Richard Winspear, Agricultural Advice Managercites important issues raised in the recent BoCC review regarding threatened bird species.

Birds of Conservation Concern 5

Last December saw the publication of the latest review of the status of UK bird populations - Birds of Conservation Concern 5 (BoCC), by a partnership of conservation NGO’s (RSPB, GWCT and BTO) and the statutory nature conservation agencies.

Bird species are assessed against established criteria and assigned to either a Green, Amber or Red list to denote increasing levels of conservation concern. It provides a consistent approach to document the changing status of our bird populations over time. For a species to qualify for the Red list they must have either undergone severe population declines (defined as greater than 50% decline in abundance or range) or are threatened with global extinction. Although the Amber list is used to highlight species that have undergone moderate decline, it is important to note that the Amber list also considers other factors such as rarity, localisation and international importance of populations. As a result, not all Amber- listed species have undergone declines.

BoCC was first published in 1996 and has been repeated roughly every six years. This latest review shows that more of our bird populations are in trouble than ever before. At 70 species, the Red list has nearly doubled in length over the last 25 years. Further information can be found here.

How are farmland birds faring?

So, what about farmland birds specifically? BoCC5 showed that there has been no improvement in the overall status of species associated with farmland. For the majority of species, those that were Red listed are still Red listed - and those that were Green listed are still Green listed; however, there have been a number of notable changes.

Two farmland species moved onto the Red list: Greenfinch owing to a dramatic population crash caused by a severe outbreak of the disease trichomonosis; and Montagu’s Harrier, which has always been a scarce species on the edge of its range in the UK. The breeding population has declined to just one or two pairs in recent years.

Three species that breed on farmland moved from the Green to Amber list:

  • Common Whitethroat - owing to a moderate population decline. This is a species that spends our winter, south of the Sahara in Africa.
  • Woodpigeon -  As mentioned above, the Amber list considers other factors beyond species decline; one of which is the international significance of the UK populations. Indeed, some of our wintering waterbirds, breeding seabirds, along with Stock Dove, appear on the Amber list for this reason. Using the latest estimates, the UK now holds more than 20% of the European breeding Woodpigeon population and it therefore moves on to the Amber list. Woodpigeon populations increased strongly from around 1970 but have stabilised and declined since 2010. Note that Europe holds c. 80% of their global range and so UK holds a sizeable proportion of both the European and global populations.
  • Rook -  Having undergone declines across Europe, including a 22% decline in the UK since 1995, the Rook is now classed as Vulnerable to extinction in Europe and thus placed on the Amber list.

Common Whitethroat has returned to the amber list due to a moderate recent population decline.                    Image: David Norton (

The new assessment demonstrates that farmland birds are in peril, but we can reverse this trend and we have the solutions to hand. However, it is vital that all four countries of the UK introduce policies to reward farmers to take action to support and recover our precious farmland wildlife. But there is a real danger that this may not happen - and not happen fast enough.

Yet we know lots about the declines of bird species in the UK and there are tested solutions for many of them that can be funded through agri-environment schemes. We also have examples of a few localised farmland species that have undergone a partial recovery since the time of the first review, thanks to the actions of farmers. The Stone-curlew in particular, has made a remarkable if fragile recovery thanks to the efforts of farmers to protect them and create habitat for them. Two other species, although still Red listed, have made decent recoveries in recent decades due to the efforts of farmers: the Cirl Bunting and Corncrake.

Turtle Dove is the fastest declining breeding bird in the UK, very dependent upon seed food on farmland, tall scrub for nesting and accessible wet features. It is also a trans-Saharan migrant. Image: Richard Brooks (

The Red and Amber lists provide a good starting point for farmers to plan conservation actions around the species most in need of help and there is advice on how to help them on the RSPB website here . 

Changes in the status of a selection of species associated with farmland in the UK (click on image to view more clearly)

Changes in the composition of the Red, Amber and Green lists across five BoCC reviews in the UK (click on image to view more clearly)

  • Two big points here: first, that birds we've focussed on with conservation action have generally done well - Stone Curlew and Cirl Bunting as prime examples.

    Second, the continuing declines are directly linked to ever increasing intensification - the total elimination of anything but crop species from huge swathes of landscape. We are all waiting to see what ELMS will bring - we already know one big thing for arable, exemplified by Hope Farm, that in-field options - beatle banks, seed/wildflower margins can check the decline in several farmland species. We also know that farmers have been keen to take up edge options - hedges, woods, ponds, whatever but very reluctant to adopt in-field in arable areas. What ELMS does about in-field will be crucial - it should be a compulsory component of getting any environmental payments - but will it be ? I'd like to hope it will be but on balance fear it will be not. Failure on this one key point guarantees the continuing slide for several farmland species - so watch this space.