Latest figures reveal changing fortunes for Scotland’s birds

Tuesday 11 April 2017

Two of Scotland's most loved species, curlew and puffin, have joined the growing list of threatened bird species, according to a new report which highlights that more than one quarter of UK birds are in need of urgent conservation effort. However, there is good news for other species such as golden plover and crested tit which have seen improvements in their numbers.

The state of the UK's birds 2016 (SUKB) report - the one-stop shop for all the latest results from bird surveys and monitoring studies - highlights how more than a quarter of the UK's regularly-occurring bird species, including many whose strongholds are in Scotland, are now what conservationists refer to as 'Red-listed'3.

Many of these are due to severe recent declines in numbers and/or range in the UK, and eight are considered at risk of global extinction including puffin.

Upland species continue to struggle, with five added to the Red List, giving cause for concern. Europe's largest and most distinctive wader - the curlew - has been added to the Red List and is joined by dotterel, whinchat, grey wagtail and merlin. This highlights the fact that many of the upland species are in increasing trouble, with the total number red-listed now 12.

The UK hosts up to a quarter of the global breeding population of curlew, with around half of the UK population found in Scotland. As a result this could be considered one of the most important countries in the world for breeding curlews. But in recent decades, numbers across the UK have almost halved due to habitat loss. With a much smaller population, predators are now having an effect on what was a resilient population.

The curlew is considered globally 'near threatened' and with urgent action required to halt their decline, an International Single Species Action Plan has been created. They are known for their evocative call and distinctive long curved beak.

Dr David Douglas, Principle Conservation Scientist, RSPB Scotland, said: "Scotland is incredibly important for curlew, being home to around half of the UK breeding population. Sadly, numbers are declining here and more widely across the UK. RSPB is leading a Curlew Recovery Programme, working in partnership with a range of organisations, which aims to stabilise and recover curlew populations. Testing the effectiveness of management interventions will help us understand how to deliver 'curlew-friendly' conservation across their breeding areas."

The report also highlights that wryneck, a sparrow-sized bird which is now a rare migrant to the UK, has become the first once widespread breeding species to be lost from here for nearly 200 years. The last known breeding was in Scotland in 2002.

There is good news in the report for other species iconic in Scotland. The 2015 golden eagle national survey numbers shows that their numbers have increased by 15% since the previous survey in 2003 - all breeding pairs are found in Scotland.

A number of species have moved from the Red list to the Amber or Green lists. Most notably the red kite, once one of the UK's most threatened species, is now on the Green list thanks to the efforts of conservationists and landowners. Reintroduction of red kite took place at four locations in Scotland, with population growth and expansion varying between each site. The overall success demonstrates that there is cause for hope for other Red-listed species and that targeted conservation action can make a real difference.


James Pearce-Higgins, Director of Science at BTO, said: "The BTO is working with others on a programme of research to understand the causes of curlew decline and guide potential management solutions. This involves analyses of long-term data collected by thousands of volunteers, using novel tracking technology to study the needs of individual birds, and working with local enthusiasts to inform the recovery of local populations"

Geoff Hilton, Head of Conservation Science at WWT, said: "The call of the curlew is one of the really magical elements of British nature, celebrated in poetry and song. Now we know that we are losing them; fewer and fewer people are getting to experience their song. But the curlew has one big thing in its favour: it is loved by many, many people. I've seen the enthusiasm and determination to turn their fortunes around - from farmers, conservationists and the public - and this convinces me that we can do so."

Patrick Lindley, NRW's Senior Terrestrial / Marine Ornithologist, said: "The fourth review of Birds of Conservation Concern (BoCC) assessed 244 species and shows the expanding number of upland birds moving onto the red list.

"Sadly, curlew is one these species and the State of UK's Birds Report further highlights the extent of decline, a staggering 64% over 45 years, of this iconic upland breeding wader.

"The curlew is now considered the most pressing bird conservation priority in the UK and it is only through collaborative working and engagement that there is a chance to reverse this trend so that the evocative call of the curlew can once again be heard across its former range."

James Williams, Biodiversity Indicators Manager at JNCC, said:"The biodiversity indicators allow the general public to see at a glance how Britain's wildlife is faring without having to digest the complexity of the science behind them."

Andy Douse, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) senior ornithologist, said:"Scotland's uplands are particularly important for species such as whinchat, merlin and dotterel in the montane zone. We need to understand the reasons for these changes and the management measures required to slow or halt declines being witnessed. While some declines may be due to climate change, other pressures affecting birds are probably linked to land use changes, habitat degradation, and predation. Developing long term, sustainable management measures within the uplands will be crucial in reversing these changes."

Tim Hill, Natural England's Chief Scientist, said: "Our ongoing conservation efforts in the English uplands continue to target and provide protection for upland breeding birds. Almost half of our uplands are now protected. The West Pennine Moors, England's largest SSSI in a decade, was recently notified in part for its impressive assemblage of merlin, curlew, snipe, lapwing and redshank.

