After years of decline, the sparrow wins protection

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The Independent Online

The house sparrow, Britain's most mysteriously declining bird and the subject of The Independent's long-running campaign to save it, is at last to be given full legal protection by the Government.

Ministers are to remove the anomaly by which Passer domesticus isclassifiedas a pest, and may freely be killed.

The house sparrow, Britain's most mysteriously declining bird and the subject of The Independent's long-running campaign to save it, is at last to be given full legal protection by the Government.

Ministers are to remove the anomaly by which Passer domesticus isclassifiedas a pest, and may freely be killed.

Although it has more than halved in numbers nationally in recent decades, and virtually disappeared from the centres of London and other major cities, the house sparrow can still be legally shot or trapped by anyone who considers it is doing damage to their property.

It is one of 13 species listed on what is known as the "general licence" to kill or take certain birds at any time, for the purpose of preventing damage to crops or the spread of disease. That was brought in to enable pest species to be freely controlled in Britain without resort to an individual licence on each occasion, after the 1979 EU Birds Directive made the killing of any wild bird an offence throughout Europe.

But now the sparrow is to be taken off the general licence, and from 1 January 2005, to kill one will be a crime. The same is to apply to the starling whose numbers have also suffered a startling plunge. Two years ago both species were added to the Red List of birds of conservation concern.

A Government research contract carried out by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) found the shooting of sparrows and starlings was playing a minimal part in the fall in their numbers. But after a review of the general licence the Government has decided to act.

"I have been keen for some time to halt the dramatic decline of the house sparrow, particularly in the south and south-east of England," Ben Bradshaw, the Minister for Nature Conservation, said. "The consultation process of the review of the general list has just been completed, and I think the time is now right to put work in hand to restore the dwindling populations of the house sparrow and the starlings. It is my view that both these birds should be removed from the general list to afford them greater protection."

The move was welcomed by conservationists yesterday. "It's excellent news," Mark Avery, the RSPB's Director of Conservation, said. "We don't think that shooting sparrows is the reason for their decline but we applaud the minister for taking this step. It's long overdue and it recognises changing times.

"Many people grew up thinking that house sparrows and starlings were some of the commonest birds around, but their numbers have plummeted, so it's only right that we should do everything that we can to help them."

"We are delighted," said Mike Toms of the BTO. "This sends a very positive message that the Department of the Environment is fully behind efforts to reverse the decline of these two species."

The house sparrow is estimated to have fallenfrom more than 12 million pairs to around six million pairs. In London the situation is worse, with a fall of 66 per cent between 1994 and 2003.

The house sparrow's plight was first highlighted by a campaign in The Independent in 2000 with the offer of a £5,000 prize for the first peer-reviewed scientific paper establishing (to the satisfaction of our referees) the reason for the bird's decline. The prize remains unclaimed but research is intensifying into what remains a genuine mystery.

* The birds that are currently on the general licence are listed as: carrion crow, rook, jay, jackdaw and magpie; feral pigeon, wood pigeon and collared dove; herring gull, lesser black-backed gull and greater black-backed gull.

Theories for the fall in numbers

*Disappearance of small insects used to feed very young chicks. No proof yet, but this is the birds' most vulnerable point

*Introduction of lead-free petrol, which may have chemicals that harm insects. Again no proof, but the introduction of lead-free correlates closely with the sparrows' steep decline

*Break-up of sparrow colonies when they fall below a certain point - a sort of collective suicide. A trait found in social animals, known as the Allee effect

*Tidier gardens and houses. Thought to have made a real contribution

*Predation by cats - not thought of as significant

*Predation by magpies and sparrowhawks. Again, not thought sufficient to explain decline

*Disease from pollution or some bird foods such as peanuts. Unlikely

*Emissions from mobile phone masts. Also considered unlikely

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