Signs of hope for two threatened farmland songbirds, major new report reveals

Published today, the latest BTO/RSPB/JNCC Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) report shows signs of hope for two iconic birds of UK farmland: Skylark and Corn Bunting.
However, the Report also reveals continued declines for other farmland species, including Yellowhammer, Tree Sparrow, Grey Partridge and Turtle Dove.
The Report also reveals a worrying decline in England’s Blackbird population, with losses most apparent in London.
BBS is the main scheme for monitoring the population changes of the UK’s common and widespread breeding birds, producing population trends for 118 species.
Like many species of farmland bird, Skylark and Corn Bunting have seen severe long-term declines across the UK and both feature on the Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern. However, the latest annual BTO/RSPB/JNCC Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) Report shows that numbers of both have increased significantly in the UK over the past decade, raising hopes of longer-term recoveries.

A widespread bird of farmland habitats, Skylark has increased by 9% in England and 16% in Scotland over the past decade. The report reveals even more promising increases of nearly 20% over five years in south-east England and 10 years in the East Midlands, with similar increases over 10 years in south-east England and the West Midlands. These figures all buck the long-term trend: Skylark has declined by 61% in England since 1967. Nevertheless, the recent increases in England and Scotland are not mirrored in Wales, where there has been a 23% decline since 2016. Numbers have been stable in Northern Ireland over the past decade, though this is set against a decline of 40% since 1994.

In England, things are even more promising for Corn Bunting, a species that has seen its UK population crash by 82% since the late 1960s and which has disappeared from many parts of the country. Numbers in England have increased by 35% over the past decade, the report reveals, with this partial recovery particularly evident in the south-west. The species was declared extinct as a breeding bird in Wales last year, however, and does not breed in sufficient numbers in Scotland and Northern Ireland for a reliable trends to be produced.

Whether increases in Skylark and Corn Bunting populations can be linked to agri-environment schemes (AES) will be clarified by further analysis of BBS and AES data. Although these increases are promising, the fact remains that they are the exception, with a far greater number of farmland bird species in decline.

The report also reveals that numbers of Blackbird, one of our most tuneful and familiar garden visitors, have dropped by 7% in England over the past decade and 4% since last year. These figures, while troubling on their own, mask severe declines in London: 41% over the past decade and 56% since 1994. The drop has been particularly steep since 2019, with Usutu virus thought to be playing a part. There’s better news for Blackbirds elsewhere in the UK. The species has increased by 8% in Wales and 19% in Northern Ireland over the past decade.

Of the 118 species monitored by BBS in the UK, 41 have decreased since 1995, the first year for which trends can be created, while 37 have increased. The species with the greatest decline is Turtle Dove, which has seen its numbers plummet by 97%. Little Egret, a recent colonist, is the species with the greatest increase, its numbers booming by 2,311% during the same time period.

Dr James Heywood, BBS National Organiser, said: “These positive signs for two iconic farmland species is really encouraging. We await the results of ongoing analyses to establish whether they are indeed linked to changes in farming practices. These signs of hope must not distract us from the fact that many farmland species are still in decline. There is much work to be done.”

Dr Paul Woodcock, Joint Nature Conservation Committee, said: “The four countries of the UK have all made commitments to achieve nature recovery. The results here show the value of having annual monitoring schemes to track this, and to understand ongoing pressures like climate change and land use change. Furthermore, because the Breeding Bird Survey involves thousands of skilled volunteers it can provide information not just for the UK as a whole but also for individual countries, and even regions within countries. This helps determine where action for nature recovery is being effective and where greater efforts are needed. We’re hugely grateful to all the volunteers who contribute their time and expertise every year to help maintain the BBS as a UK-wide source of high-quality data.”

Dr Simon Wotton, RSPB Senior Conservation Science, said: “Whilst the news of Skylark and Corn Bunting short-term recovery is positive, it’s disheartening to see that other Farmland Birds are still declining. We know that agri-environment schemes can work if deployed in the right way and it is essential that we have a functioning Environment Land Management scheme that supports farmers managing their land for nature and climate.”