UK bird numbers continue to crash as government poised to break own targets
Bird populations in the UK continue to crash, new data shows, as campaigners predict the government will fail to meet its own nature targets unless radical changes are made.
Statistics released by the government show that bird populations continue to decline in the long and short term. In 2021, on average the abundance of 130 breeding species was 12% below its 1970 value. Though much of this loss was between the late 1970s and the late 1980s, caused mostly by relatively steep declines in woodland and farmland birds, there was still a significant 5% decrease between 2015 and 2020.
Between 2015 and 2020, 24% of species increased, 28% showed little change and 48% declined. Woodland birds continue to fare the worst, with a 12% decline between 2015 and 2020.
Wildlife experts agree that the decline in bird populations is largely driven by habitat loss.
The government passed the Environment Act into law in 2021, which requires a halt in species decline by 2030. Campaigners have said that radical changes to government policy are needed if it is to meet its own legally binding targets.
Richard Benwell, the CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said: “As political parties turn their sights to the general election, they would do well to heed the warning written into today’s wild bird statistics. The decline of nature has continued, relentless and unabated, for decades.
“Meeting the legally binding target to stop wildlife losses by the end of the next parliament can’t be achieved with a legal tweak here, some spare change there. Serious, sustained investment, proper penalties for pollution, and action in every sphere of government must be the hallmarks of any nature-positive manifesto.”
Dr Richard Gregory, the RSPB’s head of science, said: “Everyone should be concerned that UK bird populations are continuing to decline as this is a crucial indicator of the condition of our environment and health of our natural world. We cannot keep publishing report after report charting the decline of the UK’s wildlife without UK governments delivering on their commitments to take urgent action to restore nature and halt wildlife decline.
“We are in a nature and climate emergency, and we need urgent action to keep common species common and save those already on the brink of being lost. This is not something on the distant horizon, but on our doorsteps.
“The UK is among the most nature-depleted countries in the world, bottom of the table compared to the rest of the G7, but we can change this if we begin to seriously address the drivers of wildlife decline in the UK.”
The government admits that the state of the bird population is a good indicator for how other species are faring, which means that if they are in decline, there is a good chance other wildlife are too.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said: “Bird populations have long been considered to provide a good indication of the broad state of wildlife in the UK. This is because they occupy a wide range of habitats and respond to environmental pressures that also operate on other groups of wildlife.
“In addition, there are considerable long-term data on trends in bird populations, allowing for comparison between trends in the short term and long term. Because they are a well-studied taxonomic group, drivers of change for birds are better understood than for other species groups, which enable better interpretation of any observed changes.”
A Defra spokesperson said: “Under the Environmental Improvement Plan, we set out clear steps to halt the decline in species abundance by 2030 and improve the status of wild birds and other species which play an important role in our ecosystems. We are already taking robust action to reduce key pressures on wild birds and improve their habitats. For example, our targeted species recovery efforts have helped to improve the conservation status of 96 priority species, including the curlew and bittern.”