Europe has 421 million fewer birds now than 30 years ago because of the rapid expansion of agriculture and a lack of suitable habitats, a new study has claimed.

The study, by the University of Exeter, found that about 90% of the losses were from the 36 most common species, including house sparrows, skylarks, grey partridges and starlings.

Researchers linked the decline in bird populations to modern farming methods, deterioration of the quality of the environment and habitat fragmentation.

They suggested that greater conservation funding and effort should be directed to wider scale environmental improvement programmes.

And new agri-environment schemes, informed by lessons learned from past schemes, should aim to deliver “real outcomes for declining bird species whether they are rare or common”.

Lead study author Dr Richard Inger said: “It is very worrying that the most common species of bird are declining rapidly because it is this group of birds that people benefit from the most.

“It is becoming increasingly clear that interaction with the natural world and wildlife is central to human wellbeing and significant loss of common birds could be quite detrimental to human society.”

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However, not all common species are declining. Numbers of great tits, robins, blue tits and blackbirds were all shown to be increasing.

Populations of rarer species, including marsh harriers, ravens, buzzards and stone curlews have also shown increases in recent years. This is likely to be the result of direct conservation action and legal protection in Europe.

Dr Richard Gregory, the RSPB’s head of species monitoring and research, said: “The conservation and legal protection of all birds and their habitats in tandem are essential to reverse declines.

“This is a warning from birds throughout Europe. It is clear that the way we are managing the environment is unsustainable for many of our most familiar species.”

For the study, scientists analysed data about 144 species of European bird from many thousands of individual surveys in 25 different countries.

Thousands of skilled volunteer fieldworkers who count birds according to high scientific standards and contributed their data to the national monitoring schemes.


Last month, farm minister George Eustice told Farmers Weekly that under the New Environmental Land Management Scheme (Nelms) farmers will be paid under Pillar 2 of CAP (rural development) to introduce measures to reverse the decline in birds .