Concern as numbers of farm birds in steep decline

SUFFOLK: Farmland bird populations are in worrying decline across the East of England and the rest of the UK, Government figures have shown.

Bird numbers have fallen to their lowest level in 40 years, according to figures released by Defra covering 19 bird species which rely on farmland.

Among the species suffering the steepest decline is the lapwing – known to some as the “farmer’s friend” – numbers of which dropped 12 per cent last year.

Meanwhile, grey partridge populations are down by almost a quarter.

Significant declines were also recorded among kestrels, skylarks, starlings and greenfinches.

The overall farmland bird index for England fell 5pc to less than half its 1966 starting value. But some species increased between 2008 and 2009, including the goldfinch, jackdaw and turtle dove.

The east is regarded one of the most important regions in the UK for farming and food production, and an area which supports nationally important farmland bird populations.

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Since September 2007, the RSPB in the east has secured more than 50,000 hectares of land by way of Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) – a subsidy package for farmers designed to boost individual threatened farmland bird species as part of a regional Environmental Stewardship scheme.

The scheme has so far achieved success for birds and other farm wildlife but currently covers just 1pc of the region’s farmland and could be threatened by proposed Government budget cuts.

While suggesting a cold winter as cause for declining numbers, the RSPB lamented the abolition of compulsorily “set-aside” countryside land, not used for any agricultural purpose.

Simon Tonkin, farmland observation officer for the eastern region, said: “A hard winter hasn’t helped, but we know that this is a long-term decline and nothing new.

“These birds rely on farming for safe nesting sites but not all is lost.

“The RSPB wants to work with farmers. They can ultimately make the difference and the stewardship scheme can help – but we don’t want it to be too onerous for them, and the funds need to be there for them. We remain positive.”

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