habitat loss

Little girl watching combine harvester

Nearly half of the world’s bird species are in decline, with a large contributing factor being the loss of their habitat due to land-use change

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Habitats become increasingly fragmented by the building of roads, hedgerow removal and changes in land-use, leading some species to local extinction. 70% of 1,012 threatened bird species in a worldwide study showed that habitat loss was a major risk for their extinction.


Government statistics from 2019 show that 56.3 million people live in urban areas in England, that’s over 80% of the population. Although slightly lower, the proportions are also high in Scotland at 71% (2021) and 63% in Wales (2007).  To accommodate the increase in population, more houses are being built across the UK. Between 2017-2018, 37% of land-use change to residential use was on previously undeveloped land with a further 13% from agricultural space.

These huge spaces are home to hundreds of plant and animal species, where the habitats are being destroyed to make way for urban sprawls. Even the habitats which are not completely destroyed, become increasingly fragmented or degraded as important features like hedgerows and trees are damaged or removed. You can also read more about hedgerows and the regulations in our wildlife law advice pages.

Urbanisation is especially difficult for migratory birds, who will travel a long way to reach their destination, only to find habitats have disappeared or become increasingly degraded. This can lead to population decline, as more birds attempt to share less resources if they are unable to find other suitable areas to over-winter or breed. House martins and swifts that often breed in the eaves of houses are more frequently finding a lack of suitable places to nest (due to changes to housing design and removal of older structures).

Discover our PromisesHedgerow looking on to fields

    Land use change

    Habitats can also be lost, fragmented, or degraded due to changes in agriculture and the way we manage our landscapes.  Semi-natural habitats are habitats that have been created by humans and are managed to maintain them in a particular state e.g. heathland; unimproved grassland maintained by grazing.

    A lot of heathland habitat has been broken up by agricultural land, towns, and villages. This is detrimental to the at-risk species that live there, such as Dartford warblers who are very site-loyal. Likewise, unimproved grasslands have been disappearing, decreasing by 47% in 50 years in England. These same grasslands are home to many wildflowers, pollinators, and the feeding grounds of songbirds.  

    The changes to man-made habitat such as agricultural fields also have massive effects on populations of farmland birds. The phasing out of over-winter stubble has left many birds without suitable winter-feeding habitats. Reintroduction of these over-winter stubbles through agri-environmental schemes has been found to be beneficial to a range of declining species, such as skylarks, yellowhammer, cirl bunting, and corn buntings. Changes in farming are discussed more thoroughly on our agricultural intensification page.  

    Field of sunflowers

    What can you do to help?

    Provide birds a safe place to live in your own garden or in your local area. Follow some of our tips below to get started

    • Put up nest boxes in your garden; there are different types for all different species, check out our pages on that here
    • Plant trees and hedges in your garden if you have space to provide food and shelter for bird species
    • Petition for swift bricks to be made mandatory at new builds or in extensions in your local area. Brighton and Hove council have passed planning laws for their local area already.
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    Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) (2021) Statistical Digest of Rural England, February 2021.

    Dolman, P.M., Sutherland, W.J. (1995) The response of bird populations to habitat loss. Ibis. 137(S1): S38-S46

    Donald, P.F., Buckingham, D.L., Moorcroft, D., Muirhead, L.B., Evans, A.B., Kirby, W.B. (2001) Habitat use and diet of skylarks Alauda arvensis wintering on lowland farmland in southern Britain. Journal of Applied Ecology. 38: 536-547.

    Field R.H., Morris A.J., Grice P.V. & Cooke A. (2011) Winter use of seed-bearing crops by birds within the English Environmental Stewardship Scheme. Ibis. 153:14-26.

    Gartner, A., Gibbon, R., Riley, N. (2007) A profile of rural health in Wales. Wales centre for health.

    Gillings S., Newson S.E., Noble D.G. & Vickery J.A. (2005) Winter availability of cereal stubbles attracts farmland birds and positively influences breeding population trends. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 272, 733-739.

    Jiguet, F., Williamson, T. (2013) Habitat-dependent population recovery in the Dartford Warbler Sylvia undata following a severe winter episode. Bird Study. 60(3): 391-398

    Lees, A.C., Haskell, L., Allinson, T., Bezeng, S.B., Burfield, I.J., Renjifo, L.M., Rosenberg, K.V., Viswanathan, A., Butchart, S.H.M. (2022) State of the World's Birds. Annual Review of Environment and Resources. 47: https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-environ-112420-014642  

    Ministry of housing, communities and local government. (2019) Land Use Change Statistics in England: 2017-18, May 2019.

    National Records of Scotland (2021) Mid-2020 Small Area Population Estimates, Scotland. NR Scotland National Statistics.

    Newton, I. (2004) The recent declines of farmland bird populations in Britain: an appraisal of causal factors and conservation actions. Ibis. 146:579-600.

    Owens, I.P.F., Bennett, P.M. (2000) Ecological basis of extinction risk in birds: Habitat loss versus human persecution and introduced predators. PNAS. 97(22): 12144-12148

    Peach W., Lovett L., Wotton S. & Jeffs C. (2001) Countryside stewardship delivers cirl buntings (Emberiza cirlus) in Devon, UK. Biological Conservation, 101, 361-373.

    Ridding, L.E., Redhead, J.W., Pywell, R.F. (2015) Fate of semi-natural grassland in England between 1960 and 2013: A test of national conservation policy. Global ecology and Conservation. 4: 516-525.

    Ridding, L.E., Watson, S.C.L., Newton, A.C., Rowland, C.S., Bullock, J.M. (2020) Ongoing, but slowing, habitat loss in a rural landscape over 85 years. Landscape ecology. 35: 257-273.  

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