UK's once-threatened bird species back from the brink, conservationists say

Targeted conservation has brought many of the UK's rarest birds back from the brink of extinction, says a report – but more widespread species are in sharp decline

Britain's birds have seen a dramatic reversal of fortune over the last decade, with once threatened species now thriving and previously common sightings becoming increasingly rare.

A major report from several of Britain's leading conservation groups and led by the RSPB says rare birds such as the osprey have fared much better than common counterparts.

Almost 60% of Britain's rarest birds, including once near-extinct species such as the bittern, avocet and osprey, have seen their numbers increase over the past decade, according to the State of the UK's Birds report, which is published today. But rare birds that breed in Britain have fared better than their more common cousins, with widespread species including starlings, nightingales and cuckoos in decline.

Mark Avery, the conservation director of the RSPB, said: "Over the last decade, we've enjoyed some cracking conservation successes, including removing some threatened species from the red list and increasing populations of red kite, bittern, avocet, osprey, stone curlew and cirl bunting. However, these triumphs are countered by continued declines of some widespread species, like the skylark, kestrel, willow warbler and grey partridge." Only 28% of the 63 birds with fewer than 1,000 breeding pairs in the UK have seen numbers fall, compared to four out of every 10 common birds.

The report, in its 10th year, is an assessment of 210 native breeding birds, published by the RSPB, the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, the Countryside Council for Wales, Natural England, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC). Fifty-two species are listed as being of the greatest conservation concern, with 126 species of moderate concern and 68 of low concern. The wildlife organisations said efforts to improve habitat had helped species such as bitterns, a reedbed-dwelling bird whose numbers have jumped from 19 to 82 males in the past decade, and heathland species such as the Dartford warbler and nightjar.

Five birds of prey – ospreys, honey buzzards, marsh harriers and goshawks – that became extinct in the UK have seen a dramatic reversal of their fortunes, including white-tailed eagles, which have returned thanks to a re-introduction programme.

But it is not all good news for rare birds. Some, such as the common scoter, are at risk of becoming extinct in the UK in the next decade.

Many common birds, which are not the subject of targeted conservation action, have dropped steeply in number; this includes many farmland birds. The grey partridge has vanished from certain areas, such as Northern Ireland. Skylark populations have fallen 48% between 1970 and 2007. The corn bunting has also disappeared from Northern Ireland, while kittiwake and guillemot, two seabirds with their most important European populations in the UK, have decreased in number over the past decade.

Although farmland bird populations have declined the most, woodland bird numbers have also fallen. Between 1994 and 2007, the total number of woodland birds, which include the wood warbler, the willow tit and the lesser spotted woodpecker, fell by 6% across England.

"Most of the UK's raptors are continuing to recover well from the low levels of a few decades ago, aided by more enlightened attitudes to their presence in the environment," the report adds. "Illegal persecution continues to limit the numbers and distribution of some species, such as the hen harrier, in certain parts of the UK."

Baz Hughes of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust said: "It is really encouraging to look back at how concerted effort has improved the status of many wetland birds, not least avocet, bittern and black-tailed godwit. But sadly, exceptions like the common scoter, the UK's most endangered duck, still need significant conservation action if we're going to pull them back from the brink."

Tom Tew, chief scientist with Natural England, said: "It is clear that targeted conservation work has made a real difference in reversing the decline of many rare species, and that positive land management, often delivered through green farming schemes such as environmental stewardship, has had an important part to play. By working closely with farmers and other land managers, we need to ensure that these benefits are spread into the wider countryside, where more common birds continue to suffer from declines."

David Stroud of the JNCC said: "These results remind us that the causes of the declines for many migratory species can often be in other countries. For example, Greenland white-fronted geese are declining owing to factors that are restricting its breeding in the Arctic. This strongly emphasises the need for UK conservation organisations to collaborate internationally with those in other countries."

Report: State of the UK's Birds





Red kite

Stone curlew




Willow warbler

Grey partridge



David Adam

The GuardianTramp

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