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The number of wild birds in England has begun to stabilise after 20 ...
The number of wild birds in England has begun to stabilise after 20

year's decline, a report suggests today.

The wild bird population index, part of a wider view of biodiversity

in England, has for the first time drawn together information for 79

urban, wetland, coastal, farmland and woodland bird species.

After two decades of decline, populations of farmland birds appear to

have stabilised since the mid-1990s. Farmland generalists such as the

jackdaw and wood pigeon show little overall change since 1970 but the

numbers of farmland specialists such as the skylark and grey

partridge have declined steeply.

The index shows a 7% increase in the water and wetland bird

population since 1975 with species such as the mute swan and moorhen

benefiting particularly.

The town and garden bird population, based on nine common garden

species including the robin, blackbird, blue tit and greenfinch has

seen an increase in numbers of 10% since 1979 though, worringly,

sparrow and starling populations in towns have fallen by 60%.

Wild bird populations are considered good indicators of the broad

state of biodiversity because they occupy a wide range of habitats

and tend to be near the top of the food chain.

Coastal and seabird numbers have remained stable with big increases

in guillemot numbers counter balanced by declines in kittiwakes.

Of the 33 species of woodland bird studied 17 species have declined

with 16 increasing. The main casualties are specialist woodland birds

such as the lesser-spotted woodpecker whose numbers have reduced by

75%. However, the generalist woodland bird is now as high as it was

in 1970 with species such as the chaffinch and robin faring

particularly well.

Announcing the report's publication environment minister Elliot

Morley said:

'As a keen bird watcher myself I am greatly encouraged by some parts

of this report but I am afraid that other areas highlight the need

f or us to continue to work very hard to protect and then establish

the right type of environment for all aspects of biodiversity in

England to flourish'.

In addition to the wild bird indices 40 other indicators are

published as part of the government's strategy for improving the

status of biodiversity in England. These figures help measure

progress against implementation of the Working with the grain of

nature published in October 2002.

Positive trends found within the 46 measures include:

- The priority species and habitats, that have been selected for

concerted action under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan, are showing

gradual improvements overall

- The biological quality of rivers and the number of rivers with

sustainable salmon stocks are improving

- The area of land under agri-environment schemes in England is


- The inputs of hazardous substances to the marine environment have

steadily declined since 1985

- The numbers of people caring about and enjoying biodiversity have

increased, with more and more people volunteering for conservation


More companies are getting involved in biodiversity as shown by the

increases in responses to the BiE Index of Corporate Environmental


Negative trends can be found in the following areas:

- Wild plant diversity in fields and field margins, river banks and

stream sides and in woodlands has declined

- Levels of nutrients (particularly phosphates) in rivers has

increased over the last decade

The report contains, for the first time, information on:

- The baseline condition of Sites of Special Scientific Interest in a

range of sectors - agriculture, water and wetlands, woodland, and

urban and coastal areas - as well as those in business and local

authority ownership, so that comparison between sectors can be


- The status of UK BAP Species and Habitat Action Plans -

differentiated ac ross the sectors of the strategy, - showing

comparative progress for some of the species and habitats most at

risk in England.

This is a baseline assessment, so in many cases it is not yet

possible to show clear trends. Some of the indicators need further

work to develop them into useful measurements. In particular work is

underway to develop an indicator showing the status of marine

biodiversity, which is a substantial gap at present.


1. The biodiversity strategy for England: Working with the grain of

nature was published in October 2002. Its vision was 'for a country -

its landscapes and water bodies, coasts and seas, towns and cities -

where wild species and habitats are part of healthy, functioning

ecosystems; where we nurture, treasure and enhance our biodiversity

and where biodiversity is a natural consideration of policies and

decisions and in society as a whole.' The strategy promised

publication of a set of biodiversity indicators to measure its

progress. First annual stock take of progress from the England

Biodiversity Group is also published today on [Defra website].

