doesn’t deprive terrestrial invertebrates and fungi of a home by burning brash because it thinks it staves of honey fungus. Or for that matter that the ash gives a quick flush of fertilising phosphates, at the cost of the natural slow decay that helps develop mycorrhiza friendly soils?

      Elsewhere in Europe it has already proved a totally unexpected friend to some very surprising species including golden ringed dragonfly, sand lizard and red backed shrike. What else might it aid as it helps stop scrub encroaching on wetlands and full, high canopies killing off ground flora and gives us a shrub layer instead….curlew, ring ouzel, black grouse, mountain hare, dormice and nightingale? With perhaps somewhat less surprise we’ve found it helps provide a home for water voles and otters. If we give them a chance there are other keystone species which will reseed the soil by turning it over, and protect the resulting species rich ground flora by controlling deer numbers and movements. Give them all a big enough ‘canvas’ to work on and then they could bring back a diversity of life that surpasses even the best stopgap efforts of we rather inadequate human proxies for them. We might better spend our efforts in giving back that land for them to work on through not using it to grow food we subsequently send to landfill, i.e. not screwing things up in the first place.

      1. Nice one Les!! They also deposit lots of woody debris and make leaky “beaver-style” dams!! All very good for water quality, flood and drought mitigation, biodiversity, C storage etc. etc. ….. 🙂

  2. It is certainly sad and very worrying that there are such big declines in so many of our birds that were once so common. Many of the birds that are in free fall such as swift, house martin and I suspect swallow, depend on insects especially flying insects for food. The decline of such birds will in most cases reflect the decline in insects. As had been said many times the car windscreen splatter test reflects this well. In my youth we used to drive to the West Country for a summer holiday and we would often need to stop to clean the windscreen. Now days this hardly happens on a long journey.
    Sorry to say most of our countryside is now just a green desert. While some smaller independent farmers are trying their best to farm in an environmentally friendly manor most such as the big combines, the NFU, Defra and those that shoot our wildlife for fun could not really care “a toss” about the environment and our wildlife. For them it is all about making as much money as they possibly can. In addition we cannot believe a single word Mr Johnson, says on these subjects as he is just a showman and a conman.
    So until there are some radical and meaningful changes to prevent the continuing devastation of our countryside by selfish interests I think we will continue to see these major wildlife declines.
    I also think we need to salute those people and organisations that are doing their very best to help our wildlife and environment in so many ways. They put to shame this Government, the NFU, the big farming combines and the shooters of wildlife for fun.

    1. ‘ the NFU, Defra and those that shoot our wildlife for fun could not really care “a toss” about the environment and our wildlife.’ 100% spot on! There needs to be a comprehensive, deep and independent study into exactly what happened to all the quadzillions of pounds of public money that’s been given to farmers to support environmental and conservation schemes, there’s not much to show for it.

      Regulars here will no doubt have heard of one of my favourite stories from my time living and working on a farm that I think illustrates the real situation re ‘conservation’ in agriculture. I’m going to recount it for the umpteenth time, but only because there’s an added twist that really puts the cherry on the top. A substantial length of hedging had indeed been planted on the farm, but rather than for conservation purposes the farmer had a) fancied the young woman who dealt with the grants for the hedge b) the aforementioned grants meant that the hedge wouldn’t cost him anything and c) As the hedging grew it would create a screen to increase the chances farmland could be sold off to developers (it was not far from Ipswich) – the urban forestry unit actually advises that tree planting can facilitate development! It seems it’s OK to build on greenbelt as long as views aren’t affected.

      I retold this wee story on the Rewilding Scotland facebook page and was rather surprised to get a somewhat excited response. The respondent’s ex wife had actually worked in the department responsible for handing out these grants and although it was hardly official it was definitely policy to use attractive young women as ‘eye candy’ to get the initial interest from farmers! Well there’s at least one Suffolk farm where that worked a treat. Once grant given and work done evaluation to see if money had been well spent was apparently practically non existent. On our farm any cheap crap was bought to stick in, purists might just have something to say about Indian bean tree becoming a hedgerow tree.

      So cheesy tactics used to get as many farmers involved as possible, then little if anything done to make sure the public money had achieved what it was supposed to. This was some peoples’ definition of doing their job. A box ticking and PR stunt that was only really good for handing money to farmers. How much of this is the template for, the default setting of the umpteen similar schemes we’ve had over decades? I think we need to know.

  3. Time to ban cats, judging by today’s report that they kill an estimated 27 million birds a year. Feral, and domestic cats given constant ‘liberty’, are pests in the true sense of the word.
    Next cause for Wild Justice?

