Threatened British birds on the rise?
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The British bird situation is a mixed one, but indications show recent wildlife-friendly measures could be helping threatened species recover. Liz Hamilton looks at the latest figures
I’ve enjoyed some memorable birdsong this year, but after the exuberance of spring and early summer, in August our birds go quiet. You may still hear alarm calls which birds use to warn about danger, but otherwise in late summer the loudest natural sounds on a warm day are likely to be the buzzing of insects.
Male birds sing to establish territories and attract a mate, and by August this activity is mostly over, so their songs are redundant. Many birds also moult worn out feathers at this time of year, becoming flightless for a while. They hide under vegetation until new feathers are fully grown and they can take to the air again. Species that catch food in flight cannot afford to moult completely, so birds like owls, kestrels and buzzards replace worn-out feathers gradually and fly all year. Some birds resume singing in the autumn to defend feeding territories. Robins are often the first to be heard, in late August, and from then and through the winter female robins sing too.
Bird populations in England have been monitored, almost entirely by volunteers, every year since 1970. Farmland birds have been badly hit by the intensification of agriculture and pesticide use, especially during the late 1970s and early 1980s, and by 2014 their numbers had more than halved. Thankfully, figures published in May by DEFRA revealed better news – farmland bird populations had increased by six per cent in 2015. It’s too early to say for certain that the decline in farmland bird populations has been reversed, and figures for 2016, due out next spring, are eagerly awaited.
The increase in numbers could indicate that innovative farmland conservation measures, such as wildflower field margins and careful hedgerow management, are helping birds to recover. Such measures have been funded in some cases by the European Union and elsewhere by farmers out of their own pockets.
For some farmland bird species the decline has been dramatic. Turtle doves are among a group whose numbers have declined by 90 per cent or more since 1970. Greenfinches have declined 37 per cent since 2009, probably due to a disease called trichomonosis, which also affects turtle doves. Skylark numbers are down 61 per cent since 1970 although recently the decline has halted. One success story is that goldfinch numbers have more than doubled since 1970.
Woodland bird numbers were 21 per cent fewer in England in 2015 compared with 1970, although since 2009 numbers have stabilised. Some woodland species populations have doubled since 1970, including great spotted woodpecker, nuthatch and sparrowhawk. The population of the diminutive lesser spotted woodpecker has declined by a worrying 48 per cent since as recently as 2009.
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Some birds whose natural habitat is woodland are also common in gardens, and of these robin, great tit and long-tailed tit are all doing well, with population increases of more than 50 per cent since 1970. So the recent shift towards wildlife-friendly gardening might now be showing a positive impact.
Gardens collectively create a significant habitat area. In 2011 the UK National Ecosystem Assessment estimated that four per cent of England’s land area comprises urban and rural gardens – that’s nearly 1.4 million acres. According to the Wildlife Gardening Forum three out of five gardeners in the UK actively help wildlife by feeding birds (spending £200m annually on bird food), putting up nest boxes (an estimated seven million) and maintain three and a half million ponds. Early advocates of wildlife-friendly gardening encouraged planting native wild flowers, but nowadays the emphasis has shifted to any plants that provide nectar for insects or produce seeds for birds. In my own garden I’ve noticed large numbers of goldfinches feeding on seeds of plants like lavender and Michaelmas daisy, neither of them native species.
How to help garden birds
Nestboxes substitute tree holes – the nest site of choice for many species.
Trees, larger shrubs and climbers support species that forage and nest at different heights.
Dense planting provides protection and shelter.
Water is essential, ideally a pond, but even a saucerful is invaluable.
Grass is good for birds and better still if cut less often and not treated with chemicals.
Flowers that develop seeds and berries (left until spring) are valuable food.
Caterpillars and aphids are food for adults and nestlings, so don’t use sprays.
Leave fallen leaves – they harbour worms and other food.
British Trust for Ornithology (bto.org) for information on bird surveys and how to get involved.
Wildlife Gardening Forum (wlgf.org) gives advice on wildlife-friendly gardening.
Visit cpreherts.org.uk to find out how CPRE works to protect Herts’ countryside.