2. The strategy established 9 themes where action needed to be taken

to integrate biodiversity into policies and programmes and also to

encourage action across society as a whole.

The themes are: agriculture, water and wetlands, woodland and

forestry, towns, cities and development, the coasts and seas; local

and regional action, the economics and funding of biodiversity, the

engagement of business and education and public understanding. The

report follows this structure with indicators established or proposed

for each of these sectors - apart from economics and funding where

more work is necessary.

3. These indicators will contribute to the global effort to monitor

the commitment made at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in

Johannesburg in 2002 to significantly reduce the rate of biodiversity

loss by 2010.

4. This first report provides a baseline assessment and where

possible show trends over recent years. Some of the indicators from

existing sets are updated and published regularly and this will

continue. A further full report will be published in 2006. Where

possible the indicators are adapted from other national biodiversity

and sustainability indicators such as Quality of Life Counts (DETR,

1999) and the UK Indicators of Sustainable Forestry (Forestry

Commission 2002). Some indicators will be shared with Defra's

Sustainable Food and Farming Strategy. A number of indicators are

still under development.

5. The headline indicator for wild birds in England is calculated

using the same methods and data sources as the Quality of Life Counts

headline indicator for wild birds in the UK as a whole. However fewer

birds are used in the index because fewer species have large enough

populations in England to qualify for inclusion. Trends for England

and the UK are broadly similar.

6. The indicators have been developed with partners in the England

Biodiversity Group including English Nature, the Environment Agency,

the Forestry Commission, and relevant Non-Governmental Organisations.

The RSPB, the British Trust for Ornithology and the Centre have

undertaken special methodological developments for Ecology and



The UK government's indicator of wild bird populations has been

updated and published today (see Table 1).

It records that, following an increase in the 1970s, the overall

population of breeding birds in the United Kingdom has been

relatively stable over the last two decades.

The latest figures, for 2002, show that the population status of 106

bird species across the UK is 13 per cent higher than it was in 1970,

although there has been a small decrease compared to 2000.

Within the overall figure, the popula tions of farmland birds remain

at less than 60 per cent of their 1970 level. However, declines have

lessened in recent years and the 2002 farmland bird indicator is

virtually unchanged from the 2000 figure.

The woodland bird indicator remains about 20% lower than in the early

1970s. Although there were three year-on-year increases during the

late 1990s, the indicator fell by 5 per cent in 2002 in relation to


The indicators, which form one of the 15 headline indicators of

sustainable development, show changes in the populations of common

species of farmland, woodland and all native wild birds. Bird

populations are considered to be a good indicator of the broad state

of wildlife and countryside because they occupy a wide range of

habitats, they tend to be near or at the top of the food chain, and

considerable long-term data on bird populations have been collected.

All bird species

The overall population of wild birds in the UK has risen by 5 per

cent over the last ten years. Major winners include scarce breeding

birds with mainly southern distributions, such as Little Ringed

Plover, Woodlark and Dartford Warbler, that may be benefiting from

climate change, and species such as Woodpigeon and Stock Dove, which

may be benefiting from current agricultural practices.

Farmland birds

Farmland bird populations, included in the all species indicator,

declined by almost half between 1977 and 1993. Over the last ten

years the indicator has remained at a low level of about 60 per cent

of its 1970 value. There are encouraging signs of recovery from some

of the farmland species that underwent large declines since the

1970s, such as Whitethroat and Goldfinch, but this is not true for

all farmland species and farmland specialists such as Grey Partridge,

Turtle Dove, Skylark and Corn Bunting have fared particularly badly.

Although the 2002 farmland bird indicator is virtually unchanged from

the 2000 figu re, there have been further reductions in the numbers of

some species, such as Turtle Dove and Yellow Wagtail.

