The turtle dove, Britain’s most endangered bird, continues to plummet towards extinction. 

The turtle dove’s 51% decline from 2013 to 2017 is the most drastic of a continuing slump for a quarter of farmland bird species.

However, there are signs of recovery for some birds, which experts attribute to the success of wildlife-friendly agriculture funded by the government.

The reed bunting, corn bunting, goldfinch and stock dove all showed significant short-term increases, with populations boosted by agri-environment practices such as leaving some stubble fields unploughed over winter to provide food for birds.


The report, by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), reveals the catastrophic long-term loss of farmland birds. It reports that 62% of 19 monitored species have declined between 1970 and 2018.

Much of these declines occurred in the 1970s and 80s. The recent picture was brighter: 32% of farmland species showed an increase in population from 2013 to 2017, 42% were stable, and 26% had declined.

Farmland birds declined overall by 6% over five years but the figures are skewed by drastic disappearances such as that of the turtle dove, of which there are barely 1,000 breeding pairs left in the UK, a 98% decline since 1970.

While the turtle dove and grey partridge continue to decline despite targeted conservation work, other schemes to revitalise farmland species are bearing fruit, with populations of skylarks (up 6%), corn buntings (up 12%), reed buntings (up 16%) and linnets (up 9%) all enjoying short-term increases.

Previously rapidly declining birds such as tree sparrows, starlings and lapwings, were now thought stable. The continued decline of the greenfinch (down 46%) was because it had been hit by disease.

While farmland covers three-quarters of the UK, birds living in woodland (13% of land area) are dipping again, according to the data, which covers 130 species of breeding birds.

Some declines are more marked in certain regions, with the willow warbler’s reduction in southern Britain attributed to drier conditions caused by global heating, as well as deer browsing on woodland scrub – a problem also afflicting the nightingale, which requires dense thickets to nest successfully. The willow warbler is faring much better in Scotland.

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