Is this ‘Bird Armageddon’?

Since 1966 UK bird population has decline by 44 million which amounts to just under a million birds a year (over 45 years), which is dismal November news indeed.

Yesterday the RSPB published their most extensive survey of the UK’s bird populations over the last 4 decades (including data from 2011); ‘The state of the UK’s birds 2012’. SUKB2012, as it is also known, is a collaborative affair between NGO’s and the UK’s governmental nature conservation agencies: RSPB, BTO, WWT, NE, NIEA, SNH and JNCC. The report uses a mix of indicators to assess the populations of wild birds, seabirds and wintering birds throughout the UK and overseas territories. All species are given a conservation status (red, amber or green) in accordance with the criteria set out in the BTO’s document Birds of Conservation 3, 2009.

While this grading has been an effective means of establishing BAP (Biodiveristy Action Plan) lists throughout the UK there is a need for these, now, localised lists need to take into account a more widespread birds eye view. Firstly this is because of the positive recovery that some red listed birds, such as corncrakes, can be attributed to their categorisation as a red listed species. However this is not always the case and as more species have been added to the list less are recovering sufficiently to be removed; as available resources are spread more and more thinly. Secondly, the recent surveys (2011) of localised and rare species show that out of the 59 birds of the 2007 BAP list, 26 are widespread and could be considered common. Thirdly, 8/10 species that are in the most serious decline (in the UK) are the longest migrants which means that numbers in the UK do not take into account any natural migratory adaptation that may have occurred.

The bird indicators give a comparison of population numbers when compared to 1970 (wild bird) or 1975/76 (wintering birds), setting these statistics at a value of 100 so that any decline or increase is relative to 100. These statistics show reveal that wild populations fluctuate cyclically every 2-4 years, seeing both increases and declines, which is to be expected of most wild populations. However there is a discernible plateauing off and decline for all species, due to the decline and plateauing of populations of farmland and woodland species, since 1997. The populations of the 19 species identified as farmland species have on average halved in the last 40 years. Conversely, seabird populations were even increasing and those species associated with water and wetlands were maintaining theirs. It was only in the last 4 years that these populations of birds have started to see a decline. The same is true for wintering water birds; populations were steadily increasing between 1975/76 and 1997/98, before species began their current decline began. So why is it that are farmland and woodland birds are suffering so heavily?

Considering the state of the UK insect populations it is perhaps not surprising that these populations have suffered the most. The increased intensification of farming practices including the use of harmful insecticides and pesticides leads to reduced numbers of insects or adverse affects on insect behaviour which indirectly and directly impact upon the total energy available within the ecosystem, therefore affecting bird populations. Farming practices were identified by Natural England (South West) as a key initiative in 2009, within projects aimed at reversing the decline of farmland birds, and an update of progress being made can be found here.Land use, emissions and urbanisation are most definitely issues that RSPB believes need to be addressed and voiced it as such in the Environmental Audit Committee’s (EAC’s) Autumn Statement 2012.

“the governments macroeconomic policy is incoherent.. containing contradictions between the positive goals it articulates through recent works (National Ecosystem Assessment, Natural Environmental White Paper, Natural Capital Committee’s ‘Transition to a Green Economy’, where long term prosperity is interlinked with the health of Natural Capital) and the current plans set out in the ‘Growth and Infrastructure Bill‘; where not a single reference to Natural Capital is made”

The issues of woodland bird population decline also rings true with the current outrage and deepening concern over invasive parasites that are presently threatening over a third of all UK woodlands. Woodlands have the largest number of associated bird species of any habitat in Britain; so that as this precious habitat is lost there is certainly going to be a corresponding loss of birds as nesting sites are lost and the very ecosystem they depend on fragments further. Next week POST are hosting a seminar on Tree Disease Biosecurity to discuss the development of an integrated management approach. The release of SUKB2012 is therefore timely and it can be hoped that this vital information is considered.

It is not all doom and gloom, some species have shown their tenacity in the last 45 years, with help from the UK conservation movement. The Chaffinch, for example, has increased its numbers at a rate of 150 individuals per day and the collared dove has established itself more prominently with the UK with approximately 1 million breeding pairs.

With the climate set to change by at least 1-2 degrees in the future, the species composition of the United Kingdom will undoubtedly alter and long term monitoring of this sort exemplified by the SUKB collaboration is an invaluable resource. Ensuring that conservation efforts can be focused on the species and habitats that can benefit most from positive human interference. While these surveys would not be possible with out the highly commendable work of thousands of dedicated volunteers, up and down the country and those in overseas territories, the EAC’s Autumn Report recommended that the government should become more active as volunteer run programmes are just that, voluntary. The other issue here is that any environmental data can only ever be, at best, a representation of the trends in the wild. It is an impossible task to track every single bird that resides, however fleetingly, in the UK. More government input through modern, sophisticated and time efficient monitoring would allow more regular surveillance and more reliable statistical analyses. International collaboration is also vital as most of Europe is struggling with similar issues. The Baltic states have suffered massive declines in seaducks which mirror those occurring in UK waters (velvet scoters and long-tailed ducks are now threatened with extinction), especially Scotland.

“By tying our findings with similar reports from the Baltic and elsewhere, we’re getting a clearer understanding of the problem, but to be effective we need all countries to work more closely together,” Richard Hearn, WWT.