Research confirms extent of Europe’s disappearing farmland birds

Brussels, 7 June 2007:
New research has shown that Europe’s farmland birds have declined by almost 50% in the past 25 years – a trend caused by EU-wide agricultural intensification being driven by a policy in need of urgent reform.

The results, released today, bring together the most comprehensive biodiversity indicators of their kind in Europe, collated by the Pan-European Common Bird Monitoring Scheme (PECBMS) - a partnership of leading scientists from the European Bird Census Council, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, BirdLife International, and Statistics Netherlands. [1]

The data, collected from 20 national breeding bird surveys spanning Europe over the last 25 years, confirm the extent to which farmland birds have suffered. Across Europe as a whole from 1980 to 2005, common farmland birds have on average fallen in number by 44% - the most severe decline of the bird categories monitored. [2]

“Birds can be vital barometers of environmental change – their declines are clear evidence of the environmental degradation that has occurred across European farmland,” said Dr Richard Gregory, Chairman of the European Bird Census Council, and Head of Monitoring and Indicators at the RSPB. “The data are staring us in the face: many farmland birds - and the species and habitats with which they coexist - are under serious threat.”

Species like Eurasian Skylark Alauda arvensis, Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio, Corn Bunting Miliaria calandra, Northern Lapwing Vanellus vanellus and Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus are familiar names in the long list of declining farmland bird species. [1]

The bird organisations involved in the study are calling for a reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), a system of European Union subsidies and programmes that has led to considerable agricultural intensification in EU Member States. Although this drive has lessened with successive reforms, the CAP still appears to fail farmland birds and the European environment in general.
“These results show how urgently we need a complete reform of the Common Agriculture Policy, to deliver targeted support for high nature value farming systems and farmed Natura 2000 sites, and to support farmers in delivering environmental improvements throughout the countryside,” said Ariel Brunner, BirdLife’s EU Agriculture Policy Officer, based in Brussels.

Most concerning is the likelihood of rapid farmland bird declines in new EU Member States that hold some of Europe’s largest concentrations of farmland birds. The study indicates that declines in farmland birds in new EU Member States mirror those declines of more established EU Member States. The fear is that EU accession may accelerate and worsen the situation [3]

“The EU has made encouraging strides forward in environmental legislation, yet for farmland - which accounts for nearly half of the total land surface of Europe - we are working to an outdated policy that still encourages unsustainable intensive farming, while failing to support those extensive farming systems that are vital for biodiversity conservation and rural economies,” said Brunner.

Findings from the study also show declines for forest birds: across Europe as a whole from 1980 to 2005, numbers of common forest birds have fallen on average by 9%.

While populations have been largely stable in the west and east of Europe, forest birds have shown considerable declines in the north, where they are thought to be threatened by highly intensive forestry exploitation, and in the south, where wild fires and unregulated logging may threaten their populations. [4] One of the reasons behind the substantial regional variation observed in forest bird declines, the researchers argue, is that there is no single unifying policy for forests in Europe, as exists for farmland.

Overall, for both forest and farmland birds, the findings from the Pan-European Common Bird Monitoring Scheme (PECBMS) paint a worrying picture of the state of Europe’s wildlife:

"We have the data and the knowledge to help farmland and forest birds, but we need urgently to look deeper into the reasons behind these declines – and to design effective policies that will ensure further losses do not occur,” said Dr Gregory.

For further information, please contact:

Dr Richard Gregory, Chairman, European Bird Census Council & Head of Monitoring and Indicators, RSPB: +44 (0)1767 693049, email:
Dr Petr Vorisek Coordinator PECBMS: +420 274780601, email:

Notes for editors:

[1] Full details and species lists used can be found at:

[2] The comparable index of all common birds (124 species) decreased by 15% and common forest birds (28 species) decreased by 9% over the same period.

