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Protecting our farmland birds in Kent

PUBLISHED: 16:16 20 June 2011 | UPDATED: 19:34 20 February 2013

Protecting our farmland birds in Kent

Protecting our farmland birds in Kent

Fewer songbirds and farmland birds may well be a symptom of a changing countryside, but is research missing the main culprits?

Protecting our farmland birds in Kent


Fewer songbirds and farmland birds may well be a symptom of a changing countryside, but is research missing the main culprits?



Statistics concerning birdlife in the British countryside make alarming reading. Take a look at the list of songbirds in decline since 1975. All of the species mentioned are familiar to Kent birdwatchers.


The tree sparrow and lesser redpole are increasingly rare in the county and in all their traditional habitats. The bullfinch, skylark and song thrush are more abundant, but still in nothing like the numbers we took for granted a generation ago.


Kent has always been a favourite stop off and indeed breeding ground for migrating birds, with the countys abundance of coastal wetland, and is one of the last strongholds in England for the beleaguered nightingale.


Numbers of farmland birds such as the grey partridge relatively familiar in north and east Kent and Romney Marsh are also at their lowest since records began 40 years ago, with a fall of five per cent just over the last year, according to the Governments Farmland Bird Index.


It is easy to blame farming intensification for the decline in farmland bird numbers, but another set of statistics suggests we need to look beyond just habitat for an explanation.


We have more broadleaved trees than half a century ago, and our hedgerows are increasing year-on-year, reversing previous declines. We live in a managed environment and have done so for thousands of years. The past century has indeed seen developments which are hostile to wild habitats, but stewardship schemes and industry-lead initiatives such as the Campaign for the Farmed Environment have improved conditions for wildlife.


The contribution of predators to the decline in bird numbers is yet to be adequately researched, and a small charity called Songbird Survival is seeking to put this right. Policy Director Keith McDougall says: Peer reviewed research projects unequivocally demonstrate the need for the conservation establishment to find ways to integrate predator control as part of a broad spectrum of measures to help songbirds, alongside well proven habitat protection and enhancement.


What is clear is that despite habitat protection measures, songbirds and farmland birds are not recovering. Some are close to extinction. Something is going wrong, says McDougall, the schemes are not delivering.


He advocates that we take a serious look at the sheer volume of excess predators that traditional land managers know all about but which desk-bound conservation experts tend wilfully to ignore.


Habitat conservation is invaluable, and easy to embrace. Predator control is not so palatable, particularly to those whose lives are divorced from the countryside. Anecdotally, it seems likely that crows and magpies, for example, bear responsibility for the decline of other species. We should, therefore, not ignore this when researching the cause of farmland bird population decline.


Raptors such as sparrowhawks are also linked to the decline in farmland birds and songbirds, but we should also open our eyes to the role of mammals such as squirrels, foxes and badgers. In areas of high grey squirrel density, nesting birds can really struggle to breed successfully.


If we are to reverse the decline in bird species which are such a valuable part of the Kent countryside, we need to make a thorough, rather than selective, examination of the causes.



Songbird population decline in Great Britain since 1975



Lesser redpole 91 per cent


Tree sparrow 89 per cent


Bullfinch 56 per cent


Skylark 51 per cent


Song thrush 48 per cent



Habitat loss? On the contrary



Broadleaved woodland has increased by a third since 1947


Each year 4,400 km of hedgerow is planted


5,700 km of derelict hedgerow has been restored


70 per cent of farms are in schemes which reward wildlife conservation



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