Ministers pledge £1bn to save farmland birds

The Government is committed to reversing the long-term decline in populations
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A formal commitment to reverse the headlong decline in Britain's farmland birds has been made by the Government.

A formal commitment to reverse the headlong decline in Britain's farmland birds has been made by the Government.

It applies to the plunging populations of skylarks, lapwings, partridges, corn buntings, turtle doves and several other species whose numbers have been decimated by intensive farming over the past thirty years.

By 2020, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) is now officially pledging, their falling numbers will not only be stabilised, but actually sent back up. The specific promise, which represents an enormous task, is one of the most ambitious conservation commitments any British government has ever given.

It is contained in a little-noticed section of the Treasury document setting out the objectives and aims for the money to be made available by last month's Comprehensive Spending Review. Performance Target 2 for Maff is stated as: "To reverse the long-term decline in the number of farmland birds by 2020, as measured annually against underlying trends." Officials confirmed at the weekend that "reverse" meant precisely what it said.

The commitment is so big it might be seen as a hostage to fortune, but ministers are not counting on spreading around a lot of birdseed. They are relying on the huge increases in funds for agri-environment schemes to restore farmland habitats - more than £1bn over seven years - which Nick Brown, the Minister for Agriculture, announced in February.

The main one, the Countryside Stewardship Scheme, will see its current annual budget of £35m increase every year by more than £15m, until in 2007 it reaches £126m. That will imply a correspondingly large increase in the number of farmers who agree to run their farms in environmentally friendly ways, and thus restore some of the habitats whose loss has been so disastrous for bird life. There are already 10,500 farmers signed up with the scheme.

Farmland birds have been especially hit by the effects of weedkillers and pesticides on plant and insect food, by the loss of mixed farming, where arable and pasture land sit side by side, and by changes in crop growing regimes, especially the introduction of winter wheat and barley. These are planted in late summer, meaning the stubble fields which used to support the birds through the winter disappear, while in spring the height of the advanced crop makes nesting difficult.

The resultant declines have been quite remarkable. Between 1970 and 1998 they include: tree sparrow, 87 per cent; corn bunting, 85 per cent; grey partridge, 82 per cent; turtle dove, 77 per cent; house sparrow, 58 per cent; song thrush, 55 per cent; skylark, lapwing and reed bunting, 52 per cent. Only the linnet has halted its decline, and is now down by 38 per cent - as we explain below.

Elliot Morley, the Countryside minister, said he thought it was possible, with the new funds available, to aim at not just halting, but reversing the declines in the medium term. "I'm in no doubt about the scale of this task, but I believe it is realistic to aim to do this by 2020," he said.