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Two Hundred Years of Winners and Losers Among Britain's Birds

Abstract from British Birds
29th June 1996

By scouring the old books three distinguished bird enthusiasts have tried to decide which of Britain's breeding birds have done well and which have lost out over the last 200 years. Their report is published in the latest issue of British Birds, the monthly journal for bird watchers.

The results are surprising. The number of species breeding in the United Kingdom has increased by 19% from 194 to 230 from 1800 to 1995. But almost a third of these were through human introductions. Generally the nineteenth century was bad for our birds. They lacked protection and the Human population was expending. This century there seem to be more gains than losses.

The authors are David Gibbons and Mark Avery, of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and Andrew Brown of English Nature. David Gibbons commented

"our results show that special measures should be taken to protect species in steep decline over the whole period rather than, as at present, concentrating solely on the last 25 years."

For birds of prey it is only the most recent period (1970-1995) which shows an increase rather than a decline. With farmland birds the period with the agricultural depression, 1900-1939, is the only one when they were doing well and the most recent period is the worst yet.

((Please note that in the listings below, several species may may have tied for a given place. Population estimates are from the New Atlas of Breeding Birds (BTO) or later data. Species marked "*" were introduced by man.))

They list the worst losers as follows:
1Wryneck - almost extinct in Britain:
This is a small streaked migrant woodpecker which was widespread in southern England and parts of Wales. A migrant it was known as the Cuckoo's mate because it arrived at the same time.
Population estimate: maybe 5 pairs per year.
2White-tailed Eagle - re-introduced and handful breeding:
A massive bird this predator was found all round the Scottish coast, in the Isle of Man and Lake Districts. Much shot by man for trophies - now brought back from Norway. The flying barn door!
Population estimate: about 10 pairs.
2 Corncrake - just hanging on in the Scottish Islands:
A migrant wintering in Central Africa this is a skulking striped relative of the Moorhen. Creaking calls were familiar sound from summer hay fields - now mown too early for breeding.
Population estimate: about 500 males calling
2Red-backed Shrike - extinct in Britain:
Last regular breeding in Brecklands of Norfolk a few years ago. Spectacularly pretty bird which skewers its prey on thorns - the butcher bird. A migrant losing out to modern farming.
Population estimate: one pair - if we are lucky
5Corn Bunting - pockets of breeding birds in several areas:
Boring bird looking like a big female House Sparrow with jangling song but VERY sexy - males sometimes have harem of ten or more females. Modern farming methods seem to exclude it.
Population estimate: possibly as few as 20,000 territories
6Great Bustard - extinct in Britain for more than a century:
Huge turkey-like gamebird became extinct in Britain (Norfolk and Suffolk) about 150 years ago. Needs large areas of open country - nearest now in Hungary, Spain and Portugal.
Population estimate: none since about 1845
6Black-tailed Godwit - was extinct a few now breed:
A large wader breeding on lowland marshes. Used to breed in many East Coast marshes - now drained. Return after 100 years painfully slow and numbers have dropped in the last 25 years.
Population estimate: 30 - 40 pairs
6Great Auk - extinct for 150 years:
This marvellous bird was like a huge Razorbill and flightless. The nearest thing to a penguin in the northern hemisphere. Done to death by sailors here and in Newfoundland.
Population estimate: none in the world since about 1840
9Black Grouse - rapidly disappearing
This big grouse was found in heathland even in the lowlands - Surrey, Kent and Sussex even. Now confined to mountainous areas and still becoming rarer and rarer despite much concern and effort.
Population estimate: probably less than 10,000 females
10Red Kite - once widespread but only wild birds in Wales:
A spectacular fork-tailed bird of prey now doing well now (with re-introductions) but only a fraction of what there once were. Done to death by Human persecution and egg collectors.
Population estimate: over 100 wild pairs and introductions
10Marsh Harrier - doing well but a shadow of former numbers:
A bird of prey which used to nest on many drained marshes in lowland Britain. The young birds are dark chocolate with pale heads and shoulder flashes, males have a lot of grey on them.
Population estimate: just under 100 nests
10Osprey - doing well in Scotland but still fewer than formerly
The return of the Osprey to Scotland after 40 years absence was a triumph for conservation. Its extinction, shot for trophies and its eggs collected, was a shaming episode.
Population estimate: reached 100 nests last year

The birds that have been winners over the last 200 years are:
1Tufted Duck - still increasing:
Now the common black and white (drakes) diving duck of our inland waters they have spread into the country from the Continent. They have benefitted from excavations for gravel and clay.
Population estimate: 7,500 pairs
2Eider - increasing and expanding range:
The big sea-duck breeding all round our Northern coasts. The provider of down for high class duvets from huge colonies in Iceland and elsewhere. Protection has helped them.
Population estimate: over 30,000 pairs
3Fulmar - spreading round the coast:
This stiff-winged patroller of our cliffs looks like a gull but is actually a petrel. Its spectacular expansion and increase can be put down to its habit of feeding on fish offal at trawlers.
Population estimate: 540,000 pairs
4Canada Goose - steady increase through period (*):
These big geese, with black necks, were introduced from North America more than 300 years ago. They are able to colonise any ponds or lakes and have no native competitors. Population estimate: about 75.000 individuals
4Pheasant - encouraged for shooting (*):
These birds have large areas of the countryside run for their benefit and live a very cosseted life - until they get shot. The crop from the British countryside may reach 10,000 tons a year!
Population estimate: over 3,000,000 breeding individuals
4Common Gull - mainly expanded up to 1940:
The common gull in Britain is not this species but the Black-headed - this species is like a smaller Herring Gull. Colonial nester in remote areas mainly in Scotland.
Population estimate: 68,000 pairs
4Woodpigeon - one bird that modern agriculture benefits:
The familiar pigeon - known as Ring Dove or Cushat too - over all sorts of areas from suburbs to remote woodland. Feeds together in flocks and manages to exploit many crops for part of year.
Population estimate: 2,550,000 pairs
8Red-breasted Merganser - has increased over much of Europe:
This is a handsome sawbill duck with superficially black and white plumage. It feeds on fish and nests on the shore and along upland streams. Is persecuted by fishermen in many areas.
Population estimate: 2,150 pairs
8Common Crossbill - has benefitted from conifer planting:
Males are reddish and females yellow or green. Both sexes of this robust finch have crossed beaks to tear open cones to feed on the seeds. Needs conifers and they have increased hugely.
Population estimate: possibly 100,000 pairs after 1990 invasion
10 Wigeon - increased in the period up to 1940:
A very pretty medium-sized dabbling duck with much white showing in the wing in flight - the drakes have a lovely whistling call. First colonised northern Scotland about 150 years ago.
Population estimate: 300 - 500 pairs
10Pochard - most of increase up to 1940:
A large diving duck whose drakes have a striking`chestnut- red head and neck. Breeds on gravel pits and reservoirs and has greatly benefitted from their proliferation. Population estimate: 400 pairs

These results, going back over almost 200 generations of most of the birds, show that our short-term concerns for changes in bird populations should be moderated by the history of the species in Britain longer term.

In a recent interview, Stephen Baillie, of the British Trust for Ornithology, said:

"As responsible conservationists we should seek to restore species which are in steep, long-term decline to their rightful place in Britain's avifauna. Biodiversity is not just about individual species but living natural communities. These results show just how great the changes have been over the last 200 years - and what we have lost and gained. Lets keep the gains and make up the losses."

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