[3] Fig. 2: Trends of common farmland birds in Old and New EU Countries

[4] Fig. 3: Regional population trends of common forest birds in Europe

Further details:

1. The need to measure change
Composite trend indicators, such as the wild bird indicators, provide a tangible basis for measuring progress towards the EU and European targets to halt biodiversity loss by 2010, and thus towards the global target of reducing the current rate of biodiversity loss by 2010. These are the first genuine biodiversity indicators of their kind in Europe and they paint a worrying picture of how the environment is changing. The EU has adopted the farmland bird index as a baseline indicator for Rural Development, and as a Structural and Sustainable Development Indicator. The strengths of this approach are its simplicity, statistical rigour, sensitivity to change, and ease of update. The purpose of the indictors is to enable policy makers to assess changes in the environment and then to review the effectiveness of their actions through time. The indices presented here complement other information on species, sites and habitats.

2. Birds as indicators of the environment
Birds can be excellent barometers of the health of the environment and thus of the sustainability of human activities. Birds occur in all habitats, can reflect trends in other animals and plants, and can be sensitive to environmental change. A great deal of high quality data exists on birds, and new data are realistic and inexpensive to collect. Importantly, birds have a real connection with people and their lives.

3. Species and habitat selection
In the third set of European indices, the ‘2007 update’, 124 species were classified as ‘common farmland species’, ‘common forest species’, or ‘other common species’. The European trends of all 124 species are available via the website To reflect regional variation, species classification was based on assessments within bio-geographical regions of Europe, which were then combined and consolidated from the bottom-up to create a single European classification. Regional coordinators were responsible for producing the regional species lists, in cooperation with the relevant experts. Selection was based on species being: (1) abundant and widespread - species with >50,000 breeding pairs in Europe were considered as widespread; (2) characteristic of farmland or forest (or common generalists); (3) characteristic of farmland or forest per bio-geographical region, using an assessment of predominant regional habitat use; characteristic species are those where ≥ 50% of the regional population uses a particular habitat for breeding or feeding.

4. Indicator methods
Trend information was derived from annually operated national breeding bird surveys spanning different periods from 20 European countries, obtained through the Pan-European Common Bird Monitoring Scheme (PECBMS). The software package TRIM (which allows for missing counts in the time series and yields unbiased yearly indices and standard errors using Poisson regression) was used to calculate national species’ indices and then to combine these into supranational indices for species, weighted by estimates of national population sizes. Weighting allows for the fact that different countries hold different sizes and proportions of each species’ European population. Population estimates came from a comprehensive review by BirdLife International. Although national schemes differ in count methods in the field, these differences do not influence the supranational results because the indices are standardised before being combined. In 2007, an improved hierarchical imputation procedure was used to calculate supranational indices. Supranational indices for species were then combined (on a geometric scale) to create multi-species indicators. The computation procedure is based on four regions - West: Ireland, UK, Netherlands, Denmark, Austria, Switzerland, former West Germany, Belgium; North: Sweden, Finland, Norway; East/Central: former East Germany, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary; South: France, Spain, Portugal, Italy. [Data from Estonia cover a limited number of species and the period to 2000.] However, we plan to develop this system based on bio-geographical regions in future.

5. A system for harmonised data collection
The Pan-European Common Bird Monitoring Scheme (PECBMS) is a partnership involving the European Bird Census Council, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, BirdLife International, and Statistics Netherlands. Its aim is to deliver policy relevant biodiversity indicators to decision makers in Europe. It collates national data in a harmonised way from a network of expert ornithologists. It aims to increase both the numbers of countries collecting and submitting data on trends, and the number of bird species and habitats covered. More widely, the project aims to improve the scientific standard of bird monitoring by fostering co-operation and the sharing of best practice and expertise. Project co-ordinator: Dr Petr Vorisek, Technical Assistant, Alena Pazderova; Project Manager: Dr Richard D. Gregory; Statistical Advisor: Dr Arco van Strien. Website:

