Farmland bird populations in sharp decline, Government figures show

Written by RSPB

Overall farmland bird populations in England fell by 5 per cent last year to their lowest level for 40 years, according to official figures released in late July.

Statistics released by Defra covering 19 bird species which rely on farmland have shown the steep decline between 2008 and 2009. RSPB scientists say the one year decline may be down to factors including a cold winter and the loss of set-aside in the countryside.

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Northern Lapwing in breeding habitat pasture in England. © Gyorgy Szimuly

Some of the most worrying declines include Northern Lapwings (12 per cent decline), Corn Bunting (7 per cent) and Grey Partridge (23 per cent). Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) – the advanced environmental subsidy package for farmers – was designed to boost individual threatened farmland bird species like these.

Where HLS has been deployed, farmers have achieved great successes for wildlife – but it currently covers under ten per cent of farmland. And it is now under threat from the coalition Government’s proposed budget cuts.

“It’s difficult to draw any hard and fast conclusions from a short one-year time span, but this certainly makes for some depressing reading,” said RSPB director of conservation Dr Mark Avery.

“The winter before last was a moderately cold one which could have impacted on birds’ ability to find food. We may also be seeing the knock on effect of set-aside being abolished in 2007, removing valuable foraging and nesting habitats for wild birds in the farmed countryside.

“Northern Lapwings – known to some as the ‘farmer’s friend’ – are particularly vulnerable and their populations have been steadily falling for more than 30 years, so a decline of 12 per cent in one year across England is really bad news.

“Those farmers who are helping to save this beautiful, threatened bird through the Higher Level Stewardship are achieving some great results. So to cut this important environmental scheme now could be disastrous.”

The long term decline
The figures released today also show a new long term five-year decline of 10 per cent. Farmland bird researchers say this long term decline shows that the Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) scheme – the basic environmental subsidy package – is not working as well as it should be. 

While HLS was designed to save threatened species, ELS was designed to reverse the overall decline in farmland birds. 56 per cent of farmland in England is in ELS.

“The five year decline of 10 per cent is a real cause for concern. It indicates that ELS is not working as intended,” Dr Avery continued.

“On the RSPB’s own farm in Cambridgeshire we have seen bird numbers almost triple thanks to ELS, so we know it can be done. There are many different options in the ELS scheme but unfortunately we are not seeing the right options used in the right ways.

“Farmland birds need farmers. The NFU and CLA-led Campaign for the Farmed Environment aims to boost wildlife-friendly activities on farms. These results show how crucial this effort is. The Campaign has the RSPB’s full support, and we applaud those farmers who are adapting their farms to care for wildlife as well as producing high-quality food. We just need more people to join in.”

What can I do?
We’re celebrating the work the UK’s farmers do for wildlife
Find out more about the Nature of Farming Award

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