The RSPB's Alistair Taylor looks at what the latest wild bird indicators tell us
Today the latest updates of the UK and England bird indicators based on population trends of wild birds have been published.
These indicators are part of the government’s suite of biodiversity indicators and show how the fortunes of birds of farmland, woodland, waterways and wetlands, and marine and coastal areas have fared between 1970 and 2018.
The indicators reflect the prospects of 130 common birds that are native to, and breed in, the UK, including familiar garden birds such as goldfinch, great tit, blackbird and blue tit, as well as common birds of other habitats, such as skylark, yellowhammer, gannet, and goldeneye.
As the BTO website explains, these indicators are calculated annually by the BTO and RSPB for Defra, and are based almost entirely on data collected by volunteers contributing to national bird monitoring schemes such as the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) and the Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS). These data allow us to track the fortunes of these birds, identifying those that are prospering, and those that are struggling
As you would expect, these indicators confirm the dire warnings about Britain’s nature reported in the State of Nature report published on 3rd October this year.
The small decline in the combined index disguises substantial changes in specific groupings of birds. Farmland birds, breeding water and wetland birds, seabirds, and wintering waterbirds, have all shown significant declines over the latest assessment period.
Alongside this report, data is also being gathered on the status of birds across the UK to feed into EU level reporting processes. This report covers many of the same species covered by the UK indicator, providing the opportunity to compare the UK’s achievements with progress elsewhere.
Comparing national summaries of the status of birds in the UK with the average across all EU Member States, the UK’s performance is significantly below average in terms of the population trends of wintering and breeding birds.
If the UK is to be a world leader on the environment, these draft results suggest we have a great deal of work to do in relation to our protected bird species. As the State of Nature report has already pointed out, these results come at a time when public sector expenditure on biodiversity conservation in the UK has declined, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of GDP – the latter by 42%, from 0.038% to 0.022%, between 2008/09 and 2017/18.
As pointed out above, there are some examples of species that have done better where money has been invested in conservation measures, including species such as bittern, corncrake, stone curlew and cirl bunting. In many cases this money has come not just from UK sources, but also from EU sources. As things currently stand there is no guarantee that EU funding for nature conservation will be replaced by national funding streams after Brexit.
What the latest reports confirm is that not only must EU money be replaced, but also there must be a significant increase in funding if ongoing declines in UK birds are to be halted and reversed, and historic losses of bird populations made good. While this would be a challenge even at the best of times, there are several aggravating circumstances that must be addressed to achieve this.
Climate change is already affecting our wildlife and undermining efforts to conserve and restore biodiversity. Efforts to restore biodiversity must take into account the need to equip nature with the tools to adapt to and survive a changing environment. For example, ensuring greater connectivity between protected areas across the UK, and ensuring populations of species are resilient enough to survive climate-change, as well as the hurly burly of day-to-day existence.
The UK’s exit from the EU will create additional challenges for conservation, including a loss of funding as mentioned above, and the loss of mechanisms for coordinating action across international borders for species the UK shares with its neighbours. So far the government has yet to announce any mechanisms to address either of these issues.
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