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Britain’s disappearing songbirds

This article, which is kindly reproduced from ‘The Week’, looks at how the changing face of the countryside, and agriculture, in the UK is having an affect on Britain’s songbirds.

And a nightingale sang in Berkeley Square … So goes the song, but in reality Britain’s once common songbirds are in decline. What is behind the falling numbers of some of our most popular garden visitors?

What’s happening to the nightingale?

According to unreleased figures from a survey by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), the nightingale is declining across southern England and the Midlands. The survey was one of the largest of its kind – more than 1,000 volunteers took part – and early indications suggest that the bird’s numbers have fallen form 20,000 breeding pairs in the Fifties to around 4,000 pairs today.

Why is the nightingale in decline?

Various reasons, according to the BTO’s research officer, Andy Wilson. He believes that habitat loss is partly to blame. The nightingale likes coppiced woodland – a type of forestry management less common these days – and scrubland, the type of land often regarded as of little value for farming, but ripe for building on, or other development. But climate might also be playing a part. The nightingale overwinters in western and central Africa, where recent droughts could have reduced its numbers. And in Britain, a run of cold, wet springs could have reduced breeding.

What about our other songbirds?

Overall, the picture is a gloomy one. Many of our familiar and most popular species have suffered declines in their numbers and their range across the country. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), analysing its own as well as BTO surveys, believes that songbird numbers have fallen by about 30 million in the last 25 years. Skylarks are estimated to have declined by about three quarters – that is, by about 4,600,000. Meanwhile, roughly 4,100,000 blackbirds have been lost, lapwing numbers halved between 1987 and last year, the corn bunting population has been reduced by 75 per cent, and song thrushes are believed to have halved in number. Equally worrying declines have been recorded for yellowhammers and other native species such as the linnet, mistle thrush, reed bunting, willow tit, meadow pipit and the dunnock.

What is causing this?

Most experts agree that the changing face of our countryside, our agriculture, and our shopping habits are to blame. Firstly, the spread of towns, cities and suburbs has simply reduced the amount of rural habitats for numerous young birds. For instance the felling of small copses, a common target for building development, has drastically reduced the number of green woodpeckers. Another perhaps more surprising cause, where songbirds are concerned, is the effect of traffic noise. A Dutch survey found that songbirds such as the golden oriole, the wood warbler and the haw finch were among the most affected - they simply cannot hear their mating calls.

What have farming and shopping got to do with this?

Agriculture in Britain has become increasingly intensive, driven by the perceived need for cheap food, and by European Union subsidies as part of the Common Agricultural Policy. That has led to the intensive use of pesticides which from the Fifties to the Seventies is thought to have had a particularly damaging effect on a number of species. It was this that led the ecologist Rachel Carson to warn of the dangers of a Silent Spring. Equally harmful to many indigenous species, however, has been the simultaneous destruction of hedgerows.

Why did these disappear?

Over the past 30 years, traditional mixed farms with small meadows bordered by hedgerows have been removed to create bigger fields better adapted to have machinery. This process has been most noticeable in the ‘grain basket’ regions of East Anglia, which led the trend in removing hedges and creating bigger fields. According to the Suffolk-based Hedgerow Trust, the post-war changes in British farming have led to the loss of tens of thousands of miles of hedges. Between 1984 and 1990, the net loss of hedgerows was estimated at 21 per cent in England, 25 per cent in Wales and 27 per cent in Scotland.

But surely some birds are flourishing?

The picture is complicated. Some people argue that species such as crows and magpies, whose numbers are increasing nowadays because they are less controlled by gamekeepers, are responsible for the decline in smaller songbirds. And there is evidence that new species of songbirds are becoming established here, in part because of climatic changes. Cetti’s warbler has spread to southern England from the Mediterranean, for instance. And the serin, once only a visitor to our shores, is now breeding here.

What can we do to conserve our songbirds?

If you have a garden, make it songbird friendly, with plants such as brambles where birds can nest away from prying predators, or nesting boxes beyond the reach of a cat. Garden organically, without pesticides. The RSPB or your local Wildlife Trust can offer advice. And buy locally produced organic food.

So what about the nightingale?

Its decline may be halted if Africa’s droughts recede and if more of its preferred habitat here can be conserved or recreated. But it is unlikely to return to Berkeley Square – it was probably only the songwriter’s imagination that put it there in the first place.

Discussion points

1.       The article suggests that a good way to make your garden 'bird-friendly' is not to use pesticides. Many people claim though that because everybody around you uses them, not to use them would mean making your plants particularly vulnerable to insects. What is your opinion?

2.       It's also suggested in the text that people should build nesting boxes for birds high enough not to be within the reach of cats. But should people make nesting boxes at all? Isn't it interfering with nature and its course?

3.       It is really important that some bird species are declining if at the same time other species move into the area?

4.       Do you think that organisations, such as societies for the protection of birds and wild animals, should be government sponsored? If so, why?

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