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Bird survey points to mixed picture

[Friday 17 March 2006]

The latest survey of bird numbers has being published and the results point to a mixed picture across the UK regions.

Carried out on behalf of Defra by the RSPB and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), this is the fourth UK index of wild bird populations to be published and forms a key part of indicators used by the Government to judge the success of its sustainable development policies.

Chiffchaff numbers increasing
Chiffchaff numbers increasing
Photo: grayimages/BTO

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, tend to be near or at the top of the food chain, and considerable long-term data on bird populations have been collected.

The results point to a definite north-south divide in terms of all native species with Yorkshire and the Humber, the North West, the North East and the East Midlands all showing an increase between 1994 and 2004, whilst there was little change in the rest of England.

There is also a marked north-south difference in the farmland bird population. Whilst numbers fell by 5 per cent across the country as a whole, the population declined by 14 per cent in the west Midlands and by 12 per cent in the South East; all the indications are that the South West, East Midlands and the East of England generally will also show signs of decline.

But, there is good news for farmland birds in the North West where numbers rose by 15 per cent; Yorkshire and the Humber also show signs of an overall increase, though there have been marked declines in the populations of Grey Partridge and Starling.

In terms of woodland species the largest increase was again in the North West, where populations rose by 26 per cent between 1994 and 2004. There was also an increase of 17 per cent in the East Midlands and in the Yorkshire and Humber region where the population rose by 15 per cent, the Chiffchaff and Nuthatch populations are faring particularly well.

There was a decrease of 12 per cent in the South East, but little change in the rest of the country. This compares with an overall decline of 3 per cent across England in the same period.

Survey points to decline in Grey Partridge numbers
Survey points to decline in Grey Partridge numbers
Photo: Tommy Holden/BTO

Since last August, nearly 2,000 farmers have entered agreements under Defra's Entry Level and Organic Entry Level Stewardship scheme, which pays farmers to create new habitats for wildlife.

Bringing nearly a quarter of a million hectares - around 20% - of the region's countryside into environmentally friendly management, the schemes are credited with improving habitats and encouraging bird populations to grow.

By providing year-round food supplies and suitable nesting habitats, the scheme aims to help the effort to reverse the decline in wild bird populations, which are now stabilised after many years of gradual decline.

Commenting on the results, Environment Minister Elliot Morley said: "The reasons for changes in the size of bird populations or variations between different parts of the country are not clear-cut, and not always simple to explain. The figures continue to suggest that the decline in farmland birds has stabilised.

"Thanks to extra investment by this government thousands of farmers are joining new environment-friendly stewardship schemes - now covering nearly two million hectares of English countryside - to help restore and add to safe habitats where our birds can flourish."

Biodiversity Minister, Jim Knight, added: "It is encouraging to see that the long term decline in woodland and farmland birds is generally stabilising in most regions over recent years.

"However, we cannot be complacent. A lot more work is needed to reverse this decline. I would encourage farmers to continue using environmentally friendly farming methods and take advantage of our Environmental Stewardship schemes.

"Wild birds are an integral part of our heritage and can bring great pleasure to life. Last year, nearly 400,000 people spent an hour watching their local birds, as part of the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch."

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