Curlews and other upland birds are in decline

01 Dec 2015 | No. 2015-60

The latest official statistics for Scotland’s terrestrial birds show significant declines for upland birds, such as the Curlew, but more positive trends elsewhere.

The Index of Abundance for Scottish Terrestrial Breeding Birds, published today by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), shows that the long-term trend (1994-2014) for upland birds is a continuing decline, down by 19% since 1994. Birds utilising other habitats have shown more positive changes, however, with woodland birds up by 63%, whilst the trend for farmland birds has shown a 10% increase.

Curlew is one of the upland species that has shown the greatest decline (-49%) and is now considered to be the UK’s highest conservation priority. The factors driving national Curlew declines are thought to include land-use change, forestry, the impact of generalist predators and the interplay between these. Black Grouse have also declined, by 47%, with habitat change and nest predation likely to be important factors. The Dotterel is a wading bird which breeds at high altitude in the Scottish uplands and has also shown alarming declines, falling by 60% between 1994 and 2014.

Among woodland birds, the Great Spotted Woodpecker has shown the greatest increase, up by 603% between 1994 and 2014. Climate change and garden feeding may be helping numbers to increase. Willow Warbler has shown disturbing declines in England but is doing much better in Scotland, up by 56% long-term. Climate change is again a likely factor, along with the presence of abundant suitable habitat. The House Martin, another bird that is struggling south of the border, is doing particularly well north of it, up by 242% since 1994. Drivers of population change for this species are less well understood, and BTO are running a UK-wide survey in 2016 to find out more.

The Farmland Bird Indicator in Scotland shows mixed fortunes. Species such as Goldfinch, Corncrake, Common Whitethroat and Reed Bunting are all doing well but Kestrel (-77%) and Lapwing (-58%) have fared less well, the former showing the greatest decline of any index species since 1994. Agricultural intensification and predation are likely to be the main drivers of Lapwing decline.

Ben Darvill, BTO Scotland, commented: "Voluntary monitoring by hundreds of skilled volunteers allows us to take stock of how Scotland's birds are faring. It alerts us to concerns when they arise and conversely helps us to celebrate when things are going well. However, there is much that we still don't know, such us how Spotted Flycatcher, Whinchat and Wood Warbler are getting on. I'd encourage anyone with an interest in birds to come forward and participate in structured monitoring to ensure that their birdwatching counts for conservation.”

Simon Foster of Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) said: “The best measure for bird populations are long-term trends, as bird numbers may vary year to year depending on weather and other factors. So although results from 2014 are encouraging, we must be vigilant and keep working to protect those birds at risk, like Curlews and Dotterel. But it’s also good news that over the last 20 years, a number of birds are faring well in Scotland, including Chiffchaff, Great Tits, Cuckoos and Great Spotted Woodpeckers.”

In Scotland, the production of multi-species indicators is limited to a start date in 1994 as this is when the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) was first implemented, and achieved broad- scale representative coverage of many terrestrial species in Scotland. Changes reported in these indicators therefore exclude any changes that occurred prior to 1994, which based on UK data suggest marked declines in many farmland and woodland species.

Notes for Editors

  1. The full report can be accessed here.
  2. The BTO is the UK's leading bird research charity. A growing membership and up to 60,000 volunteer birdwatchers contribute to the BTO's surveys, collecting information that underpins conservation action in the UK. The BTO maintains a staff of 100 at its offices in Thetford, Stirling, Bangor (Wales) and Bangor (Northern Ireland), who analyse and publicise the results of surveys and projects. The BTO's work is funded by BTO supporters, government, trusts, industry and conservation
  3. The Breeding Bird Survey is run by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and is jointly funded by BTO, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) (on behalf of the Council for Nature Conservation and the Countryside, Natural England, Natural Resources Wales and Scottish Natural Heritage), and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

Contact Details

Ben Darvill
(BTO Scotland)

Office: 01786 466562
Email: ben.darvill [at]

Paul Stancliffe
(BTO Media Manager)

Office: 01842 750050
(9am to 5.30pm)
Mobile: 07585 440910 (anytime)
Email: press [at]

Vicki Mowat

Office: 0131 316 2659
Email: vicki.mowat [at]

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