Latest figures on farmland bird numbers show a marked north-south divide in England, with the south-eastern counties suffering a 21% decline from 1994 to 2006, while the north-west has seen an 8% increase.

Across the whole country, the average drop over the 12-year period has been 7%, though there has been some gradual improvement since an all-time low was reached in 1998.

At that stage, farmland birds were at half the level they had been twenty years previously.

“At the national level farmland birds, such as goldfinch, have recovered from large declines in the 1980s, but this is not true for all farmland species,” says the report from DEFRA.

“Farmland ‘generalists’, such as woodpigeon, have maintained their populations, while farmland ‘specialists’ – those that breed or feed mainly or solely on farmland, such as skylarks – are now at their lowest level, having declined by over 60% since 1970.

“However, some species, such as tree sparrow, are showing signs of recovery in the last ten years.”

Falling numbers

At a regional level the report shows that farmland bird numbers fell 21% in the south-east, 17% in the west-midlands and 10% in the south-west between 1994 and 2006.

But in the north-west and north-east they increased by 8% and 7% respectively.

RSPB chief scientist David Gibbons said the figures showed the government would miss its target of halting wildlife declines by 2010.

“The steep decline of some of our most-familiar farmland and woodland birds is extremely depressing,” he said.

“The most rapidly declining species in south-east England include familiar countryside birds like the grey partridge, turtle dove and corn bunting, whose populations all crashed in the region by more than half.”

However, there is more welcome news from northern England, where some formerly rapidly-declining birds, like the tree sparrow, have approximately doubled in number.

The figures are based on the Breeding Bird Survey conducted by the British Trust for Ornithology and cover 19 species of farmland birds.