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Goods news, bad news on the wild bird front
Friday, 30 August, 2002

Our country columnist John Sheard examines some extremely important research into the relationship between bird life and a healthy countryside.

AMID the bickering, backstabbing and downright hostility amongst the tens of thousands of politicians and civil servants arriving in South Africa for the Earth Summit this week, I gleaned one small but shiny gem of information.

It came from an official of our very own Royal Society for the Protection of Birds who said in a radio interview that by taking regular counts of wild bird populations, it was possible to come to a very accurate diagnosis on the health - or lack of it - of the environment in which those birds breed.

In other words, birds are not just pretty, fluffy things (well, some of them anyway) which give we humans a great deal of pleasure but also represent a very important link in the natural cycle of things. Weaken that link and the whole chain is under threat.

    Grey Heron
 On the up...
It so happens that this attempt by the RSPB to demonstrate the importance of birdlife on the world stage coincided with the some important research published by the British Trust for Ornithology, one of Britain's most respected conservation bodies. For us in the Yorkshire Dales, it brings good news, bad news.

It has been known for some years that many species of farmland birds suffered a massive decline beginning sometime in the 1970s and continuing for the next 25 years. Trouble is, no one understood quite why.

For most of that time, the BTO has been studying the problem - with the help of many thousands of volunteers - and has now come up with the likely causes. With these findings in hand, the Trust hopes that it will be possible to meet the Government's target (first aired after the Earth Summit in Rio ten years ago) of reversing the trend by 2020.

The report concludes that there is a shortage of seeds for winter feed due to specialised farming methods; rich stubble should be left in fields longer after harvest; and that certain winter crops like kale and cereal sustain large numbers of birds. Small areas of arable land in grazing areas are very helpful and leaving fields margins wild boosts bird numbers too.

The news is far from being all doom and gloom. The BTO congratulates farmers for co-operating in agri-environmental schemes which have helped stop the decline, which bottomed out in 1992 and some species are now doing better.

Species like the skylark, which was once under serious threat, are now laying more eggs although tree sparrows are laying less. Wrens are breeding bigger broods, herons are breeding earlier in the spring, and nest failures - i.e. clutches lost by desertion of the parents, damage, or predation - are getting fewer.

However, for Dales folk there is another side to the coin as the BTO admits "remarkably little is known about birdlife on farms in the uplands of Britain" where, when the great dive in numbers began, there were "alarming declines."

BTO experts have been monitoring two Pennines sites - one at Sutton-in-Craven, near Skipton, and one near Rossendale, Lancs, for many years - and have noted a drop in the numbers of lapwing, snipe, curlew and redshank.

The reasons are "as yet unclear", says the report, but it has noted an increase in carrion crows - which raid the nests of ground-nesting birds - and the fact that the environment is getting more and more hostile due to acid rain.

If this report proves anything, it shows just how complex is the natural world. But, on balance, things seem to be getting better for birds in many areas and that means, in general, that large areas of the countryside are getting healthier too.

Sad though I am to say it, I have grave doubts that the Johannesburg Earth Summit will achieve much - the politics are against it. But armed with these new BTO findings, and with Government policy now focussed firmly on sustainable agriculture, Britain now has a second chance to save our wild birds - and our countryside. Let's hope we take it.

For more information, log onto www.bto.org/birdtrends

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