    1. Too many people in the UK infected with toxoplasmosis already for that to have a chance, I fear.

  4. Time to discourage artificial bird feeding during the breeding season. We’ve been killing with misplaced kindness for years and, sadly, the RSPB is complicit in this. We should be advocating the provision of invertebrate friendly garden management i.e. no use of insecticides, herbicides etc. and the provision of tree and shrub cover appropriate to garden size. Removing bird feeders on nature reserves would also be a good start if we ever want to see greenfinches recover their numbers. And, no, cleaning your feeders will not remove the risks of disease transmission.

    1. I wonder how many of the people diligently filling up their garden feeders are the very first to get on the phone and complain about verges getting ‘untidy’ or ‘scruffy’ wilder areas. You’re right the RSPB is a lot better at going along with putting out food for the lovely little birdies in your garden than challenging the mentality that deprives them of breeding sites and natural food in the first place. ‘Wild’flower meadows are just about acceptable, especially if they contain loads of garish non natives, but nettles, dock, ivy and bramble still aren’t even though they’re the larval food plants for many of the pollinators the flowers are supposed to help.

      1. Hi Les, I am not sure that it is really a fair criticism of the RSPB to suggest that they consider wildflower meadows ‘just about acceptable’ or that they have an intolerance of nettles, dock, ivy and bramble. I’d also say that a substantial part of its work is aimed at preventing the loss of breeding and wintering sites and natural food sources for birds.

        1. Jonathon my comments were re the public not the RSPB! I was a bit peeved with them (RSPB) for not doing as much as they could to challenge the (public) mentality that just about approves wildflower meadows, but despises ivy, nettles, dock, bramble etc. That’s still the situation with a fair swathe of the public unfortunately so I think it’s more than a fair criticism which incidentally I think has to be shared with others such as the Wildlife Trusts. It seems that just as often as a wildflower meadow has been created on a formerly close mowed piece of grass, it’s been put in to replace ‘scruffy weeds’ such as the species mentioned earlier. Things haven’t moved on as much as we might like to think and that’s not going to change if attitudes are not challenged.

          I have absolutely no problem in seeing lots of house sparrows if I want to I just go to an ‘overgrown’ spot near buildings preferably with a path they can collect grit from and have a dust bath. No big mystery why their population has plummeted in many areas, they’ve been sterilised with plastic grass, hard landscaping and weed killer. Unfortunately we still have acceptable nature – little birdies and pretty flowers – and unacceptable nature – ‘weeds’ and dead wood. If conservation depends on the latter then away from nature reserves it’s pretty well stuffed. I don’t see anything being done to change that and I think for the want of a bit of backbone to wave the flag for the unpopular and supposedly non pretty we could be making much more progress. Sorry if my wording was ambiguous or misleading, high on quantity not so much on quality!

  5. Re Farmland birds.
    I guess if we were all honest and not so nostalgic about farming we would realise that there are no such things as “farmland birds” but merely birds that in the past have been able to take advantage of farmland as it resembled their natural habitat. Farming has now changed in this country and these birds are now longer able to take advantage. Millions of pounds annually has been poured into farming in grants and stewardship schemes but is this value for money? Anybody notice any more curlews or lapwings or corncrakes or in their area? All been a waste of effort and cash really . It will never happen but more value for nature would happen if this cash was spent on larger projects such as restoring and rewilding the uplands, instead of trying to restore some mythical agriculture idyll. Farming has changed and that has to be accepted.

    1. I think you’re spot on, helping ‘farmland’ birds is much better done by what has happened at Knepp. As Isabella Tree has stated in her book about Knepp we could take a lot of poorer agricultural land out of production just by cutting the horrendous level of food waste there is, as much as 40% of global food production. I’d add though as with urban areas there are lots of spare bits of land not being farmed that could easily be turned over to nature. However, as Mark Cocker pointed out in his excellent ‘Our Place’ in the countryside the desire for tidiness, that I prefer to call sterility, is at least as bad as in our towns and cities. We could have a massive amount of wildlife back just by not treating the bits of non farmed land in rural areas as if they were traditional Victorian municipal parks. Infuriating loss of opportunity. And yes what did happen with all the money ploughed into farm based conservation schemes?

  6. Poor practices around garden feeders certainly haven’t helped birds like Greenfinches and I’m sure more could be done to educate well intentioned enthusiasts regarding regular cleaning regimes. I d see regular posts on fb explaining why feeders must be cleaned regularly, but not enough emphasis given to the ground below feeders, where many birds actually feed. Where possible, feeders should of course be moved to fresh ground after each regular clean, but if moving is not possible, then the ground must be sanitised. Also, as water is a rapid conductor of disease, it is vital that water drinkers & Bird Baths are thoroughly cleaned – daily! … However, that said, I think there’s little doubt that modern agriculture is the major cause for the decline in numbers of so many of our songbirds, given that, over the past 50 years their destructive practices have absolutely destroyed our Wildflower & Insect populations, so songbirds are left with little to feed their chicks, even if they can find suitable nesting sites/habitat.

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