The Vanishing: Europe’s farmland birds
The Head of Conservation for BirdLife Europe & Central Asia explains how intensive agriculture has made farmland birds one of the most threatened bird groups in Europe.
Once upon a time, they were all around us – sights and sounds as familiar as the dusky skies their flocks danced in or the wind whistling through the fields. They were the tiny flashes of colour caught by the corner of your eye as you strolled in the countryside. They were the chirps, chatter, coos and caws making music in the hedgerows and the long meadow grasses. But that was before we destroyed their homes. Now, our common farmland birds are not so common.
It’s an increasingly rare sight to see a Corn bunting perched on a farm fence before taking off in fluttering flight with its legs dangling, or graceful Yellow wagtail running through wet pastures on its slender black legs. The distinctive orange face and chestnut tail of the once abundant Grey partridge is now glimpsed all too infrequently. When was the last time you admired the splendid crest of a Northern Lapwing or heard the tew it of its display call? How many today would even recognise this once iconic cry? And what of the Barn Owls, Godwits, Corncrakes and Curlews? Or the Redshanks, Whinchats, Twites and Yellowhammers? For the bird lover, the farm has become the tragic symbol of paradise lost.
Farmland covers 45% of the EU’s land area and these habitats are rocketing towards biodiversity oblivion. We cannot afford to mince our words here, the situation is very serious and requires both monitoring and action. The European Bird Census Council (EBCC), where many BirdLife partners play a key role, has been coordinating the collation of data on more than 160 common bird species across 28 European countries. The data collected is fundamental to understanding the future of European biodiversity – and the forecasts are alarming. Populations of farmland birds are in freefall, down a staggering 55% in the last three decades. We are now at the lowest point since records began and farmland birds are one of the most threatened bird groups in Europe.
Countless scientific studies prove that this decline is largely due to agricultural intensification driven by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and its current subsidies system. Natural nesting habitats are being systematically destroyed by the extensive removal of hedges, drainage of wetlands and the planting of previously uncultivated areas such as meadows and fallow fields. Agro-chemicals are also a major culprit: pesticides and herbicides kill insects and reduce seed production respectively, thereby reducing food for birds; organochlorine insecticides are causing reproductive failure; and fertilizers are making grasses grow too rapidly for grass-nesting species. The change from spring ploughing to late summer ploughing for cereals straight after harvest means that spilled grain – a fundamental food source in winter – has disappeared long before winter arrives. Earlier harvesting, earlier sowing dates, and early ripening varieties of grain – all this means that cultivation practices occur at the worst possible time, the breeding season. And to round it all off, the change from mixed farms – growing many varieties of crops – to fields upon fields of monocultures has had huge impacts on birds that need to feed on different crops, such as lapwings and skylarks.
Decline in Irish Farmland Birds (c) BirdWatch Ireland
Tellingly, much of the variance in farmland bird declines across Member States can be explained solely by the differences in domestic grain yields. Does it not speak volumes that farmland birds in the non-EU states of Central and Eastern Europe, where agriculture practices became less intensive after the collapse of the Soviet Union, fared better; or that newer EU members have observed post-accession bird declines?
Another revealing case is that of the Turtle Dove whose UK numbers have plummeted 95% since 1995. One might think that this long-distance flyer would face its biggest hurdles on the migration flyways back and forth from Africa but, actually, the research shows that the intensive farmland practices just described are impacting breeding populations in Northern Europe to the extent that extinction is a very real possibility.
The CAP does include some ‘greening measures’ or Agri-Environmental Schemes (AES) designed to minimize the environmental damage caused by intensive farming by tying subsidies to certain ecological management requirements. While such schemes do appear to slightly moderate the decline of common farmland bird populations - namely those that spend all their life cycle in Europe - they nowhere near compensate for the negative impacts of agricultural intensification and do not reverse the downward population trends.
Our agricultural policies and practices can and must do more to protect nature. In short, if we want to save Europe's farmland birds, if we want to save European biodiversity, then the upcoming reform of the CAP is absolutely fundamental. So what's it going to be - are we going to be smart about our shared future like a wise old Barn owl or are we going to stick our head in the sand like an Ostrich until the last Turtle Dove has vanished? Here's a clue for you - Ostriches are not from Europe.
Iván Ramírez is Head of Conservation for BirdLife Europe & Central Asia