Farm subsidies have brought death to millions of songbirds

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INTENSIVE FARMING methods have led to the disappearance of millions of birds over the past 20 years, according to a report in the science magazine Nature. Up to 10 million breeding pairs of 10 species of farmland birds, including the skylark, linnet, yellowhammer and lapwing, have disappeared as the landscape changes to accommodate more and more crops.

A census by the British Trust for Ornithology found that 116 species of farmland birds, one-fifth of all European species, are at risk. It also found that 13 species living exclusively in farmland, such as the skylark and corn bunting, declined by an average of 30 per cent between 1968 and 1995.

Over the past 30 years, traditional mixed farms with small meadows bordered by hedgerows and pockets of marshy land have been removed to create bigger fieldsbetter adapted for heavy machinery. The land has been drained to increase crop capacity, with a single crop planted twice a year leaving no time for the land to lie fallow. This has destroyed the natural habitat of many species such as the linnet, which lives in hedges, the corn bunting, which nests on the ground, and the lapwing, a lover of marshy ground.

Although many conservationists agree organic farming can reverse the decline, the report said that much of the problem was caused by the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which has subsidised production, kept prices artificially high and created massive surpluses.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said: "The CAP subsidies work against wildlife and the environment and farmers need to be encouraged to look after their fields. There are schemes which are currently being tested which will pay them to do that, but the most important factor is urgent reform of the CAP."

The report said it was not yet possible to tell if the schemes that pay farmers to preserve the traditional landscape had encouraged wildlife to return: "There is no magic bullet with which to reverse the declines of a large suite of species. The most general prescription is to reverse the intensification of agriculture."

The report also calls for genetically modified foods to be thoroughly investigated before there is large-scale planting: "Whatever hazard GM crops might be thought to pose to the environment is painted on to a biodiversity landscape that is already severely damaged by the intensification of agriculture."

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said: "We cannot start planting GM crops before we have looked at the impact they might have on wildlife and the environment."

A Tale of Decline 1972-1996

SKYLARK: DOWN 60% from 3.8 million pairs to 1.5 million

YELLOWHAMMER: DOWN 60% from 2.2 million pairs to under 880,000


from 290,000 pairs to 170,000


from 57,000 pairs to 15,000


from 780,000 pairs to 460,000