Now you see them, now you don't - the British birds at risk

The RSPB says 40 species will not survive unless they receive special protection. Michael McCarthy reports

Forty British wild bird species need special protection to help them survive, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds says today. They range from the once-familiar house sparrows of Central London to the enigmatic and mournful-sounding black-throated divers of the lochs of the Scottish Flow Country, and are struggling to maintain their previous population levels.

Ten species including such avian icons as the cuckoo and the kestrel – down 61 per cent in the last 25 years – are declining apparently without cause. The RSPB says more research is needed to determine why.

For another 12 species, including the house sparrow, the lapwing and the turtle dove, the reasons are more or less known, and possible solutions to help reverse declines need to be tested. For the remaining 18 species, including the bittern, the red kite and the skylark, populations are in recovery but remain fragile, and require further monitoring to ensure they do not fall again.

Although it has been leading bird protection in Britain for more than a century, the RSPB, now Europe's largest wildlife conservation charity, believes a new strategic approach is necessary, identifying priority bird species in need of urgent conservation work, especially if Government cuts cause current efforts to fall away.

The new approach is set out in a document published today entitled "Safeguarding Species: a Strategy for Species Recovery". Despite a few notable successes in improving the fortunes of the UK's birds, the society says, the need for species conservation is increasing as more are added to the list of those that need urgent attention.

"We work with government, organisations and individuals," said Dr Mark Avery, the RSPB's Conservation Director. "In hard times, we need to prioritise by working with those birds that most need the nation's help. Today we're calling on politicians, business leaders and charities to save these priority species for future generations to enjoy." He added: "Throughout history, birds like the cuckoo, house sparrow, skylark, turtle dove and the swift have been a part of our countryside. Now that more birds are sinking towards oblivion they need us more than ever. We want to ensure that birds have a strong future as well as a strong past."

There are many diverse reasons why Britain's birds are struggling, including changes in farming practice, a lack of woodland management, drainage of wetlands; habitat destruction, climate change, development, and a reduction in the number of insects in urban areas.

The document identifies how each species can be helped. Some will benefit from nature reserves and their management, others from wildlife-friendly farming schemes. For many species site protection measures are vital to protect their habitat, whilst others still suffer from illegal persecution.

Dr Avery said: "The UK recovery of birds like the Dartford warbler, red kite, stone-curlew, cirl bunting and bittern have been based on a three-way partnership of government funding, conservation expertise and landowner involvement; cuts in government funding threaten to hack a leg from the stool, possibly plunging these species into crisis once more."

Species under threat

* Birds whose decline is unexplained:

Common scoter, cuckoo, hawfinch, kestrel, lesser redpoll, slavonian grebe, swift, tree pipit, whinchat and wood warbler.

* Birds whose recovery is on trial:

Corn bunting, curlew, hen harrier, house sparrow, lapwing, lesser-spotted woodpecker, redshank, ring ousel, turtle dove, twite, willow tit and yellow wagtail.

* Birds that are enjoying a fragile recovery: bittern, black grouse, black-necked grebe, black-tailed godwit, black-throated diver, capercaillie, chough, cirl bunting, corncrake, crested tit, Dartford warbler, nightjar, red kite, reed bunting, skylark, stone curlew, white-tailed eagle and woodlark.