Woodland birds

Over the last ten years the woodland bird indicator has remained

about 15 to 20 per cent below the level in the early 1970s. Many of

the species showing the greatest declines, both overall and between

2000 and 2002, are woodland specialists - those that breed mainly or

solely in woodland - such as Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Tree Pipit,

Spotted Flycatcher and Willow Tit. Against this, other woodland

specialists such as Great Spotted and Green Woodpeckers have been

doing well, while Chiffchaff and Redstart are showing signs of



1. The indicators have been compiled in conjunction with Royal

Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the British Trust for

Ornithology (BTO) from a wide range of sources, principally the

Common Birds Census, the Breeding Birds Survey, Wetland Birds Survey

counts and the Seabird Monitoring Programme. The headline indicator

includes figures for 106 species of breeding birds that are native to

the UK, but excludes introduced and rare species. The index portrays

the annual changes in abundance of all species since 1970. Within

this multi-species index, each species is given equal weighting, and

the annual indicator figure is the geometric mean of the species

indices for that year. Individual species populations within the

index may be increasing or decreasing, irrespective of the overall

trends. The index is derived by modelling and estimates may be

revised when new data or improved methodologies are developed and

applied retrospectively to earlier years. The indicators are

considered to give reliable medium to long term trends but too much

reliance should not be attached to levels for individual years or on

short term changes from year to year. Due to the nature of the data

it is estimated that each index point is subject to an estimated

margin of error of plus or minus five per cent.

2. The basis of these indicators has been revised compared with

previous versions. This is mainly because the main source of data for

the period 1970 into the 1990's, the Common Birds Census, has been

discontinued by the BTO and replaced by the Breeding Birds Survey.

There was a seven year overlap between the two sources, covering the

period 1994 to 2000. Estimates for this period are based on a

combination of both sources, while estimates for 2002 are based

entirely on the Breeding Birds Survey. The change in source data is

believed to provide better estimates for most species. While the

revisions have resulted in some significant changes for individual

years, they have had little effect on the overall trends and patterns

in most of the year-on-year changes. There have also been minor

changes in the species covered by the indicators, with Hawfinch

replacing Woodcock in the Woodland Birds indicator, and Hawfinch,

Puffin and Tufted Duck replacing Woodcock and House Martin in the All

Species indicator, as well as some methodological improvements to the

models used to produce species trends. Table 2 compares this year's

estimates for 2000 and earlier years, incorporating the results of

the Breeding Birds Survey and these changes in species coverage and

methodology, with those published in 2001.

3. It was not possible to complete the Breeding Birds Survey in 2001

because of the restrictions on access resulting from the occurrence

of Food and Mouth Disease: estimates for this year are based on the

average of 2000 and 2002 for individual species, and recent short

term comparisons are given for 2002 compared with 2000.

4. The government's headline indicators of sustainable development

form a 'quality of life barometer' measuring everyday concerns like

housing development, health, jobs, air quality, educational

achievement, wildlife and economic prosperity. They are intended to

focus public attention on what sustainable development means and to

give a broad overview of whether we are 'achieving a better quality

of life for everyone, now and for generations to come'. The wild bird

population indicator is one of the 15 headline indicators. Birds are

considered to be a good indicator of the broad state of wildlife and

the countryside because they occupy a wide range of habitats, they

tend to be near or at the top of the food chain, and considerable

long-term data on bird populations have been collected.

5. The headline indicators together with over 130 other indicators of

sustainable development were published in Quality of life counts [1].

They provide a baseline assessment for monitoring and reporting on

future progress towards economic, social and environmentally

sustainable development as set out in the government's sustainable

development strategy for the UK A better quality of life [2]. The

Quality of life counts indicators, and the latest version of each

headline indicator, can be accessed on The government

is also committed to publishing annually the latest information on

progress against the headline indicators [3]. A leaflet, UK Quality

of Life Barometer, summarising progress in all 15 headline

indicators, is issued roughly once a quarter to coincide with the

update of one of the indicators or other key publications, and

progress in those indicators that have been recently updated is

reviewed. For copies of the UK Quality of Life Barometer leaflet

please telephone: 020 7082 8621.

