Bird indicators

The latest updates of the UK and England bird indicators based on population trends of wild birds, were published on 23 November 2017. These indicators are part of the government’s suite of biodiversity indicators and show how the fortunes of birds of farmland, woodland, waterways and wetlands, and marine and coastal areas have fared between 1970 and 2016.

The indicators are based almost entirely on data collected by volunteers contributing to national bird monitoring schemes such as the BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey and the BTO/RSPB/JNCC Wetland Bird Survey, these indicators are calculated annually for Defra by BTO and RSPB. Changes are assessed using smoothed versions of the indicators over the long-term (usually since 1970) or the short-term (in this update 2010-2015). The bird indicators are part of the government’s suite of biodiversity indicators and show how the fortunes of birds associated with different landscapes have fared.

The full wild bird indicators document for the UK is available from Defra, along with the full indicator document for England.

Changes in Abundance of Breeding Birds in UK 1970-2016

Figure 1. Changes in the abundance of breeding birds of woodland, farmland, water and wetlands and all-species in the UK

Source: BTO, Defra, JNCC, RSPB.

Key messages for the UK

  • In 2016, the breeding farmland bird index in the UK fell again and has declined by 56% since 1970.Although the pattern of the long-term decline has been apparent for many years and the rate of decline is not as steep as during the 1970s and 1980s, the short-term decline of 9% since 2010 shows that farmland birds, and especially farmland specialists, are still in trouble.
  • The red-listed Turtle Dove continues to show the steepest decline, by a further 70% in just the last five years, and there are also continuing strong short-term declines in Grey Partridge, Kestrel, Lapwing as well as Greenfinch. However, short-term trends for previously-declined species such as Tree Sparrow, Skylark, Linnet, Starling  and Yellow Wagtail show improvement, and are stable or even increasing.
  • In 2016, the breeding woodland bird index fell and shows a long-term decline of 23%. However the short-term trend shows no significant change since 2010, for either woodland specialists or woodland generalists.
  • Since 2010, resident woodland species such as Wren and Goldcrest, partial migrants such as Blackcap and Chiffchaff and even some long-distance migrants such as Spotted Flycatcher and Pied Flycatcher have shown increases. But over the same period, species such as Marsh Tit, Coal Tit and Garden Warbler have shown marked declines. Many of these short-term patterns differ from the long-term pattern of marked declines in most long-distance migrants and increasing numbers of many widespread resident woodland species.
  • In 2016, the breeding water and wetland bird index also fell and stands 8% lower than its 1975 level. There has been no significant change in the short-term trend between 2010 and 2015. Over the long-term, species associated with reed-beds and slow-flowing or standing water bodies have fared better than species associated with fast-flowing water or with wet grasslands (particularly waders).
  • Among breeding waterways and wetland species, there have been strong increases in Little Egret, Cetti’s Warbler, Goosander, Grey Wagtail and Teal since 2010 whereas Sedge Warbler and Coot show the strongest recent declines.

Changes in Abundance of Breeding Seabirds in the UK 1986 to 2015

Figure 2. Changes in the abundance of breeding seabirds in the UK 1986 to 2015

Source: BTO, Defra, JNCC, RSPB.

  • The breeding seabird index has not been updated this year, due to the need for investment in initiatives such as a new Seabird Census. In the UK, the seabird index has declined by 20% since 1986 and by 6% since 2010. Within the suite of seabirds included, this has been driven by long-term increases in species such as Guillemot, Razorbill and Arctic Tern and long-term declines in species such as Kittiwake, Shag, Common Tern and especially Arctic Skua.

Changes in Abundance of Wintering Waterbirds in the UK since 1975

Figure 3. Changes in the abundance of Wintering Waterbirds in the UK since 1975

Source: BTO, Defra, JNCC, RSPB.

  • In the winter of 2015-16 the wintering waterbird index in the UK was 87% higher than its 1975-76 level. The index peaked in the late 1990s, and has declined since, by 8% since 2010. Patterns for waders and for wildfowl (ducks, geese and swans) are largely similar.

  • While some wintering waterbird populations have increased markedly over this period (e.g. the still relatively uncommon Avocet and Black-tailed Godwit as well as Greylag Goose and the Svalbard Light-bellied Brent Goose populations), species such as Ringed Plover, Dunlin, Bewick’s Swan, European White-fronted Goose, Scaup and Pochard show marked declines.