A smew duck swimming in the water

UK conservation status explained

The birds of the UK, Channel Islands and Isle of Man are assessed every few years and placed into one of three categories of increasing conservation importance – Green, Amber or Red.

Birds of Conservation Concern 5

More birds than ever before were placed on the Red list of greatest conservation concern in the latest report, published in 2021. At 70 species long, the Red list is nearly double the length of the one in the first report in 1996, showing that even more of our birds are in trouble.

The swift, house martin and greenfinch all moved onto the Red list because of population declines, joining other well known birds such as puffins and cuckoos.

More birds that migrate to Africa for the winter seem to be faring less well, while there has been no improvement in the status of farmland or upland birds; indeed, more such species have been Red listed. Waterbirds that spend the winter in the UK have declined in numbers, resulting in the goldeneye, smew, Bewick’s swan and dunlin all moving to the Red list.

But it’s not all bad news: dedicated conservation action has helped the white-tailed eagle move from Red to Amber.

The Red list

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

Red list criteria include: 

  • 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 1996).
  • Severe (at least 50%) contraction of UK breeding range over last 25 years, or the longer-term period.

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 (ERLOB= European Red List of Birds).
  • 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 of 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

Swifts and house martins have joined other species like the cuckoo, house sparrow and puffin on the Red 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 Andrew Stanbury, one of the RSPB's Conservation Scientists.

"The Birds of Conservation Concern reports are produced every several years to look at the status of all regularly occurring birds in the UK, Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. The RSPB leads on this process and works with experts from our partner organisations to place species on either the Green, Amber or Red lists of conservation concern. The results from the 2021 report, Birds of Conservation Concern 5, are sobering, with more species than ever on the Red list, and yet more evidence that our bird populations are in trouble.

"The fact that we know swifts, house martins and greenfinches are in more trouble now than they were when they were assessed a few years ago is thanks to thousands of volunteers who count birds, do surveys and send their data to organisations such as the RSPB, BTO and WWT. Birds are probably among the best monitored groups of wildlife on the planet, and especially so in the UK.

"Knowing about the problems is the first step. Then we have to prioritise our work to help those birds in greatest need. If there is research to do to find out what the problem is, and how to tackle it, we’ll do that, then once we know what needs to be done to help, we’ll get on with it, whether it’s land management, species recovery projects or lobbying government.”

A juvenile swift on a wooden wall

The species that worry us most

“There are now 70 species on the Red list,” says Andrew, “and there are some groups of birds that are showing cause for concern.”

Swifts and house martins join other migrant birds that spend the winter in sub-Saharan Africa on the Red list, plus others have moved from Green to Amber.

We spoke to Guy Anderson, the RSPB's UK Migrants Recovery Programme Manager, about possible reasons why. “As well as swifts and house martins moving to the Red list, common whitethroats and sedge warblers are now Amber-listed,” he says. “They join other insect-eating summer migrants that have been Red-listed for some time – the cuckoo, nightingale, whinchat, spotted flycatcher, yellow wagtail and others. There is now growing evidence that at least the cuckoo may struggle to find enough suitable insect food in the UK. Understanding how best to restore entire landscapes to provide the food and nesting habitats for all these much-loved summer migrant birds, and many other species, is a high priority. Our summers just wouldn't be the same without a “cuck-oo” or the scream of a swift.”

 

Other groups of birds are declining too

There has been no improvement in the status of farmland or upland birds, with more species, including the greenfinch, ptarmigan and Montagu’s harrier, moving to the Red list, the first two species jumping straight from Green, owing to large declines in numbers.

“We are also concerned about the status of our wintering waterbirds," says Andrew. "Bewick's swan, goldeneye, smew and dunlin have joined the Red list, while the red-breasted merganser moves from Green to Amber. Threats include illegal hunting outside the UK, the ingestion of lead ammunition and the impacts of climate change. In addition, many of these wintering waterbird populations have been affected by ‘short-stopping’, whereby they have shifted their wintering grounds north-eastwards in response to milder winter temperatures.”

More of the UK's birds are Globally Threatened now too, with the kittiwake and Leach's storm-petrel being added to seven others, including the puffin.

 

 

House martin Delichon urbica, adult collecting mud, Kildonan, Isle of Arran

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.

Andrew says, “We're really pleased that, thanks to extensive conservation action, the white-tailed eagle has moved from the Red to the Amber list. The song thrush, redwing, pied flycatcher, black redstart and grey wagtail have all been downgraded to Amber too, owing to less severe declines, but many of these remain close to the Red list threshold.”

We spoke to David Sexton, the RSPB's Mull Officer, about white-tailed eagles. He said: “For me, white-tailed eagles represent freedom, wildness and now success. They have given me so much over the decades – some of my best ever moments in life have stemmed from my work with them. That’s why I’m also there for them and will defend them when the going gets tough. They are now doing well in Scotland, after a long struggle, and there are over 150 pairs. To see them move from Red to Amber is just the best feeling. These magnificent birds are still at risk and I will never stop fighting for them, however successful they become.”

Andrew added: “Thanks to our supporters, 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.”

White tailed sea eagle

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

“We use the Red list to identify which species need help immediately and to take action,” says Andrew. “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 70 species. In some cases we have to just keep a watch on a species until we have more resource to take action.”

The RSPB can't do it alone, either. We work with many partners in the UK and around the world to improve the fortunes of birds and other wildlife, and everyone can play their part.

“The first step is considering what to do in your own outdoor spaces to create better habitats for wildlife,” says Andrew. “Those who have a garden could consider wildlife-friendly gardening - you could help by putting up a swift or house martin nestbox, creating a pond or planting pollen-rich flowers.”

“Most of the data we use is 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.”

Close up of a swift

Take part in Big Garden Birdwatch

Greenfinch, Carduelis chloris, male perched on blossom

Help us to find out how our garden birds are faring by counting the birds that land in your garden or local park for an hour at the end of January. What will you see?