Robins revel in warmer winters

Populations of the festive favourite soar, but not so for its fellow red-breasts

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The Independent Online

The robin, Britain's favourite bird, is on song this Christmas. New figures show the feathered friend of gardeners up and down the country is enjoying a resurgence.

Population numbers for the robin, the star of festive greetings since Victorian cardmakers capitalised on the link between scarlet tunic-clad postmen and the red-breasted bird, have increased by 49 per cent since 1970, when figures were first logged.

However, its success has turned the spotlight on the plight of Britain's other red-breasted birds, which are disappearing at perilous rates. Fellow wintry species including the linnet, bullfinch and lesser redpoll are seeing declines of 56, 47 and 88 per cent respectively, according the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO).

Milder winters are believed to be one of the main reasons why the estimated 5.5 million breeding pairs of robins are flourishing. The RSPB's Grahame Madge said warm weather and the bird's capacity to take advantage of earlier springs mean it is doing incredibly well.

"Robins have been knocked back by hard winters, but they have the potential to bounce back very quickly; they are resilient. Compared to 40 years ago, they are doing incredibly well and will remain a feature of Christmas for a long time to come," he said. "It seems the other red-breasted birds have suffered from a lack of food availability and a decline in their habitat."

Experts say the extent of the decline in linnets, bullfinches and lesser redpolls has slowed in the past 10 years but two of the species, linnets and lesser redpolls, remain on the RSPB and BTO's red list, meaning they are a conservation priority.

The fellow red-breasts are found in gardens, farmland and woodland, and their decline can in part be explained by deterioration of their habitat as a result of modern farming, the decline in woodland management and agricultural land-use change, according to conservationists.

The BTO and RSPB said conditions could be improved if farmers adopt the Government's agri-environment schemes, which fund green farming methods such as creating wildlife habitats. The BTO's Paul Stancliffe said the situation "highlights the need for continued monitoring" of the species.

Red alert

There are around 25,000 pairs of lesser redpolls in the UK (down 88 per cent since 1970), 535,000 pairs of linnets (56 per cent down) and 158,000 pairs of bullfinches (47 per cent down). The males of all three display red breasts similar to the robin, although the female robin also boasts scarlet plumage.

Bullfinches, named for their large frame, live in woodlands, orchards and hedgerows, and the loss of numbers is thought to be partly down to reduced nesting and feeding habitats. Linnets are tiny finches, favouring farmland and thought to be in decline as a result of modern farming methods that deplete seeds. The lesser redpolls is predominantly a woodland bird and likes to hang upside down in trees to feed. The loss of woodland is said to have played a part in their decline.

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