Yesterday's publication of the annual report of the BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey brings us a stack of information to worry about, pore over and enjoy (see coverage in The Independent, The Daily Mail, Daily Express and the Daily Telegraph).

Here are some snippets you might find interesting:

- in 2009, volunteers covered 3243 1km squares. 

- 6 species were found in over 2000 squares (wood pigeon, wren, blackbird, blue tit, carrion crow and chaffinch).

- chiffchaffs have increased a lot in Scotland since 1995

- house sparrows have increased in Wales since 1995

- kestrels have declined since 1995 and took a big dip between 2008 and 2009

- some small species declined because (probably!) of the harsh-ish winter on 2008/9 - expect these species to fall further next year after the much harsher 2009/10 winter?: goldcrest, long-tailed tit, treecreeper and stonechat.

But I always look out for the results on population trends of farmland birds - those species which have dropped dramatically in the countryside where I live.  The massive declines in farmland bird numbers since the 1970s - species such as grey partridge, lapwing, corn bunting and tree sparrow - are some of the most noticeable and meaningful changes in bird numbers that have occurred in my life.  A walk in the countryside now is a wildlife-poorer experience than in my youth.  And that matters because a countryside that loses its wildlife is not being managed sustainably.

In England, there are 19 farmland birds whose combined fate is used as a proxy for the fate of wildlife and also as a measure of environmental sustainability.  Of the 19, eight of them changed in numbers significantly (kestrel -29%, grey partridge -27%, lapwing, -13%, skylark -5%, whitethroat +7%, starling -21%, greenfinch -7%, goldfinch +11%) whereas the other 11 species showed non-significant population changes (increased; stock dove, turtle dove, jackdaw, yellowhammer and reed bunting; and decreased; woodpigeon, yellow wagtail, rook, tree sparrow, linnet and corn bunting).  So the maths is too complicated for me, but it looks as though the combined farmland bird index will have fallen between 2008 and 2009.  Until a few weeks ago the fate of this index was the subject of an official Public Service Agreement between Defra and the Treasury - but the new coalition government has scrapped all PSAs and so it is more difficult for NGOs such as the RSPB to hold government departments to account when they fail to deliver on their promises.

Certainly this year's results suggest that farmland wildlife needs environmentally-friendly farming more than ever - let's see where the cuts fall! And tomorrow's blog will look at agri-environment funding and the choices which seem to need to be made between ELS and HLS.

  • Government may not want the index - but I hope you and other wildlife organisations can keep it going - the precedent, data set and index history are all there. And, before anyone tries to solve the problem by cutting the funding to bodies like BTO they need to take the point of your earlier blog - if this huge, skilled volunteer effort isn't the 'big society' in action, the what is ? Having introduced the idea its up to citizens to make it stick - not the Government to pick and choose what it does and doesn't like.

  • Sooty - good point!  Thanks!

    Bob - sparrowhawks are in a bit of a decline, you are right.  But some will say they have starved themselves out of a living!

  • Mark, what isn't mentioned here is the report also highlights a decline in sparrowhawk numbers in a similar way to the kestrel.  At the risk of opening up an argument that looks to me like the predator numbers are following its food source in a decline. That would the logical thing to happen and might settle the argument that is going around at the moment that the sparrowhawk is responsible for songbird decline.