6. Wild bird populations are used as indicators for the England

Biodiversity Strategy which are also published today [4]. These

indicators use the same data sources and methods of calculation but

are limited to surveys undertaken within England.

7. Following the government's Spending Review in 2000, Defra adopted

as one of its Public Service Ag reement (PSA) targets a commitment to

reverse the long-term decline in the number of farmland birds by

2020, as measured annually against underlying trends.

[1] Quality of life counts: Indicators for a strategy for sustainable

development for the United Kingdom. DETR, 1999, London (ISBN 1 85112

343 1).

[2] A better quality of life: a strategy for sustainable development

in the UK. TSO, 1999 (ISBN 0 10 143452 9)

[3] UK Quality of Life Barometer: A summary of the progress of 15

headline indicators. Defra, 2003

[4] The Biodiversity Strategy for England. Measuring progress:

baseline assessment. Defra, 2003, London.

Table 1: Population of Wild Birds: 1970 - 2002 (1970 = 100)

All Species Woodland Species Farmland Species

1970 100.0 100.0 100.0

1971 105.2 103.8 103.2

1972 109.5 108.7 104.6

1973 110.4 107.9 102.5

1974 114.2 108.7 104.3

1975 116.8 109.2 109.4

1976 115.8 101.8 111.6

1977 119.3 107.3 114.6

1978 115.2 99.5 106.5

1979 110.0 93.0 100.4

1980 117.4 102.9 99.6

1981 118.6 105.0 95.5

1982 109.0 95.1 84.2

1983 110.6 102.0 83.4

1984 112.3 101.5 82.6

1985 110.6 100.9 76.1

1986 106.5 90.7 70.3

1987 107.0 92.1 66.8

1988 113.3 98.3 67.1

1989 113.6 101.0 69.5

1990 113.6 94.7 70.7

1991 108.1 86.6 66.7

1992 107.6 83.3 63.1

1993 106.0 84.9 59.1

1994 106.7 85.2 60.3

1995 110.2 85.4 62.3

1996 111.0 87.3 61.4

1997 110.2 85.0 59.8

1998 109.1 87.7 55.4

1999 110.9 87.6 55.5

2000 114.2 89.5 58.6

2001 113.6 87.3 58.5

2002 112.8 84.6 58.3

Source: Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, British Trust for

Ornithology, Defra

Note: It was not possible to compile an indicator for 2001 because of

the restrictions on access resulting from the occurrence of Food and

Mouth Disease: estimates for this year are based on the average of

2000 and 2002 for individual species.

Table 2: Revisions1 to the Wild Bird indicators published in December

2001 (1970 = 100)

All Species Woodland Species Farmland Species

Previous Latest Previous Latest Previous Latest

figures figures figures figures figures figures

(December (December (December

2001) 2001) 2001 )

1970 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0

1975 113.1 116.8 108.2 109.2 105.0 109.4

1980 113.2 117.4 100.8 102.9 95.5 99.6

1985 106.1 110.6 96.7 100.9 73.6 76.1

1990 107.4 113.6 90.7 94.7 68.2 70.7

1991 102.2 108.1 82.9 86.6 64.8 66.7

1992 102.1 107.6 80.4 83.3 60.9 63.1

1993 101.1 106.0 81.7 84.9 57.8 59.1

1994 101.5 106.7 82.6 85.2 58.1 60.3

1995 104.0 110.2 82.1 85.4 60.3 62.3

1996 104.0 111.0 81.6 87.3 59.8 61.4

1997 101.5 110.2 77.5 85.0 56.8 59.8

1998 100.4 109.1 77.1 87.7 55.9 55.4

1999 103.3 110.9 80.5 87.6 57.8 55.5

2000 106.9 114.2 84.7 89.5 56.9 58.6

Source: Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, British Trust for

Ornithology, Defra

Note 1: revisions result from the use of data from the Breeding Birds

Survey, from changes in the species covered by the indicators, and

from methodological improvements to the models used to produce

species trends.

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