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Last Updated: Monday, 11 August, 2003, 16:01 GMT 17:01 UK
UK's farmland birds still declining
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent

Britain's birds face a mixed future, with some species showing heartening increases and others sunk in an apparently inexorable decline.

Montserrat orioles   Chris Bowden/RSPB Images
Montserrat orioles (Image: Chris Bowden/RSPB Images)
The State Of The UK's Birds 2002 says some scarce breeding species are continuing to increase in number.

Birds of prey continue to recover, with climate change a possible boost for several species.

But woodland birds have undergone a moderate setback, while farmland species are declining steeply.

The report is published jointly by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, and the British Trust for Ornithology.

Farmland flight

It says: "The common bird indicator has been relatively stable since 1970, although there has been a marked upturn since 1988, due at least in part to recent mild winters."

Corncrake   Andy Hay/RSPB Images
Corncrake: On the up (Image: Andy Hay/RSPB Images)
It records a 22% decline in woodland birds since the mid-1970s, with farmland bird numbers dropping by 46% over the same period.

The health of breeding bird populations is used by the UK Government as one indicator of progress towards sustainable development.

Because of the 2001 foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, the report relies on data on common birds last updated in 2000.

One bird, the capercaillie, earns the dubious distinction of heading a second time for extinction. A full survey of their numbers, planned for the 2003-4 winter, should show whether the capercaillies may hope to survive this time.

Action targeted on individual species has helped some scarce breeding birds like the bittern, corncrake and cirl bunting, all of which continue to increase.

Cirl bunting   Chris Gomersall/RSPB Images
Male cirl bunting in winter (Image: Chris Gomersall/RSPB Images)
Birds of prey have also come in for deliberate help, in the form of land-use policies, species protection and government-backed campaigns against illegal killing.

And other rare species, like the hobby and the marsh harrier, continue to extend their UK range, helped possibly by changes in climate.

Seabirds show a mixed picture: the guillemot and Sandwich tern seem to be doing well, but kittiwakes and shags have declined. The report notes: "As top predators, their numbers can tell us much about the health of our seas."

Staying close to home

Most migratory waterbirds contine to do well, though the wintering populations of a few are in decline. One of these is the bar-tailed godwit, and another the mallard, which the authors say may be migrating over shorter distances in response to warmer winters.

Bittern   Andy Hay/RSPB Images
Bitterns boom again (Image: Andy Hay/RSPB Images)
The report details the outcome of a review of the population status of British birds of conservation concern.

A new assessment places 40 species on the red list, 121 on the amber and 86 on the green list. Since the last review in 1996, the red list has grown by four species and the amber by 11.

For the first time, the report includes information on birds in the UK's Overseas Territories, which are home to 34 globally threatened species and 24 endemic birds found nowhere else.

It expresses concern for the prospects of some of them, especially over the impact of long-line fishing on albatrosses on Gough Island, part of the Tristan da Cunha group, and South Georgia in the southern ocean.

Far to the north there is good news about the Bermuda petrel, or cahow. It was thought to be extinct for 300 years until its rediscovery in 1951, and its numbers continue slowly to increase.

On Montserrat, raked by periodic volcanic eruptions, the globally threatened endemic oriole declined rapidly until late 2000. The report says: "Subsequent monitoring suggests a limited recovery, although research suggests that major problems remain."

Birds of prey face persecution
24 Jul 03  |  England
UK wading birds in decline
04 Jun 03  |  UK
British birds stage patchy recovery
19 Dec 01  |  Science/Nature


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