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Wednesday, 19 December, 2001, 18:30 GMT
British birds stage patchy recovery
Michael Meacher spreads birdseed   A. Kirby
The bird man of Defra: Michael Meacher does his bit for wildlife
Alex Kirby

The populations of some common wild bird species in the UK are at their highest in more than a decade.

Woodland birds and several rare species are also doing better than they have.

But the numbers of farmland birds again showed a decline, after a small increase in 1999.

Scientists say mild winter weather helped many species, but changes in farming are needed too.

The figures for 2000 were released by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). The UK Government's indicator of wild bird populations is one of its 15 annual headline indicators of sustainable development.

Farmland deserts

It shows that common species increased by 3% in 2000, and are now more than 6% up on the 1998 figure.

Goldcrest   BBC
Goldcrests are on the increase
Rare birds increased by 4% last year, and have more than doubled over the last 30 years.

Woodland birds, like the common ones, are at their highest level since 1990, with 24 out of 33 species increasing in 2000.

The song thrush, which was declining, is now increasing, together with species such as the great spotted woodpecker and the goldcrest.

But farmland birds, which increased slightly in 1999, fell back again by 2% to a level similar to 1997's. Defra says: "The recent stability in farmland bird numbers contrasts markedly with the rapid declines of the late 1970s and 1980s."

Michael Meacher, the Environment Minister, said: "One swallow doesn't make a summer. But there are some good signs.

"The steep decline of farmland birds since the 1970s is all to do with the state of farming.

Helping hand

"But we are beginning to see really serious progress towards reform of the European Union's common agricultural policy, and that will have profound implications for birds."

Dr Mark Avery, of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, said: "The UK's farmland birds are declining more rapidly than anywhere else in Europe."

Bittern   BBC
Bitterns are doing well
He told BBC News Online: "We think the mild winter of 1999/2000 is the main reason why some species did better, but we're worried that it didn't help farmland birds as well.

"The trend is still steeply downwards, and there's no good news there.

"The government is doing many of the right things, like offering farmers what are called arable options in the countryside stewardship scheme.

Right direction

"That means they can be paid for sowing cereals in the spring, not the winter, for using less pesticide round field edges, and for planting wild bird cover which provides seeds in the winter.

"This is the sort of change in farming we welcome, switching money away from production subsidies into agri-environment schemes.

"We'd like to see more money going into those over the next few years."

See also:

26 Nov 01 | England
Bird's home protected
05 Nov 01 | Sci/Tech
Lifeline for farmland birds
22 Oct 01 | England
Guardian for tree sparrow
16 Oct 01 | Sci/Tech
Green farming schemes 'don't work'
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