Latest figures reveal current state of UK's birds

11 April 2017


More than one quarter of UK birds are in need of urgent conservation effort with curlew, puffin and nightingale joining the growing list of threatened species – Curlew © Andy Hay/RSPBbut there is good news for some, a new report has highlighted.


The state of the UK's birds 2016 (SUKB) report - the one-stop shop for all the latest results from bird surveys and monitoring studies - highlights how more than a quarter of the UK’s regularly-occurring bird species are now what conservationists refer to as ‘Red-listed’4.


Many of these are due to severe recent declines in numbers and/or range in the UK.  And eight2 are considered at risk of global extinction.


Downward trends for upland species continue, with five added to the Red List; giving cause for concern. Europe’s largest and most distinctive wader – the curlew – has been added to the Red List and is joined by dotterel, whinchat, grey wagtail and merlin.  This highlights the fact many of the UK’s upland species are in increasing trouble with the total number of upland birds red-listed now 12.


Hosting up to a quarter of the global breeding population of curlew, the UK could be considered one of the most important countries in the world for breeding curlews. But in recent decades, numbers have almost halved due to habitat loss. With a much smaller population, predators are now having an effect on what was a resilient population.


The curlew is considered ‘near threatened’ globally and with urgent action required to halt their decline, an International Single Species Action Plan has been created.


Dr Daniel Hayhow, RSPB Conservation Scientist, said: “Curlews are instantly recognisable on winter estuaries or summer moors by their striking long, curved beak, long legs and evocative call. They are one of our most charismatic birds and also one of our most important.
“The state of the UKs birds report shows that through land management, new research and existing data, the International Single Species Action Plan aims to understand the key causes of curlew declines across the UK and the Republic of Ireland and take action to reverse this trend.”


Cirl bunting © Andy Hay/RSPB

The report contains good news for some species. Recent surveys are highlighted for golden eagles, cirl buntings, and winter thrushes. Golden eagle numbers have increased by 15% since the previous survey in 2003. There is good news for cirl buntings too, which are now estimated to have over 1,000 breeding pairs. The winter thrushes survey shows how important the UK is for continental migrating birds. 


In addition to these successes, a number of species have moved from the Red list to the Amber or Green lists. Two species, the bittern and nightjar, have moved from Red to Amber thanks to the creation and management of suitable habitat, and an additional 22 species have moved from the Amber to the Green list meaning they are now of the lowest conservation concern. Most notably the red kite, once one of the UK’s most threatened species, is now on the Green list thanks to the efforts of conservationists and landowners. These successes demonstrate that there is cause for hope for other Red-listed species and that targeted conservation action can make a real difference.



James Pearce-Higgins, Director of Science at BTO, said: “The BTO is working with others on a programme of research to understand the causes of curlew decline and guide potential management solutions. This involves analyses of long-term data collected by thousands of volunteers, using novel tracking technology to study the needs of individual birds, and working with local enthusiasts to inform the recovery of local populations.”


Geoff Hilton, Head of Conservation Science at WWT, said: “The call of the curlew is one of the really magical elements of British nature, celebrated in poetry and song.  Now we know that we are losing them; fewer and fewer people are getting to experience their song. But the curlew has one big thing in its favour: it is loved by many, many people. I’ve seen the enthusiasm and determination to turn their fortunes around – from farmers, conservationists and the public – and this convinces me that we can do so.”


Patrick Lindley, NRW’s Senior Terrestrial / Marine Ornithologist, said: “The fourth review of Birds of Conservation Concern (BoCC) assessed 244 species and shows the expanding number of upland birds moving onto the red list. 

“Sadly, curlew is one these species and the State of UK’s Birds Report further highlights the extent of decline, a staggering 64% over 45 years, of this iconic upland breeding wader. 

“The curlew is now considered the most pressing bird conservation priority in the UK and it is only through collaborative working and engagement that there is a chance to reverse this trend so that the evocative call of the curlew can once again be heard across its former range.”


James Williams, Biodiversity Indicators Manager at JNCC, said: “The biodiversity indicators allow the general public to see at a glance how Britain's wildlife is faring without having to digest the complexity of the science behind them.”


Andy Douse, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) senior ornithologist, said: “Scotland’s uplands are particularly important for species such as whinchat, merlin and dotterel in the montane zone.  We need to understand the reasons for these changes and the management measures required to slow or halt declines being witnessed. While some declines may be due to climate change, other pressures affecting birds are probably linked to land use changes, habitat degradation, and predation.  Developing long term, sustainable management measures within the uplands will be crucial in reversing these changes.”


Tim Hill, Natural England’s Chief Scientist, said: “Our ongoing conservation efforts in the English uplands continue to target and provide protection for upland breeding birds. Almost half of our uplands are now protected. The West Pennine Moors, England’s largest SSSI in a decade, was recently notified in part for its impressive assemblage of merlin, curlew, snipe, lapwing and redshank.

