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Agricultural Practices and Farmland Birds

The latest information regarding the populations of avian species in the UK was published 18 May. This data demonstrates how the different species of wild birds are faring and provides key biodiversity indicators for the government.

The information has been collated almost exclusively by volunteers via a number of bird monitoring schemes including the Breeding Bird Survey, the Waterways Breeding Bird Survey and the Wetland Bird Survey. The composite figures are produced jointly by the Royal Society for the protection of Birds and the British Trust for Ornithology.

Farmland Birds in Decline

The latest statistics suggest that whilst the populations of many species have remained stable since 1970, the number of farmland birds have dropped dramatically. Indeed, the number of breeding farmland birds is at half the level it was in 1970 and is continuing to fall.

Why has the number of farmland birds fallen so significantly and what is being done to reverse this unfortunate trend?

The Changing Face of Agriculture

As the human population has grown, so has the demand for food. It has been necessary for the world’s land to produce a greater and greater volume of produce. In addition, British farmers have been facing increasing competition from overseas. To make matters worse, the big retailers have been exerting their power to buy at cheaper prices and have been placing ridiculous demands on farmers to supply produce of a certain size and shape. All of this has meant that the prices for produce have been falling in real terms whilst costs have been rising. In order to grow more crops and to remain profitable, land owners have been forced to farm more intensively.

Intensive Farming

Intensive farming means larger fields and therefore the loss of field margins including hedgerows which are vital for the wild birds. Crops are planted closer to the margins of the fields to extract the highest possible yields which has seen further field margins disappear. Those which remain have been impacted by the fertilisers and pesticides applied to the crops as the crops are planted right up to the boundaries of the fields. The variety of crops on each farm has been reduced to minimise costs.


Intensive farming, the construction of roads and an increase in house building has led to the loss of woodland and other natural features which contribute to the diversity of the landscape. Research has shown that it is the diversity of crops and the landscape which most influences the prevalence of wild birds. But establishing new woodland and changing the layout of farms takes time. On the other hand, the reinstatement of field margins and changes to crops can be achieved relatively quickly and so these aspects of agricultural practice are being targeted in measures to improve biodiversity.

Compensation Schemes

Farmers are able to claim payments if they establish field margins and other habitats which meet the government’s Biodiversity Action Plan’s guidelines. In other words, farmers are being paid to promote wildlife by way of compensation for the reduction in yield.

Hopefully the establishment of new habitats will enable the populations of farmland birds to stabilise and then grow. The next time you are walking or driving in the countryside, take a closer look at the agricultural land around you. You may see significant changes taking place.


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