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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 October, 2004, 15:39 GMT 16:39 UK
Farmland bird decline 'slowing'
Grey partridge
The grey partridge is nearly extinct in parts of England
The UK government says that the severe decline in Britain's farmland bird populations is slowing down.

The latest figures from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) show that farmland birds are at 60% of their 1970 level.

But Defra say the decline has slowed in recent years and the 2003 figure is virtually unchanged from 1993.

However, the RSPB called the sharp decline in farmland birds over the last three decades "a national disgrace".

The fact that, overall, we have lost six out of every 10 pairs of birds nesting on farmland since 1970 is a national disgrace
Dr Mark Avery, RSPB

The figures were contained in overall headline indicators for Britain's wild bird populations in 2003, which were released on Thursday.

Overall, UK wild bird populations were 6% higher in 2003 than in 1970, similar to the value for 2000.

Scarce birds such as the woodlark and the Dartford warbler are on the increase, says the government. But it admits that much more work needs to be done.

But the RSPB said the 6% increase masked "important concerns about some birds which are still declining".

"The fact that, overall, we have lost six out of every 10 pairs of birds nesting on farmland since 1970 is a national disgrace," said Dr Mark Avery, the RSPB's Director of Conservation.

'Financial incentive'

The skylark, corn bunting, tree sparrow and grey partridge have all declined considerably over that period.

"However, the government will soon offer financial incentives to those farmers keen to put farmland birds back on their land," Dr Avery added.

Under a government scheme, due to be introduced in spring next year, farmers will be encouraged to manage or create special areas intended specifically for wildlife.

"We hope 2003 will be the last year that we see the populations of skylark and its farmland cousins in such bad shape," Dr Avery continued.

Capercaillie, BBC
Capercaillie numbers are in severe decline
"With more money for wildlife-friendly farming, the challenge now is to encourage farmers to take part in the scheme and put the wildlife back on our land that farmers and everyone else wants to see and hear."

The indicator for woodland birds is about 20% lower than in the early 1970s. The most severe decline in this group took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s, says the government.

UK environment minister Elliot Morley said he was encouraged to see that some rare birds were on the increase, adding that it reflected conservation efforts.

"For farmland birds, it is good to see the graph flattening out at last," he commented.

"However, the trend is not universal throughout the UK, and there are still some worrying declines in farmland specialists such as turtle dove and corn bunting, so we must continue our efforts to address the underlying problems."

Farmers helping threatened birds
21 Oct 04  |  Cumbria
Corncrake enjoys resurgence
20 Aug 04  |  Science/Nature
UK wildlife 'heading into crisis'
18 Mar 04  |  Science/Nature
UK's farmland birds still declining
11 Aug 03  |  Science/Nature

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