More than a quarter of UK bird species at risk of extinction

Greenfinches, swifts, housemartins and Berwick’s swans added to ‘red list’ after new analysis

Emily Atkinson
Wednesday 01 December 2021 09:02 GMT
<p>Greenfinches have been added to the UK’s red list for birds</p>

Greenfinches have been added to the UK’s red list for birds

More than a quarter of bird species in the UK are now at serious threat, experts have warned, with populations dwindling severely over the past 25 years.

Some 70 of the UK’s 245 assessed birds are “red-listed” - meaning they are of highest conservation concern because of severe declines, numbers well below historical levels or the risk of global extinction, a new assessment shows.

Greenfinches, swifts, house martins and Berwick’s swans are among those that have been added to the most recent Birds of Conservation Concern list produced by the UK’s leading conservation organisations, including the RSPB, the National Trust and BirdLife International.

The species appear on the list either because they are under threat of extinction worldwide or because numbers have fallen significantly in the UK.

The latest update to the UK red list for birds, carried out by a coalition of the UK's leading bird conservation organisations, is longer than it has ever been, with the figure nearly double what it was in the first assessment in 1996.

The assessment looks at 245 species regularly occurring in the UK, Channel Islands and Isle of Man and categorises them as red, amber or green-listed depending on how threatened they are considered to be.

Newly red-listed species include swifts, house martins, the ptarmigan, purple sandpiper, Montagu's harrier and greenfinch, the assessment from groups including the British Trust for Ornithology, RSPB, Wildlife Trusts and National Trust warns.

Overall, the red list has grown by three species since the last assessment in 2015, with 11 more birds red-listed, but six moved to amber and two no longer assessed.

The amber list has grown by seven species while the green list - of those birds least under threat - has shrunk by nine species.

Farmland and upland birds have seen no improvement in their "worrying plight", with more red-listed in the latest assessment, while the status of long-distance migrants to Africa is continuing to decline.

Swifts have moved from the amber list to red in the face of a 58% drop in their populations since 1995 and house martins join them due to a 57% fall since 1969, joining other birds which migrate to sub-Saharan Africa such as cuckoos and nightingales.

Greenfinches have gone from green-listed to the red list following a 62% population crash since 1993 due to a severe outbreak of the disease trichomonosis.

The conservationists said the disease was spread by contaminated food and drinking water, and urged homeowners to clean bird feeders regularly and temporarily stop putting out food if sick birds are seen in order to slow the spread.

The experts also raised concerns over wildfowl and wader populations which spend the winter in the UK, such as Bewick's swans, the goldeneye and dunlin, which have joined the red list, with pressures including illegal hunting abroad, ingesting lead ammunition and climate change.

Leach's storm-petrel and kittiwakes are among the birds on the red list which are threatened with global extinction.

In better news, successful reintroduction projects have helped the white-tailed eagles - which became extinct in the UK as breeding birds more than a century ago - move off the red list onto the amber listing.

The song thrush, pied flycatcher and grey wagtail have been moved from red to amber, though they remain close to the threshold for the most at-risk category, as have the redwing and black redstart.

Colonisation of the UK by new birds - much of it down to human-induced climate change - has seen five new species including the great white egret, cattle egret and black-winged stilt added to the latest review.

The RSPB’s chief executive, Beccy Speight, said the assessment was “more evidence that the UK’s wildlife is in freefall and not enough is being done to reverse declines”.

She warned: “As with our climate this really is the last chance saloon to halt and reverse the destruction of nature.

“We often know what action we need to take to change the situation, but we need to do much more, rapidly and at scale.”

The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust’s director of research, Dr Andrew Hoodless, said more farmland and upland birds were added to the red list.

“We need to better understand the effects of climate change on some species, as well as the impacts of changing habitats and food availability along migration routes and in wintering areas of sub-Saharan African migrants,” he said.

“For many red-listed species, however, improving breeding success in the UK is vital - we can and must make real and immediate improvements to this through better engagement with UK farmers, land managers and gamekeepers to encourage adoption of effective packages of conservation measures.”

The analysis comes after a joint report from from RSPB, BirdLife International and the Czech Society for Ornithology found that around 600 million breeding birds have been lost in the EU and UK since 1980.

According the the report, published on 16 November, a significant proportion of these losses come as a result of massive decreases in the more common and abundant bird species.

The largest drop in population is seen in the house sparrow with 247 million fewer individuals. This represents a loss of 50 per cent since 1980.

The tree sparrow has also lost 30 million birds. The report states that both have been affected in changes in agricultural policy and management. They say that a decline in urban populations may be linked to food shortage, the spread of avian malaria or the effects of air pollution.

This is followed by yellow wagtail with 97, starling with 75, and skylark with 68 million fewer individuals.

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