6. Special thanks to the PECBMS network & volunteer counters
The success of this project owes much to the co-operation, goodwill and expertise of the PECBMS network. Special thanks go to the individuals and organisations responsible for national data collation and analysis, and to the many thousands of skilled volunteer counters responsible for data collection. Special thanks to the data providers & organisations responsible for national data collection and analysis: Norbert Teufelbauer, Michael Dvorak, Christian Vansteenwegen, Anne Weiserbs, Jean-Paul Jacob, Anny Anselin, Thierry Kinet, Anotoine Derouaux, Jiri Reif, Karel Stastny, Henning Heldbjerg, Michael Grell, Andres Kuresoo, Risto A. Väisänen, Frederic Jiguet, Johannes Schwarz, Martin Flade, Tibor Szep, Olivia Crowe, Lorenzo Fornasari, Elisabetta de Carli, Ainars Aunins, Ruud P. B. Foppen, Magne Husby, Przemek Chylarecki, Dagmara Jawinska, Geoff Hilton, Juan Carlos del Moral, Ramón Martí, Virginia Escandell, Åke Lindström, Sören Svensson, Hans Schmid, Andrew Joys, David G. Noble, Mike Raven, and Andrew Joys. We also thank Arco Van Strien, Adriaan Gmelig Meyling, Ian Burfield, Ruud Foppen, David Noble, Zoltan Waliczky , Lukas Viktora, Lucie Hoskova, Norbert Schaffer, Adrian Oates, David Gibbons, Jose Tavares, Henk Sierdsema, Sergi Herrando, Dominique Richard, Grégoire Lois, Pierre Nadin, Laure Ledoux, and Anne Teller for valuable comments and for general support.

7. References

van Strien, A.J. Pannekoek, J. & Gibbons, D.W. 2001. Bird Study 48: 200-213.
Pannekoek, J. & van Strien, A. 2001. TRIM 3.0 for Windows (Trends & Indices for Monitoring data). Statistics Netherlands, Voorburg.
BirdLife International. 2004. Birds in Europe: population estimates, trends and conservation status. Cambridge, UK: BirdLife International. (BirdLife Conservation Series No. 12).
Gregory, R.D., van Strien, A.J., Vorisek, P., Gmelig Meyling, A.W., Noble, D.G., Foppen, R.P.B. & Gibbons, D.W. 2005. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, B. 360: 269-288.
Gregory, R.D. 2006. Significance 3, 106-110. Royal Statistical Society.
Gregory, R.D., Vorisek, P., van Strien, A.J., Gmelig Meyling, A.W., Jiguet, F., Fornasari, L., Reif, J., Chylarecki, P. & Burfield, I.J. 2007.Ibis. In press.

8. Lead organisations in the production of the wild bird indicators are:

European Bird Census Council
The European Bird Census Council (EBCC) is an association of like-minded expert ornithologists co-operating in various ways to improve bird monitoring and atlas work in Europe, and thereby inform and improve the management and conservation of bird populations. It aims to promote exchange of news, ideas and expertise through a journal and a programme of workshops and conferences. It works closely with ornithological and conservation organisations, and encourages links between ornithologists, land managers and policy makers. The EBCC oversees specialist working groups and European monitoring projects; these have included in the past the atlas of European breeding birds, and currently the Pan-European Common Bird Monitoring Scheme. Website:

BirdLife International
BirdLife International is a global alliance of conservation organisations working in more than 100 countries and territories which, together, are the leading authority on the status of birds, their habitats and the issues and problems affecting them. Website:

The RSPB is the UK charity working to secure a healthy environment for birds and other wildlife, helping to create a better world for us all. The RSPB saves birds, protects special places, educates people about the natural world around them and campaigns for a better environment. As a charity, the RSPB depends on the goodwill and financial support of people like you. Please visit or call 01767 680551 to find out more.

Statistics Netherlands
Statistics Netherlands (SN) is the official Bureau of Statistics in the Netherlands and responsible for compiling national statistics on a wide range of developments in society. In the framework of wildlife statistics, SN assesses trends for many animal and plant species using data of NGO’s. Its role in the European wild bird indicators is limited to the calculation of the supranational indices and to statistical advice about the use of the indexing program TRIM. Website:

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