Saving threatened habitats worldwide

We must act now to halt the decline in bird populations

10 March, 2014 - 14:05 -- John Burton
British Red Kite soaring in the sky looking for prey .

In Britain the Red Kite and the Buzzard, which have both increased their range in recent years, are heralded as conservation successes. And rightly so. But these successes are few and far between and for every conservation triumph there are many more conservation failures.

The reason these two particular species are spreading is that they were on the brink of extinction - and locally extinct in many parts of England - and the causes for their decline have been largely eliminated. However, for the overwhelming number of declining species, the reasons for their decline have not been eliminated, and nor are they likely to be.

Consider migrant birds, for example. They face innumerable hazards: light pollution, overhead cables, and habitat loss at both their breeding grounds and their wintering grounds. Plus, they have to contend with the ‘island effect’.

Studies on island populations have shown that the size of islands has a direct relationship to the number of species that will occupy the island. Increasingly, nature reserves are islands in the midst of agricultural and man modified landscapes. Consequently, whatever conservation measures are undertaken the species diversity in reserves will continue to decline - even if there are local increases. Some of these increases will be temporary, and the species will still ultimately disappear, because of the island effect.

Resident species with restricted habitat requirements, such as Hawfinch have a particularly gloomy future. And the outlook for migrants such as Redstarts and Yellow Wagtails is just as grim. I have seen trans-Saharan migrants, such as the Cuckoo, plummet from a species once occurring in all the parks and commons around London, to a rarity mostly found in reedbeds and moorlands. Yellow Wagtails, Turtledoves, Nightingales, Snipe, Spotted Flycatchers, Swallows, Wheatears and many, many other species are in what appears to be terminal decline.

If you read the accounts of 19th century naturalists such as W H Hudson, and compare the status of those then common species with their status now, you will see what I mean.

And even in the half century that I have been birdwatching, I have seen massive declines in all the species I mentioned above, with little or no sign of the decline being halted.

Until we can get to grips with the fact that the majority of nature reserves are too small for long term conservation I will remain very pessimistic about the future of wildlife in Britain.

Meanwhile, species like Common Lizard and Grass Snake are increasingly found in widely separated populations, and as local extinctions occur there is little or no hope of re-colonisation after natural disasters such as floods or fires.

Has anyone considered what will have happened to all the shrews, mice and voles in the Somerset levels since they were flooded to extreme levels in recent months?

So, as reserves are evidently too small to halt the decline of wildlife populations, then buying land to create and extend reserves becomes ever more essential. And this is precisely the mission of World Land Trust (WLT).

Many of the reserves the WLT has funded over the past 25 years are big enough to have a positive impact on the survival of species. Making a donation, however small, to land purchase for conservation is a positive and effective step that we can all take. And if we can create strategic corridors between protected areas, as in the case of the Keruak Corridor, the subject of WLT's Borneo Rainforest Appeal, then land purchase has an even bigger impact.

More information

Red Kites can be seen at Kites Hill in Gloucestershire, WLT's only reserve in the UK. Kites Hill is open all year round and is well worth a visit in the spring. Directions to Kites Hill »


Submitted by T L Smart on

Meanwhile as cats have a 'legal right to roam' hunt night and day and kill in excess of 55 million birds a year it seems the bird life, which conservationists try hard to protect, will continue to be condemned to death by current legislation that favours cats over birds. Cats destroy biodiversity yet no-one can seem to get beyond an emotional argument when it comes to deciding what to do. I live in the country and our local council has no limits on the amount of cats residents can keep here, 6 random pet cats shit in my yard everyday. It's a wildlife garden and had over 20 species of resident birds plus a number of migratory ones until the cats learned how to climb trees and lie in wait. It's pathetic, the local council has BAPs [Biodiversity Action Plans] and conservation strategies in place but in reality these can be seen as little more than tokenism as on the other hand they allow the number of pet cats in the area to grow ad infinitum. No-one cares, I'm branded a tree hugging greenie. It's so charming.

Submitted by Dominic Belfield on

These two comment pieces underline with great clarity just how far we have yet to go, in the general public sphere, in order for there to be any real remedial progress in restoring wildlife (always assuming that there is the wildlife,"nature", is still out there to come back).

I can't help agreeing with TL Smart above, even though I'm a lifelong cat admirer. It does bring to my mind the old joke: What's the definition of a fascist? A liberal - who's just been mugged! .... I too now suffer from the depredations and faeces of other peoples domestic cats. Oh for a good wolf pack in East Acton!

Submitted by Dominick Spracklen on

I'd disagree that "the causes for [buzzard and red kite] decline have been largely eliminated". It is true that the problem of DDT has been eliminated and this has allowed a welcome return of raptors to some areas where they were previously extinct. However, illegal persecution of raptors is still unfortunately widespread in the UK. Buzzards and red kites are still largely absent from big parts of the UK, especially in regions where grouse and pheasant shooting occur. The situation is worse for raptors like the hen harrier, which is virtually extinct in England, despite there being large areas of suitable habitat. Large parts of our uplands are virtually devoid of raptors. There is strong evidence that this is due to widespread illegal persecution.

Submitted by john on

Fair comment by Dominic. But compared with the persecution of raptors 150 years ago, it is nothing (outside the grouse moors). Perhaps Mark Avery will comment?

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