The risk of extinction for birds in Great Britain

Golden Oriole - Chris Knights

Author(s): Stanbury, A., Brown, A., Eaton, M., Aebischer, N., Gillings, S., Hearn, R., Noble, D., Stroud, D. & Gregory, R.

Published: September 2017  

Journal: British Birds Volume: 110

The UK has lost seven species of breeding birds in the last 200 years. Conservation efforts to prevent this from happening to other species, both in the UK and around the world, are guided by species’ priorities lists, which are often informed by data on range, population size and the degree of decline or increase in numbers. These are the sorts of data that BTO collects through its core surveys.

For most taxonomic groups the priority list is provided by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) – the IUCN Red List comprises roughly 12,000 species worldwide and their conservation status. However, for birds in the UK, most policy makers refer to the Birds of Conservation Concern (BoCC) list, updated every six years (most recently in 2015). A new study funded by the RSPB and Natural England in cooperation with BTO, WWT, JNCC, and Game & Wildlife Trust has carried out the first IUCN assessment for birds in Great Britain.

The study applied the IUCN criteria to existing bird population data obtained from datasets like the BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey (BBS). The criteria take into account various factors, most notably any reduction in the size (both in abundance and range) of populations, loss of habitats key to the species, small or vulnerable population sizes, and extinction risk. Alongside this, the criteria look to see if there is a “rescue” effect – such as immigration from neighbouring populations that might boost the population’s numbers, reducing the risk of extinction. The species are then categorised into one of the threat levels below.

The results of the new study show that a concerning 43% of regularly occurring species in Great Britain are classed as Threatened, with another 10% classified as Near Threatened. Twenty-three breeding or non-breeding populations of birds were classed as Critically Endangered, including Fieldfare and Golden Oriole (both possibly extinct as breeders), Whimbrel, Turtle Dove, Arctic Skua and Kittiwake, as well as non-breeding populations of Bewick’s Swan, White-fronted Goose and Smew., Over the past 200 years, seven species have gone extinct as breeders in Britain, including Serin, Temminck’s Stint and Wryneck in the past 25 years.

The total percentage of threatened birds in Great Britain (43%) is high compared to that seen elsewhere in Europe (13%). Reasons for this are not entirely clear, although it may be that Britain’s island status has something to do with this, as there are fewer neighbouring “rescue” populations. Although the results from the IUCN assessment and BoCC assessment largely overlap, the IUCN assessment raises the level of concern for species such as Red-Breasted Merganser, Great Crested Grebe, Moorhen, Red-Billed Chough (all classed as Vulnerable), and Greenfinch (Endangered). These species might thus warrant closer monitoring in the near future. In contrast, the BoCC assessment identifies a number of species of concern whose declines have been more gradual but over long time periods (e.g. Skylark and House Sparrow).

The authors emphasise that this assessment is not a replacement of the BoCC report, but rather that the two reports complement each other. With this new wealth of knowledge, there will hopefully be even more support for those species that need it most.


Over the last 20 years,species priorities for bird conservation in the UK have been guided by ‘Birds of Conservation Concern’ – an in-depth assessment made possible by the top-class data available on the status of the UK’s birds. For other wildlife, priorities tend to be informed by measures of extinction risk, generated by the IUCN Regional Red List process.We carried out the first formal IUCN assessment for birds in Great Britain. Of the 241 species assessed, 100 (43%) had at least one population (breeding and/or non-breeding) that qualified as Threatened using the standard IUCN Red List criteria and categories. Of 289 separate assessments of breeding or non-breeding populations, 39% qualified as Threatened (8% Critically Endangered, 14% Endangered, 17% Vulnerable) with a further 10% classified as Near Threatened. Both Golden Oriole Oriolus oriolus and Fieldfare Turdus pilaris were assessed as being Critically Endangered (Possibly
Extinct) as breeding species, in addition to seven species that are already extinct (either Extinct or Regionally Extinct). The proportion of GB birds qualifying as Threatened was high compared with birds elsewhere in Europe and other taxonomic groups in GB. We believe that, if similar data were available, levels of extinction risk would be higher for other areas/taxa than is currently estimated.


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