The official results for the UK and England Wild Bird Indicators have been released by Government today. Here, Fiona Burns, Principal Conservation Scientist, gives a breakdown on the results and what this means for conservation.

The new Wild Bird Indicators for the UK were published by Defra yesterday, and can be found online here. Similar metrics have also been released for England, and can be found here. Today’s update brings the measures up to 2022, with data in many cases starting from 1970 – measuring more than 50 years of change. These statistics are produced each year using data on bird numbers collected by thousands of skilled volunteer surveyors.

Trends for more than one hundred common and widespread breeding birds (any species with more than 500 breeding pairs in the UK) are calculated. Species are then grouped to give measures of change across all species and within major habitats: farmland, woodland, water & wetland, seabirds, and wintering waterbirds.

Recent decline in the woodland bird indicator

The woodland bird indicator has fallen by 37% since 1970, and by 15% in just the last five years, suggesting an accelerating decline. Within each indicator there is a lot of variation in individual species’ trends, with some species increasing and others declining. However, in the last five years only three species in the woodland indicator have increased, Blackcap, Nightingale and Nuthatch, compared to 23 that have declined.

Willow Tit are showing continued long-term declines (c) Mark Eaton

Some species are showing continued long-term declines, such as Willow Tit and Wood Warbler.  Whereas others, such as Chaffinch, have seen a recent reversal in fortune, in this case their recent decline is possibly related to disease.

The Woodland Bird Indicator. Source: British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC).

Continued focus on farmland birds needed

The best known of the wild bird indicators is the Farmland bird indicator, with this suite of species showing on average the largest declines in abundance, with populations in 2022 on average 60% lower than those in 1970.  Although the steepest rate of decline in the indicator was in the 1980s, it continues to this day, with a decline of 8% in the indicator in the last five years.

The Farmland Bird Indicator. Source: British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC).

This is not a situation without hope however, with good evidence that well designed and targeted Higher Tier agri-environment schemes can allow farmers to support species’ recovery alongside productive farming. Nevertheless, the best evidence suggests that in order to halt and start to reverse declines in the farmland bird indicator these schemes would need to be implemented on a much wider scale (Sharps and Hawkes, 2023,

Corn Bunting have declined by over 80% since 1970, but populations have increased in the last five years. Image credit. Andy Hay (

Reasons for hope

It is important to remember that although many of the habitat indicators, as well as the all-species indicator, show long-term and continuing declines, that does not indicate that conservation is not having an impact. Although difficult to quantify, it is very likely that the declines would be much deeper without the collective efforts of all individuals involved in conservation action.

We should also remember that there are a lot of species that are too rare to be included Wild Bird Indicators (those with fewer than 500 pairs) where conservation action has been supporting species’ recovery, such as Bittern, White-tailed Eagle and Stone Curlew (Rare Breeding Birds Panel (RBBP), 2023). Some species that were previously monitored by the RBBP have been so successful that they are now too numerous to be covered the scheme, such as Red Kite.

Broader measures of biodiversity

The full set of UK and England Biodiversity Indicators, of which the Wild Bird Indicators are a part, will be updated in a week’s time (the most recent UK set can be found here). These cover a wide range of topics from the extent and condition of protected areas, the extent of agri-environment schemes and the status of priority species.

Continue reading

 Would you like to be kept up to date with our latest science news? Email with the heading 'enewsletter' to be added to our quarterly enewsletter.

Want our blogs emailed to you automatically? Click the cog in the top right of this page and select 'turn blog notifications on' (if you have an RSPB blog account) or 'subscribe by email'.