‪“We know that when we work together with farmers, with the right management at the right scale we can reverse declines, as we have seen with the fantastic success in recovering cirl buntings. We are working closely with upland land managers to further protect and enhance the wildlife importance of these areas, offering options within our agri-environment schemes which are specifically designed to provide habitats for breeding birds on moorland and grassland. Natural England is dedicated to continuing sustainable conservation of our wonderful upland landscape and safeguarding its characteristic wildlife for generations to come.”



Editor’s notes:

1. The SUKB partnership: SUKB 2016 is produced by a coalition of three NGOs: the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT), together with the UK’s statutory nature conservation bodies: Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, Northern Ireland (DAERA),  Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), Natural England (NE), Natural Resources Wales (NRW), and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH).

2. Eight species considered at risk of global extinction are: Balearic Shearwater, Aquatic Warbler, Common Pochard, Long-tailed Duck, Velvet Scoter, Slavonian Grebe, Puffin, Turtle Dove.

St Helena plover © Eddie Duff
3. Other content in SUKB 2016 includes:
A summary of recent work in UK Overseas Territories on albatross conservation issues, Montserrat Orioles, and St Helena Plovers. There is good news that the population numbers for Montserrat Orioles and St Helena Plovers have increased sufficiently that they have been down-listed from ‘critically endangered’ to ‘vulnerable’ on the global IUCN red-list.

The milestone achievement of 50 years of the International Waterbird Census is celebrated, noting how the results are used in national and international conservation work.

4. Every few years - most recently in 2015 - the UK’s leading bird conservation organisations work together to review the status of birds in the UK, Channel Islands and Isle of Man.  The bird species that breed or overwinter were assessed against a set of objective criteria to be placed on the Green, Amber or Red list – indicating an increasing level of conservation concern.  The review used up-to-date information on the status of birds in the UK and elsewhere in their ranges, drawing on data collated through the UK’s bird monitoring schemes.  The quantitative criteria assessed the historical decline, trends in population and range, population size, localisation and international importance of each species as well as their global and European threat status. 

5. A total of 247 species were considered.  Three of these – the Temminck’s stint, wryneck and serin – no longer breed in the UK and were moved to the list of former breeders.  Wryneck was recorded as breeding in 54 counties in the late 19th century, and it is the first once widespread breeding species to be lost from the UK in nearly 200 years.

6. Birds of Conservation Concern 4 (BoCC4) lists 67 species on the Red list, 96 on the Amber list, and 81 on the Green list. The Red list has grown by 15 since the last review in 2009.  Twenty species have been added, but three3 have moved to Amber and two4  are now no longer assessed as they have ceased breeding in the UK.  For one species, merlin, the change to red list may be a result of methodological changes in the assessment process.  More than a quarter of the species assessed are now Red-listed. 

7. A net increase in the Green list of 14 species is good news, a consequence of the nine species moving to Amber5  or Red6  being outnumbered by 22 species moving from Amber to Green. Nine7  of the moves to Green were due to changes in the assessment process, but 138  were genuine improvements in status. The net effect of these changes is that the Amber list has become squeezed in the middle. 


8. The biodiversity indicators – used to measure the overall state of wildlife in the UK – show the year-to-year fluctuations in bird populations. The new bar charts provided alongside each habitat chart show the percentage of species within that indicator that have increased, decreased or shown no change, so that users can see how different bird species used in each indicator are faring.  More details, and downloadable data for the indicators, are available on the JNCC website.


1 Species moving from the BoCC3 Amber list to the BoCC4 Red list were: pochard, velvet scoter, shag, red-necked grebe, slavonian grebe, ringed plover, dotterel, curlew, woodcock,,puffin, kittiwake, merlin, mistle thrush, nightingale, pied flycatcher, black redstart, whinchat, grey wagtail.

2 Species moving from the BoCC3 Green list to the BoCC4 Red list were: white-fronted goose, long-tailed duck.

3 Species moving from the BoCC3 Red list to the BoCC4 Amber list were: bittern, dunlin, nightjar.

4 Species Red listed in BoCC3 which are now considered as former breeders: Temminck’s stint, wryneck.

5 Species moving from the BoCC3 Green list to the BoCC4 Amber list were: mute swan, curlew sandpiper, sanderling, greenshank, tawny owl, dipper, mealy redpoll.

6 Species moving from the BoCC3 Green list to the BoCC4 Red list were: white-fronted goose, long-tailed duck.

7 Species added to the BoCC4 Green list as a result of methodological changes: sooty shearwater, golden eagle, jack snipe, black tern, little gull, red-billed chough, sand martin, barn swallow, Northern wheatear.

8 Species added to the BoCC4 Green list as genuine improvements in status: tufted duck, red-throated diver, little egret, little grebe, red kite, European golden plover, barn owl, green woodpecker, firecrest, crested tit, bearded tit, woodlark, common whitethroat.