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Wednesday, 29 March, 2000, 17:06 GMT 18:06 UK
Farming 'threatens third of Europe's birds'
bittern in reedbed
Just 12 adult male bitterns were found in the UK in 1997
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds says the expansion of intensive farming threatens more than one third of Europe's most important areas for birds.

The RSPB's chief executive, Graham Wynne, said: "The crisis in UK farming is accompanied by a crisis for Europe's wildlife.

"Both have the same cause - a system of farming subsidies which work for neither farmers nor the environment."

The society wants to see at least 25% of the subsidies paid to farmers by the European Union's common agricultural policy used instead for investing in people and the environment.

The RSPB announcement comes the day before United Kingdom farmers' leaders attend a "farming summit" with the Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

Mr Wynne said it was vital that the meeting should look beyond short-term political expediency to see the positive role that farming could play in preserving wildlife and the environment.

Better without subsidies

"Modern agriculture, particularly subsidy-led agriculture, has done no favours to the small farmer, young farmers, organic farmers or the environment.

shrike and young on nest
The red-backed shrike is critically endangered
"Farmers are having a very tough time of it at the moment, but by diverting subsidies into rural development and environmentally friendly farming, they could once again be at the centre of a vibrant rural community."

The findings about the impact of intensive farming on birds are published by Birdlife International, a global alliance of conservation groups, including the RSPB.

Its two-volume Important Bird Areas in Europe lists 3,619 sites across the continent, from Azerbaijan to Ireland. It says there is some degree of threat to 93% of them.

The report says intensive farming is causing serious population declines in about a third of Europe's 515 bird species.

Those affected include skylarks, corncrakes, great bustards, red-breasted geese and red-backed shrikes.

A spokesperson for the EU Environment Commissioner, Margot Wallstrom, said: "The EU wild bird directive is the oldest piece of conservation legislation.

Invoking the law

"We are doing a lot to make sure that this, along with the habitats directive, is followed.

"We are even ready to take legal action against countries if necessary."

Birdlife says the UK has 295 sites of international significance, including heathlands, uplands, woods, estuaries and seabird colonies.

Those threatened by intensive modern farming include Breckland in East Anglia, the Severn estuary, the moorlands of the north Pennines, Morecambe Bay, Caithness, and Lough Foyle.

redshank on post
Redshanks have declined by 70%
Among other threats to some key sites are afforestation, housing development, mineral extraction and drainage schemes.

Grahame Madge, of the RSPB, told BBC News Online: "Some are even at risk from arson. There are persistent problems on the Dorset heathlands.

"There have been several notable blazes there, most of them started deliberately by teenagers."

Widespread problem

Elsewhere in southern England fires - apparently deliberately lit - have caused serious damage to other important areas for birds.

Last August nearly a quarter of the nesting sites on heathland on the Berkshire-Hampshire border were destroyed, in an area frequented by woodlarks, nightjars and Dartford warblers.

And in Ashdown Forest in Sussex, nine separate fires broke out on a 15-hectare site, where woodlarks are known to breed, in the space of three days earlier this month.

Shrike photo by M W Richards, all others by Chris Gomersall

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07 Feb 00 | Sci/Tech
Mixed fortunes for UK birds
12 Aug 99 | Sci/Tech
Farmland birds in crisis
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