The number of midwives intending to work in the NHS is falling sharply, according to official figures.
The number of active midwives is falling
While the overall number registered with the Nursing and Midwifery Council is rising, surveys suggest that many of them do not expect to work as midwives.
There is now a workforce of 27,613 midwives, compared with more than 35,000 in the mid-1990s - and many more are choosing to work part-time.
The Royal College of Midwives described the figures as "truly alarming".
In addition, the average age of working midwives is also rising, despite boosts to the numbers of young people training to join the profession.
The availability of midwives in the health service has been a source of concern for experts in recent years, and the government has spearheaded a massive recruitment drive in a bid to raise numbers.
The overall numbers on the register covering all nurses, midwives and health visitors suggest rises - 645,580 in total - indicating a rise of more than 1,500 between 2002 and 2003.
However, the breakdown of information relating only to midwifery presents a different picture.
The number remaining on the register with up-to-date midwifery skills has dropped from 86,495 to 47,617 in just one year - perhaps due partly to the introduction of new tests to make sure non-practising midwives keep their skills honed.
However, even this figure is not a true reflection of how many midwives are available - many of these may be qualified to work as a midwife - but instead choose not to work, or to work in some other branch of nursing.
A survey asking registered midwives about their working intentions reveals that 27,613 expect to be practising in March 2004 - a fall from last year.
Dame Karlene Davis, general secretary of the Royal College of Midwives, said: "These figures are truly alarming and show that the number of practising midwives is continuing to fall.
"It is particularly worrying that although there are a record number of midwifery students currently in training this is offset by the continuing long-term trend towards part-time working and a workforce with an ageing profile.
Dame Karlene continued: "The RCM is especially concerned that the figures show massive fluctuations in the number of midwives practising without offering an explanation for this."
In 2003, more than 15% of the midwives on the register were aged over 55, compared with 10.68% in 1994 - suggesting that the exodus from the profession could quicken over the next decade.
Liberal Democrat health spokesman Paul Burstow called on the government to undertake research into why midwives leave.
He said: "The chronic shortage of midwives could force the closure of small childbirth centres across the country.
"Patient choice will be a casualty of the government's failure to increase the number of midwives working in the NHS."