Summer visitors top list of fastest-falling bird populations

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Concern for the fate of Britain's migratory birds has deepened with the disclosure that eight out of the 10 most rapidly declining UK bird species are our summer visitors from Africa.

The alarm among conservationists is now such that the proceeds of the British Birdwatching Fair, the annual birding jamboree which opens at Rutland Water today, will be devoted to migration research for the next three years, with more than £750,000 likely to be raised.

Much of the money raised at the BirdFair, as it is known, will go to fund projects looking at conditions affecting British migrants on their African wintering grounds.

The concern has become acute because the drop in migrants is hugely disproportionate, as they make up less than a quarter of Britain's 200-odd breeding bird species, but represent 80 per cent of the fastest-falling populations.

Ranging from the turtle dove and the nightingale to the cuckoo, the eight migrant species have fallen in numbers by between half and three-quarters merely in the last 15 years.

All are birds which annually make the enormous journey from tropical Africa to breed in Britain. They arrive in the spring and return in the autumn, each time crossing the Sahara desert on their 3,000-mile odysseys. The birds have been cherished for centuries as their arrival marks the coming of spring, but now they appear to be in a headlong decline.

Recent figures, from the annual Breeding Birds Survey carried out by the British Trust for Ornithology, show that between 1995 and 2009, the turtle dove dropped in numbers by 74 per cent, the wood warbler by 63 per cent and the nightingale by 60 per cent.

The whinchat and the yellow wagtail both declined by 55 per cent, the pied flycatcher by 51 per cent, the cuckoo by 48 per cent and the spotted flycatcher by 47 per cent.

"The decline of these birds is so devastatingly fast that it's rapidly being dubbed one of the greatest crises in modern conservation," said Graham Madge of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which founded the BirdFair in partnership with the Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust. "These losses are unsustainable, and if left unchecked will put these species in danger of being wiped out across large parts of the UK."

Since its launch in 1989, the fair has raised well over £2m. Its projects have included providing protection for albatrosses in the southern Ocean and for the rainforests of Ecuador and Indonesia.

"It's deeply troubling that birds that occur within a stone's throw of the BirdFair, such as turtle doves, cuckoos and nightingales, are now in such desperate need of help," said Tim Appleton of the Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust. "These are amazing birds worthy of every ounce of effort we can take to protect them: and we know that many visiting birdwatchers feel the same way."

Migrant decline

Nightingale The range of the nightingale – one of our most distinctive songbirds has shrunk right back and now it is relatively common only in the south-east corner of England.

Turtle dove A generation ago the turtle dove, famed for its purring call, was one of our most familiar farmland birds, but now it has vanished from much of the British countryside.

Cuckoo The cuckoo has vanished from much of England, although are common in Scotland. Five cuckoos fitted this spring with satellite transmitters are all now back in Africa.

Wood warbler The bird has declined so much that it is now largely confined to the Atlantic oakwoods – the woodlands of the West Country, Wales, the Lake District and Scotland.

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