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44 million nesting birds disappeared in UK since 1966

Since 1966, the population of the house sparrow has halved from 20 million to 10 million. Photo: PA

Since 1966, the population of the house sparrow has halved from 20 million to 10 million. Photo: PA

An estimated 44 million nesting birds have been lost from the UK since 1966, according a new report.

Among individual species, while there have been some winners, the number of losers is greater and the long-term picture is sobering

Experts estimate that breeding birds have vanished from the British countryside at an average rate of one pair every minute.

There are now thought to be 166 million nesting birds in the UK compared with 210 million in the 1960s.

The house sparrow is one of the biggest casualties, say researchers. Since 1966, its population has halved from 20 million to 10 million, despite a rise over the last decade.

Mark Eaton, a Royal Society for the Protection of Birds scientist who worked on the State of the UK’s Birds 2012 report, said: “It is shocking to think that we’ve lost one in five of the individual birds that we had in the 1960s, especially when you think that the 44 million birds we have lost since 1966 is equivalent to the current adult human population of England and Wales.”

Changes in land use and the management of the countryside and coastal waters are believed to have contributed to the losses.

In some cases, birds have found it difficult to locate suitable places to nest or to forage for food in the summer or winter.

But for other species, including the house sparrow, the reasons for the decline are still not fully understood.

There were both losers and winners among different individual species, said the scientists. The trend was highlighted by the fortunes of two related species, the turtle and collared dove.

In 1966, the turtle dove was widespread with around 140,000 breeding pairs. Collared dove numbers, on the other hand, were very low as the species only started nesting in the UK in 1955.

Today there are thought to be no more than about 14,000 nesting pairs of turtle doves in the UK, while the collared dove population has exploded to around a million pairs.

Another loser is the wren, still the UK’s most numerous bird, which has declined by an average of 835 individuals a day since 2000. But chaffinch, also a garden bird, has increased its population at the rate of 150 individuals per day.

Report author Andy Musgrove, from the British Trust for Ornithology, said: “We have learnt a great deal about bird numbers in the UK and, particularly, how they have changed through time.

“Among individual species, while there have been some winners, the number of losers is greater and the long-term picture is sobering.

“There is still more to learn though, and we need the continuing support of ever greater numbers of volunteer birdwatchers, on whose efforts all of these numbers are based.”

Tim Hill, Natural England’s chief scientist, paid tribute to the army of volunteers who helped compile the data.

“The State of the UK’s Birds report is a great example of ‘citizen science’ in action,” he said.

“Most of the information upon which the report is based is derived from the efforts of the nation’s network of skilled, volunteer ornithologists who contribute to national monitoring schemes like the Breeding Bird Survey and Wetland Bird Survey.

“Such schemes provide a high quality evidence base underpinning the work of the Government, conservation organisations and land managers in their joint efforts to conserve the natural environment and its wildlife.”

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