Today’s report, the State of the UK’s Birds, highlights what’s been happening with our avian fauna, looking at the winner and losers over time. Fiona Burns, Senior Conservation Scientist, explains in this blog.

For over twenty years, the State of the UK’s Birds (SUKB) report has been a comprehensive snapshot of how birds are doing in the UK, and its Overseas Territories and Crown dependencies. Thanks to the data collected by thousands of volunteers, across many surveys, we’re able to provide an overview for nearly all of the UK’s regularly occurring species.

This is the first SUKB since 2017 and the first time we’ve shown differences across the four UK countries. You can find out how corncrakes are doing in Scotland and learn that Antrim Hills are one of the most important areas in Northern Ireland for upland species such as hen harrier and merlin.

Overall numbers

The report also highlights new figures estimating that there are 83 million pairs of native breeding birds in the UK.  Comparison with previously published figures, indicates that there are now 19 million fewer pairs of native breeding birds in the UK compared to the late 1960s.

Because the numbers of some species have increased, wren being one example having grown by 6.5 million pairs, the scale of the numbers actually lost is much bigger, at some 43 million pairs overall. House sparrows have been hit the hardest.

The wren is the most numerous bird in the UK © Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)

Struggling sparrows

House sparrow is still the third most common breeding bird, and always top of the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch results, but we’ve lost 10.7 million pairs of them since the late 1960s. This isn’t the case across all four countries though: in Wales house sparrows increased by 92% from 1995 to 2018 bucking the trend for elsewhere.

It’s thought that changes in farming practices, such as the reduction in leftover stubble from crops due to the increase in autumn sown cereals, is linked to the rapid decline of this gregarious bird, particularly in rural areas. However, the reasons behind urban and suburban house sparrow declines is still largely unknown.

We've lost around 10.7 million pairs of house sparrows, a loss greater than for any other species © Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)

Climate change

Climate change is predicted to have significant impacts on nature. The recently published European breeding bird atlas, which has mapped changes in species’ range, suggests some bird species have been shifting northwards since the mid-1980s, potentially due to climate change. In some cases, this has resulted in range expansion and population growth in the UK, such as for Cetti’s warblers. Stonechats have also benefited from climate change, with milder winters allowing more birds to survive.

However, for several large waterbirds, including great white egrets, cattle egrets, little egrets, little bitterns and spoonbills, this expansion may largely be due to better protection of both the birds themselves and the wetland habitats they require, rather than being purely down to climate change.

Overseas

The UK is also responsible for helping to protect and conserve rare species and iconic landscapes across 14 UK Overseas Territories and three Crown Dependencies. Despite significant conservation successes, around a third of all albatross and petrel species found in these areas are at risk of global extinction due to fisheries bycatch and predation by introduced mammalian predators such as mice.

However, earlier this year, the UK government tripled its Darwin Plus funding for environment projects across UKOTs to £40 million over four years. Existing Darwin Plus funding is supporting projects in Tristan da Cunha to help conserve the unique golden Wilkins’ bunting, while in South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands the funding is being used to set up monitoring to support the management of Marine Protected Areas.

Tristan albatross are one of the species at risk © Jamie Cleeland (rspb-images.com)

Birds by habitat

The latest results for breeding birds in farmland, woodland, wetland, seabirds and wintering waterbirds come from the Wild Bird Indicators. In conjunction with other well-monitored groups such as butterflies and bats, these indicators are used as a proxy for the overall state of biodiversity in the UK and to track progress towards national and international targets.

2020 was a critical year for nature with all involved countries assessing their progress towards global biodiversity targets (the UK did very badly by the way) and these indicators are critical in helping us look ahead to develop new targets for the future.

Farmland birds are continuing to decline and the farmland bird indicator is currently at 45% of its 1970 value, despite widespread uptake of agri-environment schemes.  Some specialist farmland birds are amongst our fastest declining species, such as turtle doves and grey partridges. Five of the species in the indicator – grey partridge, turtle dove, starling, tree sparrow and corn bunting – have fallen to less than 20% of their 1970 numbers.

Birds in the woodland bird indicator have also continued to decrease on average. Willow tits, our second fastest declining widespread bird, have dropped by 94% since 1970. Because of these low numbers, monitoring this species has become increasing difficult - which prompted the launch of a targeted UK-wide survey last year to estimate numbers.

The national willow tit survey will go ahead for a final year next year © Mark Eaton

Conservation successes

Although a number of the UK’s breeding seabirds are in decline, some have shown increases in their populations. Since 2008 roseate terns have increased by 49% showing that conservation action, including the work of the recently-ended Roseate Tern LIFE Recovery Project, had been helping boost the population.

Similarly, increases in the number of stone-curlews, corncrakes, red kites, white-tailed eagles and cirl buntings have resulted from targeted action, such as reintroduction projects, habitat creation and land management supported through agri-environment schemes. Cirl bunting have increased 814% since 1989 thanks to conservation work with farmers.

Roseate tern in Northumberland © Tim Melling (rspb-images.com)

Other conservation success stories include the black-browed albatross, locally known as ‘mollymawks’, of which the Falklands holds 70% of the global breeding population. This species was down-listed from Endangered to Least Concern on the IUCN Red List in 2018, as it is now increasing. Similarly, the Monserrat oriole and St Helena plover were both down-listed from Critically Endangered to Vulnerable in 2016, and encouragingly their population increases have been maintained.

Volunteers

Volunteers play an essential role in bird monitoring in the UK, by donating their time and expertise. The data they collect are vital for conservation, advocacy and policy development. Thank you to all those involved. If you’d like to help out, whether that’s waking up early to record breeding birds or looking out of your kitchen window to take part in the Big Garden Birdwatch, visit our surveys page.

Full report: The State of the UK's Birds

About SUKB

SUKB 2020 is produced as a collaborative project by the RSPB; British Trust for Ornithology (BTO); Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT); Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, Northern Ireland (DAERA); Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC); Natural England (NE); Natural Resources Wales (NRW); and NatureScot.

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