Understanding change through birds


The past few decades has seen some dramatic changes in bird populations in the UK, of which the best known are the steep declines in farmland birds such as skylark, grey partridge and lapwings. Willow tits, once common in woodlands, and spotted flycatchers which nest in our gardens during the summer but migrates south of the Sahara every winter, have both declined by more than 80% in just 15 years.BTO Director Andy Clements (right) and JNCC Managing Director Marcus Yeo (centre) sign the partnership agreement. © JNCC


In contrast, species such as little egret and Cetti’s warbler have recently shown dramatic increases and the status of some farmland species such as reed bunting and tree sparrow appears to be improving. Long-term monitoring has revealed these changes, and will now help measure the success of conservation measures aimed at improving conditions for wildlife.


The British Trust for Ornithology and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee joined forces in February 2010 to sign up to a new shared programme of bird and environmental monitoring. For the next six years it will provide key measures for the status of biodiversity and the effect of conservation actions, and the search for evidence of the human and environmental factors, such as land management and climate change, which are driving the changes in bird numbers.


One application will be to help with the design of policy responses by supplying data for the predicting the response of birds to different options. At a more local level the programme will provide information on the health of the many internationally important wetlands on our coasts by looking at the bird populations using them. This is a vital evidence base for management by English, Scottish and Welsh agencies


The programme builds on long term results from previous JNCC and British Trust for Ornithology monitoring programmes which supply the bird indicators for the English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish biodiversity strategies, as well as for UK and European indicators.


The key to the success of the programme is the committed volunteer network co-ordinated by the British Trust for Ornithology. The volunteers dedicate huge amounts of their free time to rigorous monitoring methods that require skill and accuracy. They make it possible to co-ordinate sampling at thousands of locations at critical times of the year, something no professional mechanism could achieve, and the value of their effort, estimated at £49million over the six years is outstanding. The programme uses techniques for monitoring birds that have become international examples of best practice with the methods for breeding land birds widely copied across Europe.


Link resources

UK Biodiversity Indicators (wild birds)

Breeding Birds in the Wider Countryside




Lawrence Way

Head of Surveillance

Tel: +44(0) 1733 866860