Britain’s birdlife is on the decline – with even seasonal favourites struggling to survive in a world of intense farming and the climate crisis, reports Sian Norris for the Byline Intelligence Team

Over Newport’s wetlands in south Wales, a flock of December lapwings dance in the early dusk, creating patterns and shapes above power lines and bulrushes. These black and white birds have been a staple of the British landscape for centuries – but new data published this month shows a worrying decline in British bird numbers just weeks after the COP26 UN climate change summit in Glasgow focused the world’s attention on the environmental crisis. 

Since 1970, according to the wild bird populations data release from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, all bird species have seen a “significant” decline of 11% – with farmland birds and seabirds worst affected. 

And, while our seasonal wintering waterbirds have seen a significant increase (86%) in populations since 1970, the positive data masks a worrying trend.

Winter bird populations have steadily gone down since 1996. Over the short-term period between the winters of 2013/14 and 2018/19, some 46% of species declined. These include the Bewick swan with its unforgettable honking call, pochard ducks and the black and white eider ducks – all wildlife stars at this time of year. 

Within that category, winter waders have seen a 53% decline between 2013/14 and 2018/19. Curlews, the long-beaked estuary birds that pick their way delicately over mud-flats, have declined by 17% between the winters of 2013/14 and 2018/19. The bar-tailed Godwit has lost 21% of its numbers in the same period. 

Geoff Hilton, head of conservation evidence at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, told Byline Times: “The UK’s position at the junction of continents and temperature zones makes us globally important for migratory birds, and WWT’s 10 wetland sites across the country are set right at the heart of the action.

“Anyone who has visited one of our sites will know they are a haven for migratory birds – including sweeping flocks of lapwings, Bewick swans, and pink footed geese. But climate change means we are seeing a decline in the number of these birds reaching our shores – they are just not travelling as far west to the British Isles as they used to.”

Farmland species have endured the biggest loss since the 1970s, with a 57% decline in numbers. The corn bunting, grey partridge, starling, turtle dove and tree sparrow have experienced severe declines in excess of 80% since 1970. The turtle doves of Christmas carol fame have seen their numbers nearly halve. 

The loss of farmland birds can be attributed to changing agricultural practices including a loss of mixed farming systems and increased use of pesticides. There is hope, however, with farmers becoming more aware of the need to protect biodiversity and taking steps to support bird life on their land. 


When the Songbird Stops Singing 

The red-breasted robin is a Christmas icon, with a song familiar to all woodland walkers on frosty winter days. But, much-loved woodland birds are also struggling to survive, with a significant 27% decline in numbers since 1970. The number of robins alone has decreased by 32% since 1979

Chief among the causes of this loss of woodland birds has been a loss of habitat caused by a lack of woodland management, and an increase in deer browsing pressure – meaning fewer young plants maturing to create new habitats. This has resulted in a lack of woodland diversity and led to fewer suitable nesting locations for woodland birds. 

Particularly threatened by loss of woodland nesting habitats are song thrushes, which have declined by 49% since 1970. The lesser spotted woodpecker, lesser redpoll, spotted flycatcher, capercaillie and willow tit have declined by over 80% relative to 1970 levels, with the latter down by 94%. This small bird can be recognised when spotted by its grey plumage and black cap and bib. 

There is some good news, however. Populations of black caps – whose distinctive head is not to be confused with the willow tit – and long-tailed tits are on the increase. The population of these chirruping passerines has increased by 102%, and they are recognised by their long tail and small, round bodies. 

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A Climate Crisis

In 2019, the seabird level index was 24% lower than in 1986 – only slightly above the lowest level ever recorded. Despite levels remaining relatively flat between 1986-2000, numbers started to decline at the turn of the century. 

Among the worst-affected birds is the black-tailed kittiwake, which has seen numbers fall by 64% since the mid-1980s although there have been hopes of a recovery. Between 2013 and 2018, numbers started to rise again with a 20% increase.

The climate crisis is a potential driver in kittiwake loss. The warming global temperatures have caused issues with marine food chains while intense fishing is disrupting seabirds hunting grounds. 

The Arctic skua has also seen a dramatic drop in numbers, with an 80% decline since 1986. Known as the ‘pirates of the sea’, this excellent hunter chases other seabirds such as puffins and terns to steal the fish they have caught. 


Hope is the Thing With Feathers

While the overall decline in Britain’s bird life is concerning, there are some species bucking the trend. The recovery of the red kite is one – with the fork-tailed bird of prey now seen beyond Wales and circling over the M4 corridor. 

Razorbill populations have doubled since 1986, and this black and white seabird is best spotted on sea cliffs during the autumn, such as in St Abbs in Scotland. The number of buzzards and greater-spotted woodpeckers have also increased since the 1970s, as have goldfinches which can be found on garden bird feeders across the country. 

The kestrel, once a familiar sight hovering over meadows and fields, is declining, with a 48% loss since 1970. Popular garden finches are also seeing their populations drop – greenfinches have declined by 64% in part due to illness. Between 2013 and 2018, the UK saw a shocking decrease of 24% of its pink-breasted chaffinch population.

“This is more evidence that the UK’s wildlife is in freefall and not enough is being done to reverse declines,” the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’ CEO, Beccy Speight, told Byline Times. “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 the 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.”

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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