The turtle dove, Britain’s most endangered bird, continues to plummet towards extinction after its numbers halved over five years, according to the latest data.
The turtle dove’s 51% decline from 2013 to 2017 is the most drastic of a continuing slump for a quarter of farmland bird species but there are signs of recovery for some birds, which experts attributed to the success of wildlife-friendly farming funded by the government.
The reed bunting, corn bunting, goldfinch and stock dove all showed significant short-term increases, with populations boosted by agri-environment practices such as leaving some stubble fields unploughed over winter to provide food.
The report by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) reveals the catastrophic long-term loss of farmland birds, with 62% of 19 monitored species having declined between 1970 and 2018. Much of these declines occurred in the 1970s and 80s and the recent picture is brighter: 32% of farmland species showed an increase in population from 2013 to 2017, 42% were stable and 26% declined.
Dr David Noble, the principal ecologist at the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), said: “We know some agri-environment schemes have had positive effects on some bird populations. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve been turned around but it’s significantly less negative than it might have been. It’s working to some extent.”
Farmland birds declined overall by 6% over five years but the figures are skewed by drastic disappearances such as the turtle dove, of which there are barely 1,000 breeding pairs left in the UK, a 98% decline since 1970.
Noble said: “This is a species in freefall for a lot of different reasons because of what’s happening here [with habitat loss], because they are migrants, because they are hunted [in the Mediterranean], because things are happening on their wintering grounds in Africa – a combination of everything. It’s a big issue.”
According to Noble, this data and other studies show the success of targeted conservation and agri-environment schemes – provided by EU funds with the scale and shape of post-Brexit farm support still uncertain – but this work needs to be expanded.
“It is small gains, small improvements,” he said. “It has to be scaled up. It has to be enough to mitigate against the other problems that are happening, such as to migrant birds further south.”
While the turtle dove and grey partridge continue to decline despite targeted conservation work, other schemes to revitalise farmland species are bearing fruit, with skylark (up 6%), corn bunting (up 12%), reed bunting (up 16%) and linnet (up 9%) populations all enjoying short-term increases and previously rapidly declining birds such as tree sparrow, starling and lapwing now stable. The continued decline of the greenfinch (down 46%) is because it has been hit by disease.
While farmland covers three-quarters of the UK, birds living in woodland (13% of land area) are dipping down again, according to the data, which covers 130 species of breeding bird.
While populations of 37 predominantly woodland species stabilised after the mid-1990s, woodland birds have declined by 8% over the five years. Particularly marked recent declines include the lesser spotted woodpecker (down 37%), nightingale (down 38%) and common crossbill (down 49%). There was better news for the goldcrest, pied flycatcher and chiffchaff, which increased by 14%, 10% and 9% respectively. The song thrush has bounced back by 22% in the five-year period after a precipitous long-term decline.
Some declines are more marked in certain regions, with the willow warbler’s reduction in southern Britain attributed to drier conditions caused by global heating, as well as deer browsing woodland scrub – a problem also afflicting the nightingale, which requires dense thickets to nest successfully. The willow warbler is faring much better in Scotland.
Seabirds have experienced mixed fortunes, with 46% increasing over the short term. While herring gulls and arctic skua continue short-term and long-term declines, razorbill and great black-backed gulls have bounced back.