Bird indicators

The bird indicators for the UK and England, and Scotland are part of the government’s suite of biodiversity indicators and provide a useful summary of how the fortunes of birds associated with different landscapes have fared.

Updated bird indicators for the UK and England, April 2023

The latest updates of the UK and England bird indicators based on the population trends of wild bird species were published on 13 April 2023. These indicators are part of the government’s suite of biodiversity indicators and show how the fortunes of birds of farmland, woodland, waterways and wetlands, and marine and coastal areas have fared between 1970 and 2021. 

Population trends of common birds that are native to, and breed in, the UK are aggregated into multi-species indicators. Each indicator is then assessed over two time periods: the long-term (in most cases between 1970 and 2020) and the short-term (2015–20).

The full details and a breakdown of all of the latest wild bird indicators have now been published on the Defra website for the UK as a whole and England alone. It was not possible to produce wild bird indicators last year because the 2020 field season was disrupted by COVID-19 restrictions on volunteer activity. It is therefore just over two years since the last update for breeding bird indicators.

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Breeding farmland bird indicator

The breeding farmland bird index continued to fall and has declined by more than 55% between 1970 and 2021 in the UK. Whilst most of these declines occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was a significant short-term decline of 5% between 2015 and 2020.

Farmland specialists showed the most prominent declines; for example, Corn Bunting, Grey Partridge, Turtle Dove and Tree Sparrow have all declined by at least 90% since 1970. This is largely attributed to changes in the way farmland is managed over the past five decades, such as spring sowing and the loss of winter stubble, loss of hedgerows and other semi-natural features, increased fertilizer and pesticide use.

Conversely, numbers of some farmland specialists (e.g. Stock Dove and Goldfinch) have more than doubled since the 1970s. This illustrates that responses to pressures vary between species, with some species better able to cope by exploiting new crops and food sources, or benefitting from agri-environment schemes

  • Figure 1. Changes in the abundance of farmland birds between 1970 and 2021 in the UK. Source: BTO, Defra, JNCC, RSPB.

Breeding woodland bird indicator

The breeding woodland bird index for the UK has declined by 34% between 1970 and 2021, and by 12% just over the recent short-term period. These declines are greater than documented previously, driven by the declining numbers of woodland specialists; down 53% since 1970.

Generalist woodland species, typically those that also breed in gardens or wooded areas of farmland, show no overall change.

Woodland species such as Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Spotted Flycatcher and Willow Tit have shown the steepest declines (greater than 80%) since 1970, whilst numbers of Blackcap and Nuthatch have almost doubled, and the Great Spotted Woodpecker is more than three times as abundant as it was several decades ago.

  • Figure 2. Changes in the abundance of woodland birds between 1970 and 2021 in the UK. Source: BTO, Defra, JNCC, RSPB.

Breeding birds of wetlands and waterways indicator

The breeding water and wetland bird index for the UK fell by 11% between 1975 and 2021, but over the short-term shows no change, a non-significant decline of 2%.

Over the long-term, species associated with slow-flowing and standing water, and with reedbeds, fared better than those associated with fast-flowing water or with wet grasslands.

Lapwing, Redshank, Snipe and Common Sandpiper showed the strongest declines over the long-term, and the ubiquitous Mallard shows the strongest increase.

  • Figure 3. The abundance of breeding water and wetland birds between 1975 and 2021 in the UK. Source: BTO, Defra, JNCC, RSPB.

New upland breeding bird indicator

This update of the wild bird indicators includes for the very first time a new Upland Bird Indicator, developed over the past few years and presented as an Experimental Statistic. This is also a composite indicator constructed from the population trends of upland bird species or populations. Largely based on the Breeding Bird Survey, it therefore covers the period 1994 to 2021.

Overall, the Upland Bird Indicator declined by 8% between 1994 and 2021 and by 4% between 2015 and 2020. However, breaking down the 32 species into three groups: upland specialists, upland riverine species and other more generalist species with large populations in the uplands, reveals further patterns. Upland specialists have declined by 10% since 1994, upland riverine species declined by 12% and upland populations of other species declined by only 4%.

  • Figure 4. The abundance of breeding upland birds between 1994 and 2021 in the UK. Source: BTO, Defra, JNCC, RSPB.

Breeding seabird indicator

The breeding seabird index has not been updated this year due to the lack of the full set of data from surveys in 2021, but with new seabird trends expected by late summer 2023, the seabird indicator should be included in the next update.

Wintering waterbird indicator

The wintering bird indicator, which monitors the internationally-important numbers of wintering waders, wildfowl and other waterbirds using our coasts and in wetlands since the mid-1970s has also not been updated in this publication because COVID-19 restrictions prevented collection of the full set of counts in the 2020–21 winter.

The next update of the full suite of wild bird indicators should be in late autumn 2023.

Indicators for Scotland

The latest figures, released in November 2019, show a positive long-term trend for woodland birds in Scotland, with this group increasing by 58% between 1994 and 2018.

Chiffchaff, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Blackcap, Great Tit, Bullfinch, Lesser Redpoll and Tree Pipit have all increased in abundance, some of which can be attributed to northward shifts in breeding range and changes in the extent of suitable habitat.

  • Figure 5. Changes in the abundance of breeding birds of woodland, farmland, upland and all-species in Scotland. Source: BTO, SNH, JNCC, RSPB.

The indicator for farmland birds is also positive, with Goldfinch, Whitethroat and Reed Bunting among the species contributing to a 12% increase since 1994, albeit following declines in range among many farmland species since the 1970s revealed by the BTO's bird atlases.

Upland birds declined by 15% during the BBS period, populations of Dotterel, Curlew, Black Grouse, Common Sandpiper and Hooded Crow having decreased by more than 50%. Most of these species have been negatively affected by changes in land management or climate change which is also potentially linked to a northward shift in the centre of the Carrion Crow/Hooded Crow hybrid zone and consequent decline in Hooded Crows.

Many species exhibited a short-term decline between 2017 and 2018, probably as a result of the so-called 'Beast from the East'. These declines were most common among woodland residents, with Wren, Bullfinch, and Goldcrest the most strongly affected. Robin, Treecreeper, Great Spotted Woodpecker and Lesser Redpoll also declined, though to a lesser extent.

  • Figure 6. Abundance of Wintering Waterbirds in Scotland, 1975/76-2018/19. Source: NatureScot

The latest Biodiversity Indicator for Wintering Waterbirds in Scotland was released by NatureScot in September 2021. This indicator tracks the population trends of 41 species, which are primarily counted by volunteers taking part in the BTO/RSPB/JNCC Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS), supplemented with additional targeted counts for geese and swans, and periodic surveys of rocky shore waders (the Non-Estuarine Waterbird Survey, NEWS).

This indicator showed that overall waterbird numbers have decreased by 7%. Much of this decline is explained by waders, with numbers for the 14 species monitored 58% lower than in winter 1975/76. There was more positive news for ducks and swans (16 species), which increased by 21%, and geese (seven species/populations), which rose in number by 274%.

Our programme of research in Scotland aims to better-understand the issues affecting our bird populations in order to inform future management. Current work programmes include collaborative research on breeding wader management and conservation, detailed studies of Short-eared Owl ecology and movements, and work to understand how woodland expansion and regeneration can impact bird populations.

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