?"We know that when we work together with farmers, with the right management at the right scale we can reverse declines, as we have seen with the fantastic success in recovering cirl buntings. We are working closely with upland land managers to further protect and enhance the wildlife importance of these areas, offering options within our agri-environment schemes which are specifically designed to provide habitats for breeding birds on moorland and grassland. Natural England is dedicated to continuing sustainable conservation of our wonderful upland landscape and safeguarding its characteristic wildlife for generations to come."

To read the full report click here.


  1. The SUKB partnership: SUKB 2016 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 Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH).

2. 2. Eight species considered at risk of global extinction are: Balearic Shearwater, Aquatic Warbler, Common Pochard, Long-tailed Duck, Velvet Scoter, Slavonian Grebe, Puffin, Turtle Dove

  1. Other content in SUKB 2016 includes:

A summary of recent work in UK Overseas Territories on albatross conservation issues, Montserrat Orioles, and St Helena Plovers. There is good news that the population numbers for Montserrat Orioles and St Helena Plovers have increased sufficiently that they have been down-listed from 'critically endangered' to 'vulnerable' on the global IUCN red-list.

The milestone achievement of 50 years of the International Waterbird Census is celebrated, noting how the results are used in national and international conservation work.

  1. Every few years - most recently in 2015 - the UK's leading bird conservation organisations work together to review the status of birds in the UK, Channel Islands and Isle of Man. The bird species that breed or overwinter were assessed against a set of objective criteria to be placed on the Green, Amber or Red list - indicating an increasing level of conservation concern. The review used up-to-date information on the status of birds in the UK and elsewhere in their ranges, drawing on data collated through the UK's bird monitoring schemes. The quantitative criteria assessed the historical decline, trends in population and range, population size, localisation and international importance of each species as well as their global and European threat status.
  2. A total of 247 species were considered. Three of these - the Temminck's stint, wryneck and serin - no longer breed in the UK and were moved to the list of former breeders. Wryneck was recorded as breeding in 54 counties in the late 19th century, and it is the first once widespread breeding species to be lost from the UK in nearly 200 years.
  3. Birds of Conservation Concern 4 (BoCC4) lists 67 species on the Red list, 96 on the Amber list, and 81 on the Green list. The Red list has grown by 15 since the last review in 2009. Twenty species[1][2] have been added, but three[3] have moved to Amber and two[4] are now no longer assessed as they have ceased breeding in the UK. For one species, merlin, the change to red list may be a result of methodological changes in the assessment process. More than a quarter of the species assessed are now Red-listed.
  4. A net increase in the Green list of 14 species is good news, a consequence of the nine species moving to Amber[5] or Red[6] being outnumbered by 22 species moving from Amber to Green. Nine[7] of the moves to Green were due to changes in the assessment process, but 13[8] were genuine improvements in status. The net effect of these changes is that the Amber list has become squeezed in the middle.
  5. The biodiversity indicators - used to measure the overall state of wildlife in the UK - show the year-to-year fluctuations in bird populations. The new bar charts provided alongside each habitat chart show the percentage of species within that indicator that have increased, decreased or shown no change, so that users can see how different bird species used in each indicator are faring. More details, and downloadable data for the indicators, are available on the JNCC website at:


[1] Species moving from the BoCC3 Amber list to the BoCC4 Red list were: pochard, velvet scoter,shag, red-necked grebe, slavonian grebe, ringed plover, dotterel, curlew, woodcock, puffin, kittiwake, merlin, mistle thrush, nightingale, pied flycatcher, black redstart, whinchat, grey wagtail.

[2] Species moving from the BoCC3 Green list to the BoCC4 Red list were: white-fronted goose, long-tailed duck.

[3] Species moving from the BoCC3 Red list to the BoCC4 Amber list were: bittern, dunlin, nightjar.

[4] Species Red listed in BoCC3 which are now considered as former breeders: Temminck's stint, wryneck.

[5] Species moving from the BoCC3 Green list to the BoCC4 Amber list were: mute swan, curlew sandpiper, sanderling, greenshank, tawny owl, dipper, mealy redpoll.

[6] Species moving from the BoCC3 Green list to the BoCC4 Red list were: white-fronted goose, long-tailed duck.

[7] Species added to the BoCC4 Green list as a result of methodological changes: sooty shearwater, golden eagle, jack snipe, black tern, little gull, red-billed chough, sand martin, barn swallow, Northern wheatear.

[8] Species added to the BoCC4 Green list as genuine improvements in status: tufted duck, red-throated diver, little egret, little grebe, red kite, European golden plover, barn owl, green woodpecker, firecrest, crested tit, bearded tit, woodlark, common whitethroat.

Last Updated: Tuesday 28 August 2018

Tagged with: Country: Scotland Topic: Conservation