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Farmland bird populations in sharp decline 29.07.10

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 today (July 29, 2010). Source RSPB



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.

Some of the most worrying declines include 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 just 1 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.

“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.”

Peter Shield

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RSPB website

Comment on this article

1 Comment

  • Soil Association Comment

    30 July 2010 11:29, by Peter Shield

    Figures released today by Defra show overall levels of farmland birds to be the lowest for forty years [1]. These results show that more radical steps are needed to reverse this decline. The new research also highlights the crucial importance of not losing wild bird populations which have been created under the Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) scheme. The RSPB states: ‘Where HLS has been deployed, farmers have achieved great successes for wildlife - but it currently covers just 1 per cent of farmland. And it is now under threat from the coalition Government’s proposed budget cuts’ [2].

    The 4.3% of land that’s farmed organically is also vital for birds. In a recent report [3] the National Audit Office concluded that the Organic Entry Level scheme (OELS) is likely to "have achieved environmental benefits by supporting organic farming".

    Research shows that organic farming provides 30 per cent more species and 50 per cent more overall numbers of wildlife such as birds and butterflies [4].

    1] The Defra press release on farmland bird populations can be found here

    [2] RSPB statement online. Read it here

    [3] ‘Defra’s Organic Agri-environment Scheme’. Read it here


    [4] Bengtesson J, Anhstrom J, Weilbull A (2005) The effects of organic agriculture on biodiversity and abundance: a meta-analysis, Journal of Applied Ecology, 42: 261-269.

    Reply to this comment

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