Deadly decline of Europe's farmland birds

Posted: 26 January 2004

Author: Maya Pastakia

Intensive farming has killed more than a third of Europe's 24 widespread farmland birds in a quarter of a century, warns a report by a coalition of leading ornithological organisations.

Lapwing. Photo  Andy Hay/RSPB Images
Lapwing. Photo Andy Hay/RSPB Images
Lapwings are declining mainly as a result of agricultural intensification© Andy Hay/RSPB Images

The report, by the UK's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and Birdlife International, on the population trends of wild birds reveals that bird species, including Skylarks, Lapwings and Yellowhammers, have crashed across Europe by more than 30 per cent since 1980.

According to the report, declines have been sharpest in those countries in north-west Europe practising intensive farming. In the UK for instance, between 1970 and 1999, the skylark has declined by 52 per cent, the yellowhammer by 53 per cent and the corn bunting by 88 per cent.

Birds at risk

The reports authors are urging governments of the 10 new countries due to join the European Union (EU) in May to heed the lessens of existing members by putting environment and wildlife at the heart of farming policy. Otherwise, the coalition warns, "there will be further massive declines, or even extinctions in wildlife-rich new member states, still relatively untouched by the ravages of intensive farming."

Great Bustard. Photo Chris Gomersall/RSPB
Great Bustard. Photo Chris Gomersall/RSPB
Great Bustard, Otis tarda, under threat as a result of agricultural intensification.© Chris Gomersall/RSPB Images

The report says that of the 453 species of bird found regularly in Europe, around 150 (about one third) rely on sustainable farming for their future survival. The coalition says that "birds at most immediate risk are those that are particularly vulnerable to intensive agriculture, such as the corncrake, the red-backed shrike and the great bustard." Currently, eastern European states outside the EU have significant populations of these birds.

Subsidy scandal

The report places the blame squarely on the EU's Common Agricultural Policy. RSPB's chief executive, Graham Wynne, explains: "For more than three decades the wildlife of the European Union has been ravaged by agricultural production subsidies encouraging intensive farming ahead of sustainability and the environment.

The Corncrake Crex.. Photo Andy Hay/RSPB Images
The Corncrake Crex. Photo Andy Hay/RSPB Images
The Corncrake Crex has also declined across Europe© Andy Hay/RSPB Images

"The decline of the corncrake has been one of the most obvious effects of the industrialisation of farming across Europe. Subsidies paid to farmers to maximise output have driven the corncrake out of much of the European Union. In fact, this has been so marked you can pick out the outline of the Common Agricultural Policy imprinted on the distribution map of the bird."

The coalition is calling on the existing and future member states to use the EU's Common Agricultural Policy funds to maintain extensive farming systems that encourage environmentally sensitive practices which protect the environment and wildlife, while benefiting local rural communities.

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