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Saving our songbirds

There has been an appalling 60 per cent decline in the songbird population in the UK since the 1970s. This is an issue of the utmost importance to the future of wildlife, conservation and the countryside, yet it causes division and acrimony between those who ostensibly protect bird life ? notably the RSPB ? and those who believe that the overall decline is partly due to the substantial increase in mammalian and avian predators over this same period.

In 1997, at a Farm Conservation Day in Wales, concerns were raised about the alarming decline in songbirds and the surge in predator numbers. While it seemed no organisation was prepared to confront the problem, a small number of concerned individuals created a songbird survival group. Four years later, in 2001, Songbird Survival became a charity. By 2006 its focus was to support quality scientific research and it adopted the strapline ?Saving songbirds with science?.

At the same time, the charity merged with Save Our Songbirds in Scotland.

Causes of decline

Many songbird species have suffered a dramatic loss in population over the past 40 years. Corn bunting numbers have dropped by 90 per cent, the tree sparrow by 92 per cent and the willow tit by 87 per cent. Birds that were once common are also down, including song thrushes (by 47 per cent), skylarks (51 per cent) and bullfinches (56 per cent). Meanwhile, a few species, such as blue tits and wrens, have retained a substantial population.

Most major conservation organisations claim the decline is due to habitat loss and modern farming methods. Though there?s no doubt these two factors have been responsible to some extent, it is not that simple. Over the past two decades there have been improvements in agriculture and some 70 per cent of farmland is now incorporated into agri-environment schemes ? as a result, habitat has been improving. Broadleaved woodland, for instance, has increased by a third since the 1950s and hedgerows by 11 per cent since 1990.

I asked Nick Forde, a trustee of Songbird Survival, what had gone wrong. He emphasised that many factors have contributed to songbird decline, including habitat loss, modern farming and even the impact of releasing too many gamebirds. But he agreed that sustainable shooting generally benefits biodiversity. He also pointed out that the populations of many predators ? of songbird eggs, nestlings and adults ? have more than doubled over the same period. This includes crows, magpies, raptors, grey squirrels, cats and badgers.

Revenue at risk

But Nick said the principal conservation organisations will not admit that increased predation levels are a problem because this puts them in a conflicted
position. He insisted that the RSPB does much valuable work, but notes that in addition to the £27million of public money it gets, the charity also receives £28million a year in legacies and £40million from membership income.

This revenue would be at risk if the charity were to carry out research that identifi ed a greater need to control predators, because membership support could fall. He claims the RSPB ignores and suppresses its own evidence in this area, but continues to enjoy the ear of government and the media, which prefersto portray wildlife in a sentimental vein. The result is that Songbird Survival is virtually edited into silence.

Nick added that the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) has scientifically proven that predation, especially in upland areas, is a major cause of loss among ground-nesting birds, waders and gamebirds, but that predator control can create an uplift in productivity of some 300 per cent. However, although the RSPB quietly controls foxes and corvids on many of its reserves, it maintains there is ?little evidence? that predation is a problem for songbirds.

Nick claims that the assertion that there is ?little evidence? that predation is a problem actually means ?little science?. When the University of Reading carried out a review of UK predation research for Songbird Survival it cast grave doubts on the quality of previous research, noting that no fully experimental study of songbird predation has ever been carried out in the UK.

Yet, for example, the Sustainable Arable Farming For an Improved Environment (SAFFIE) project in 2007, funded by DEFRA and all the main conservation organisations, did include a nest camera study of skylark nests. This found that more than half the nest predations were carried out by badgers, but this received no publicity whatsoever.

Scale of predation

So what does Songbird Survival hope to achieve? Is it simply beating its head against a brick wall by trying to restore and preserve our biodiversity for future generations? The simple fact of the matter is that the prime predators ? magpies, grey squirrels, crows, cats, foxes and sparrowhawks ? have increased to record levels and may need to be managed, not eradicated.

The true scale of songbird predation is immense. Due to a lack of science, it is only possible to estimate the songbird toll of two predator species: cats take about 100million songbirds every year and sparrowhawks take about 40million.

Yet this must be compared with the actual breeding population of their 38-odd songbird prey species, which, according to British Trust for Ornithology figures, is about 100million birds with an annual productivity of about 200million. This leaves a postbreeding population of 300million.

And what about the impact of all the other predators of eggs, nestlings and adult birds? Nobody can deny that predation has to be a major factor, especially when predator numbers have soared. Anyone claiming that predation takes a ?doomed surplus? or is ?natural? is deluding themselves. There is currently no ?surplus? and that is why prey species are going down. Nothing in this country has been ?natural? since Neolithic times and nobody knows what the ?natural? or optimum level of any species should be. Songbird Survival simply says: ?Let?s do the science.?

Nick Forde emphasises that the public can help by carefully feeding songbirds, particularly in winter, and by controlling some predators under the terms of the general licences when they are seen to be posing a threat to wildlife. At the same time, Songbird Survival is asking members and donors to help with support for high-quality science, especially into the effects of rising levels of predation. This, he believes, is the best way forward to inform government and public opinion.

The GWCT is currently conducting a fully experimental study, over three years and funded by Songbird Survival, into the impact of corvid removal on farmland songbird productivity. Songbird Survival is also seeking to support further experimental research into this area which it has shown to be in its infancy. In fact, the GWCT has recently increased its efforts to restore farmland birds with an emphasis on winter feeding, habitat and predator control, all of which echoes and amplifies the Songbird Survival message.