Letter: The Birds of Great Britain have flown

Sir: Whatever may be the loss to the nation occasioned by the break-up of the Godman Collection of watercolours for John Gould's The Birds of Great Britain (Letters, 8 October), it is as nothing compared to the loss of the birds themselves.

Studies by members of the British Trust for Ornithology and other birdwatchers have documented huge declines in both the numbers and geographical distribution of many species. For example, between 1969 and 1991, populations of tree sparrow, corn bunting, grey partridge and turtle dove declined by more than 70 per cent, those of reed bunting, linnet and skylark by more than 50 per cent.

What is particularly striking is that the species chiefly affected are not those normally regarded as rare or endangered: some of these have declined, it is true, but others have increased. Nor are they species associated with 'special' habitats such as marshes or coasts. Rather, they are what should be the common and familiar birds of the farmland that makes up the majority of our countryside: almost all farmland bird species have declined during the last 20 years. We estimate, for example, that Great Britain lost approximately 3 million skylarks in that time.

If the loss of the Godman Collection demonstrates that we have the wrong priorities in respect of our artistic heritage, the loss of so many familiar birds surely demonstrates that the same is true for our heritage of wildlife.

Yours faithfully,



British Trust for Ornithology

Thetford, Norfolk

11 October

(Photograph omitted)