Curlew Numenius arquata, bathing in shallow pool, Geltsdale RSPB reserve, Cumbria, England

UK conservation status explained

The UK's birds can be split in to three categories of conservation importance - red, amber and green.

The red list

Red is the highest conservation priority, with species needing urgent action.

Red list criteria includes: 

  • Species is globally threatened.
  • Historical population decline in UK during 1800–1995.
  • Severe (at least 50%) decline in UK breeding population over last 25 years, or longer-term period (the entire period used for assessments since the first BoCC review, starting in 1969).
  • Severe (at least 50%) contraction of UK breeding range over last 25 years, or the longer-term period.

Close to UK extinction

Help us save the turtle dove from extinction in the UK. Together we can move this beautiful bird out of the red list for good. 

The amber list

Amber is the next most critical group.

Birds in the amber list will be subject to at least one of the relevant factors listed below:

  • Species with unfavourable conservation status in Europe (SPEC = Species of European Conservation Concern).
  • Historical population decline during 1800–1995, but recovering; population size has more than doubled over last 25 years.
  • Moderate (25-50%) decline in UK breeding population over last 25 years, or the longer-term period.
  • Moderate (25-50%) contraction of UK breeding range over last 25 years, or the longer-term period.
  • Moderate (25-50%) decline in UK non-breeding population over last 25 years, or the longer-term period.
  • Rare breeder; 1–300 breeding pairs in UK.
  • Rare non-breeders; less than 900 individuals.
  • Localised; at least 50% of UK breeding or non-breeding population in 10 or fewer sites, but not applied to rare breeders or non-breeders.
  • Internationally important; at least 20% of European breeding or non-breeding population in UK (NW European and East Atlantic Flyway populations used for non-breeding wildfowl and waders respectively).
Minsmere RSPB Reserve, Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta flying over pools.

The green list

Species on the green list are the least critical group.

Species that occur regularly in the UK but do not qualify under any or the above criteria.

Bearded reedling, bearded tit, male perched in reedbed

Introduced species

This is not a conservation status category, but indicates a species that has escaped and bred in the wild or has been deliberately released into the wild at some point in the UK's history.

As these species are not native to the UK, they have no specific conservation status here.

Canada geese at Dove Stone RSPB reserve

The story behind the red list

Curlews and puffins have joined other species like cuckoos, house sparrows and turtle doves on the list of birds whose populations are in big trouble.

But what does being on the list actually mean? And what do we do with this list? We talked to Dr Mark Eaton, one of the RSPB's Principal Conservation Scientists. 

"The red list in the Birds of Conservation Concern 4 report (BoCC4) is a big thing for me," admits Mark. "I'm responsible for collating the data from many sources. I work with a group of experts, representing the nine BoCC4 partners, to assess the data, produce the red, amber and green lists, and then write this up so we can publish the findings both as a scientifically rigorous paper so the facts are there for scrutiny, and as a summary report."

Mark and his team analyse hundreds of statistics from monitoring schemes such as the Breeding Bird Survey and the Wetland Bird Survey. 

Mark explains where the data comes: "Thanks to thousands of volunteers – counting birds, doing surveys, getting their data to organisations such as the RSPB, BTO and WWT – birds are probably amongst the best monitored groups of wildlife on the planet, and especially so in the UK. We produce lots of stats which enable us to assess whether each species should go onto one of our lists of conservation concern. Either amber for moderate concern or red which are the ones we are really worried about.

"To be on the red list you need to be a bird of highest conservation concern, meaning you're in a pretty bad way. You've declined very rapidly, you're at risk of extinction globally, or you are historically depleted, meaning you are much lower population levels that you were in the past.'"

Puffin Fratercula arctica, group, Isle of May National Nature reserve

The species that worry us most

Mark explains that there are 20 new species on the red list and highlights which species worry him most. 

"The most noticeable thing is that we've got a number of new upland species on the red list. So we have increased concern there, particularly for curlews as our UK population is internationally important. We have about a quarter of the world's curlews breeding in the UK and we know that they are doing badly elsewhere as well. So there is real international concern for curlew."

It's not just upland birds - Mark draws attention to our seabirds that are also of heightened concern. 

"We're seeing kittiwakes, puffins and shags join the red list this time around. So we're particularly worried about what's happening to our marine ecosystems and the impact that's having on our seabirds." 

Mark's been working on Birds of Conservation Concern for many years and in his time in conservation he's seen some huge changes. He says, "Three species have disappeared as breeding species in UK. Wrynecks were once very widespread, breeding in 54 UK counties in the 19th century. If you look in the RSPB magazine back in 1908 we were selling nest boxes suitable for wrynecks to be put in gardens, but now they're gone." 

Hope for species recovery

It's not all doom and gloom. There is hope as species move from red to amber and amber to green. 

Mark says, "We've seen bitterns and nightjars move from red list to the amber list. Bitterns are a wonderful story because they were almost extinct from the UK, with less than a dozen males 20 years ago, but because of our conservation action it’s now thriving. Red kites have also moved onto the green list. The very first red data book had a red kite on the cover because it was a perfect example of a threatened bird, hanging on in a just a few Welsh valleys, but now they’re widespread, a common sight in many places.

"What’s particularly pleasing is that thanks to the support of from our members, and partners from other organisations we have been able to demonstrate that we can turn things around if we have resources and support. It’s not a one way journey – we can bring them back.

 Nightjar, Caprimulgus europaeus. Adult roosting during daylight hours, perched on a log, relying on camouflage and immobility for disguise. The Lodge RSPB reserve, Bedfordshire, England.

We're using the red list to focus our conservation efforts

A number of our garden birds like house sparrows, starlings and song thrushes have been on the red list for a while; this time around we see the addition of mistle thrushes. Five of the six species of UK breeding thrush are now on the red list. Mark explains what we can do to help. 

"We use the red list to prioritise our action. We use it to identify which species need help immediately and take action. So, if there is research to do to find out the what the problem is, and how to tackle it, then we’ll do that, then once we know what needs to be done to help them we’ll get on with it, whether it’s land management, species recovery projects or lobbying government.

"Prioritising is vital as we don’t have money and resources to work on everything, even within the red list we can’t prioritise action for all 67 species. In some cases we have to just keep a watching brief on a species until we have more resource to take action."

"The first step is considering what to do in your own outdoor spaces to create better habitats for wildlife. Those who have a garden could consider wildlife friendly gardening - create a pond, plant pollen rich flowers, or plant shrubs with berries for birds.

"Most of the data we use if collected by volunteers –if you know a little bit about birds you could get involved in data gathering with monitoring schemes, such as those run by the BTO in partnership with the RSPB."

Song thrush perched on a small leafy branch, sky blue background.