Monday, 25 June 2007

Decline of farmland birds - is farming to blame?

Earlier this month the RSPB issued a press release regarding their recent study into the changes in farmland bird populations in the EU during the last 25 years. Now I am very appreciative of the vast amount of good work the RSPB do but, in common with other 'green' organisations, they find it difficult to be totally objective in their conclusions when they bring out controversial reports.

It is vital to recognise that humans as 'top dogs' (whether they are always deserving of that appellation is another matter) are always influencing the balance of nature. Just about every activity we engage in is going to affect the numbers and distribution of species usually for the worse but occasionally for the better. This applies to both flora and fauna. Now the RSPB have done great work in bringing some birds back from the brink; a good example is the cirl bunting now doing well in South Devon and being reintroduced into Cornwall, this success being reliant on the co-operation of farmers.

Going back to this recent report we have in the red corner the RSPB and in the blue corner Anthony Gibson, the media face in the Westcountry for the NFU. From the RSPB side the 'Pan-European Bird Monitoring Scheme' appears to show that 33 of the EU's most common farmland birds have fallen on average by 44% in the last 25 years and then goes on to say "their declines are clear proof of the environmental degradation that has occurred across European farmland". Now Mr Gibson has called foul on this and in I think a measured response has flagged up some flaws in the RSPB reasoning.

To summarise Gibson's viewpoint he first refers to the British Trust for Ornithology. He states that they have a list of 21 farmland birds whose numbers have increased over the past 30 years. Just three (!) of them feature on the RSPB's list. He points out that pesticides and fertilisers are now more targeted (I assume he is right) and that there are now a lot of agri-environment schemes (can't argue with that). He then points out there is increasing predation on the smaller birds by other successful species (magpies for example).

I like Anthony's line of reasoning on this; the RSPB are notorious about not acknowledging any increased predation by magpies, crows, birds of prey generally and they disappoint me in that regard. Let's face facts: it is incredibly difficult to manage or at least influence nature to keep the various species numbers in step with each other. I'm not saying that the agricultural system in Europe is perfect but I do wish the RSPB could be more balanced in their reports and refrain from quite so much farmer bashing.

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