Thursday, 7 June 2007

Europe’s farmland birds decline by almost half in 25 years

New research has shown that Europe’s farmland birds have declined by almost 50 per cent in the past 25 years, according to BirdLife International and the RSPB. The trend has been caused by EU-wide agricultural intensification being driven by a policy which is in need of urgent reform, say the organisations. Species affected include well-known birds such as Skylark and Yellowhammer, and once widespread species like Red-backed Shrike (left), which is now extinct as a regular breeder in Britain.

The results, released today, bring together the most comprehensive biodiversity indicators of their kind in Europe, collated by the Pan-European Common Bird Monitoring Scheme (PECBMS) – a partnership of leading scientists from the European Bird Census Council, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, BirdLife International, and Statistics Netherlands.

The data, collected from 20 national breeding bird surveys spanning Europe over the last 25 years, confirm the extent to which farmland birds have suffered. Across Europe as a whole from 1980 to 2005, common farmland birds have on average fallen in number by 44 per cent – the most severe decline of the bird categories monitored.

“Birds can be vital barometers of environmental change – their declines are clear evidence of the environmental degradation that has occurred across European farmland,” said Dr Richard Gregory, Chairman of the European Bird Census Council, and Head of Monitoring and Indicators at the RSPB. “The data are staring us in the face: many farmland birds – and the species and habitats with which they co-exist – are under serious threat.”

Species like Skylark, Red-backed Shrike, Corn Bunting, Northern Lapwing and Tree Sparrow are familiar names in the long list of declining farmland bird species.

The organisations involved in the study are calling for a reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), a system of European Union subsidies and programmes that has led to considerable agricultural intensification in EU Member States. Although this drive has lessened with successive reforms, the CAP still appears to fail farmland birds and the European environment in general.

Most concerning is the likelihood of rapid farmland bird declines in new EU Member States that hold some of Europe’s largest concentrations of farmland birds. The study indicates that declines in farmland birds in new EU Member States mirror those declines of more established EU Member States. The fear is that EU accession may accelerate and worsen the situation.

Forest birds also affected

Findings from the study also show declines for forest birds: across Europe as a whole from 1980 to 2005, numbers of common forest birds have fallen on average by 9 per cent. The researchers highlight that the speed with which forest ecosystems react to changes in management are much slower than in farmlands, so this decline may carry a very serious warning. They are now urging for further studies to investigate the driving factors, management regimes in particular.

Forest bird declines have been particularly severe in the boreal forests of northern Europe, where they are thought to be threatened by highly intensive forestry exploitation.