New report reveals declines in Wales’ woodland birds

Carwyn Evans

Thursday 17 December 2020

New data show long-term declines of woodland bird species across the UK.

Fersiwn Gymraeg ar gael yma.

  • Some specialist woodland species have declined dramatically, including willow tit, which has shown the second biggest decline of any common and widespread UK bird.
  • Five of the 10 common and widespread species showing the biggest declines in Wales are farmland birds.

The distribution and numbers of birds in Wales are changing dramatically, with many species in worrying declines according to a new report.

The State of the UK’s Birds 2020 (SUKB) - the one-stop shop for all the latest results from bird surveys and monitoring studies – highlights the continuing poor fortunes of woodland birds.

The UK woodland bird indicator shows a long-term decline of 27% since the early 1970s, with declines of 7% over just the last five years. Willow tit populations have declined across the UK at such a rate that it currently has the second biggest decline of any common and widespread UK bird. To improve understanding of where willow tits live, volunteers are undertaking a nationwide survey, in partnership with Natural Resources Wales (NRW) and the Welsh Ornithological Society.

The Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) shows that in Wales, chaffinch and goldcrest are amongst the ten species showing the largest declines among those the survey monitors. The scale of the decline evident in populations of species associated with the oak woodlands of Wales, such as pied flycatcher and wood warbler, is such that they have become too scarce to be monitored by the BBS in Wales.

The report highlights concerns for some other species as well. The number of chough in Wales, which make up three quarters of the UK total, has also declined, meaning we shouldn’t be taking the species for granted. With funding from Natural Resources Wales, the RSPB and chough experts, conservation officers analysed 25 years of records from nest monitoring and colour-ringing studies carried out across north and mid Wales, and thousands of sightings by farmers, walkers and birdwatchers. The study shows that choughs are in trouble: the number of chicks in known nest sites fell by 25% between 1994 and 2019, and the number of inland nest sites occupied by choughs fell by 72%.

There has also been a worrying decline in the number of curlews nesting in Wales; at the current rate of decline, work by BTO Cymru suggests that breeding curlews could be extinct in Wales within the next 13 years unless significant action is taken. Their rapid national decline has led to the species being considered as one of the most pressing bird conservation priorities in Wales. The decline appears to be linked to a combination of habitat loss, unfavourable habitat management and predation. This has led to a decline in numbers of almost 70% since 1995, and its range has contracted by 50%.

Julian Hughes, RSPB Cymru Head of Species, said:

“This report provides us with even more proof that nature in Wales and the UK are in crisis. The continued declines in woodland and farmland birds, including iconic species such as curlew and chough, are alarming. A decline in habitat quality is a major challenge facing birds and other wildlife, and the fact that in less than 20 years Wales could lose its breeding curlew population requires drastic action to change landscape management. The research behind the decline in choughs is also a real concern given the importance of the Welsh countryside to these birds.

“The continued success of red kites proves that with hard work and dedication by volunteers and land managers positive results are achievable. We need similar effort by decision-makers and farmers to reverse the huge declines in farmland species in Wales.”  

Patrick Lindley, Senior Ornithologist for Natural Resources Wales said:

“In response to the nature emergency the State of UK’s Birds report presents a snapshot of the ‘health’ of our birds within Wales and the UK. The problems that confront UK birds, whether they are breeding or non-breeding, are problems that confront entire ecosystems. It is vital that we re-establish resilient ecological networks across Wales as the ‘beating heart’ of nature conservation.

“For some species, there is optimism. The recent success of breeding bitterns, marsh harriers and cranes in Wales, demonstrates what can be done by restoring ecosystems at the appropriate scale. Other species are faring badly. The curlew is now considered to be the most pressing bird conservation priority in Wales and the UK. Modelled scenarios predict breeding curlew may be on the brink of extinction in Wales in the next decade. The clock is now ticking.

“Though the future may appear bleak for some birds it is increasingly recognised that our natural environments are important not only to the biodiversity that occur in these environments, but of the multiple benefits nature brings to people. The challenge to us all is to communicate these wider benefits to society.”

The report also highlights the continued decline of farmland birds across the UK. Five of the 10 common and widespread species showing the biggest decline in Wales are farmland birds, including starling and rook, which have become much less abundant than they were in the past. These two species depend on invertebrates found in enclosed pasture for feeding their chicks and the declining numbers may reflect changes in grassland management.

The report does contain better news for some species. In Wales, house sparrows increased by 92% from 1995 to 2018. Across the whole of the UK, house sparrow is still the third most common breeding bird, but millions of pairs have disappeared since the late 1960s. The report also mentions that the red kite population has more than doubled in Wales in the last 10 years, as it continues its successful recovery from a tiny population of a few pairs in the 1930s.

Katharine Bowgen, BTO Cymru Research Ecologist said:

“With curlew declines continuing, recent research projects in Wales are really shedding extra light on the behaviours of these cryptic breeders through tracking fieldwork and predicting their population trends through the results of wider surveys. Combining these approaches together is really helping us understand how they interact with the landscape and will be taken up to be used in wider conservation measures for the species. In addition, thank you to all the volunteers in Wales who contributed to this report overall”


Editor’s notes:

  1. The SUKB partnership: SUKB 2020 is produced by a coalition of three NGOs: the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT), together with the UK’s statutory nature conservation bodies: Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, Northern Ireland (DAERA), the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), Natural England (NE), Natural Resources Wales (NRW) and NatureScot.
  2. Since 1999 the State of UK’s Birds reports have provided an annual overview of the status of the UK’s breeding and non-breeding bird species in the UK and its Overseas Territories. The report collates data from annual, periodic and one-off surveys and monitoring studies of birds, such as the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS), the Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) and Goose and Swan Monitoring Programme (GSMP).
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