01 December 2021

New UK Red List for birds: More than one in four species in serious trouble

  • The UK Red List for birds now stands at 70 species, a net increase of three from the last update in 2015.
  • Swift, house martin, greenfinch and Bewick’s swan added to the UK Red List, a growing list of birds that are under threat.
  • The length of the UK Red List has almost doubled, from 36 to 70 species, in the last 25 years.
  • However, in better news, the white-tailed eagle moves from Red to Amber as a result of conservation work.

SwiftThe latest assessment of the status of all the UK’s 245 regularly occurring bird species – Birds of Conservation Concern 5 – shows that 70 species are now of ‘highest conservation concern’ and have been placed on the assessment’s Red List. The newly revised Red List now includes familiar species, such as the swift, house martin and greenfinch that have been added for the first time.

The report placed 70 species on the Red list, 103 on the Amber list and 72 on the Green list. Worryingly, the Red List now accounts for more than one-quarter (29%) of the UK species, more than ever before, and almost double the figure (36 species) noted in the first review in 1996. Most of the species were placed on the Red List because of their severe declines, having halved in numbers or range in the UK in recent decades. Others remain well below historical levels or are considered under threat of global extinction.

Birds of Conservation Concern 5 is a report compiled by a coalition of the UK’s leading bird conservation and monitoring organisations reviewing the status of all regularly occurring birds in the UK, Channel Islands and Isle of Man. Each species was assessed against a set of objective criteria and placed on either the Green, Amber or Red List – indicating an increasing level of conservation concern.

The report adds to a wealth of evidence that many of our bird populations are in trouble. Amongst the new additions to the Red List are the swift, house martin and greenfinch.

Swift and house martin have both moved from the Amber to the Red List owing to an alarming decrease in their population size (58% since 1995 and 57% since 1969 respectively). These join other well-known birds, such as the cuckoo and nightingale, already on the Red list, which migrate between the UK and sub-Saharan Africa each year. Work to address their declines must focus on both their breeding grounds here and throughout the rest of their migratory journey, which requires international cooperation and support.

The familiar garden bird, the greenfinch has moved directly from the Green to the Red List after a population crash (62% since 1993) caused by a severe outbreak of the disease trichomonosis. This infection is spread through contaminated food and drinking water, or by birds feeding one another with regurgitated food during the breeding season. Garden owners can help slow transmission rates by temporarily stopping the provision of food if ill birds are seen and making sure that garden bird feeders are cleaned regularly.

Previous Birds of Conservation Concern reports have highlighted the plight of farmland, woodland and upland birds. This report adds more farmland and upland species to the Red list. 59 species of bird remain on the Red list from previous assessments; many of these, such as starling, curlew and turtle dove, are continuing to decline. As outlined in the 2019 State of Nature report, our bird populations face many pressures both here and abroad. These include changes in the way land is managed (particularly farmland, which makes up 75% of the UK’s land area), climate change, urbanisation, invasive non-native species and pollution.

The report also raises concerns over the status of wintering waterbird populations, with species such as Bewick’s swan joining the Red list. Pressures include illegal hunting abroad, the ingestion of lead ammunition, and the impacts of climate change. In addition, many of these wintering waterbird populations have been affected by ‘short-stopping’, whereby they have shifted their wintering grounds north-eastwards in response to milder winter temperatures.

There is concern that the European wetlands they are now spending more of their time in may be drained or exploited in other ways and some are without protection altogether. Ensuring these areas are designated, protected and managed appropriately will become even more critical in safeguarding the ongoing survival of many of our migrating waterbirds.

The 2021 assessment does, however, contain some good news and demonstrates that targeted conservation action can make a real difference. The UK’s largest bird of prey, the white-tailed eagle, moves from the Red to the Amber list as a result of decades of conservation work including reintroductions and increased protection for this spectacular species. The population, however, remains low at just 123 pairs nationally. White-tailed eagles became extinct in the UK as a result of extensive habitat change combined, particularly in the 19th century, with persecution. Before their reintroduction, the birds last bred in England and Wales in the 1830s, in Ireland in 1898 and in Scotland in 1916.

The GWCT’s Director of Research, Dr Andrew Hoodless, said: “BoCC5 sadly adds more farmland and upland birds to the Red list. We need to better understand the effects of climate change on some species, as well as the impacts of changing habitats and food availability along migration routes and in wintering areas of sub-Saharan African migrants. For many Red-listed species, however, improving breeding success in the UK is vital – we can and must make real and immediate improvements to this through better engagement with UK farmers, land managers and gamekeepers to encourage adoption of effective packages of conservation measures.”

The RSPB’s CEO, Beccy Speight, said: “This is more evidence that the UK’s wildlife is in freefall and not enough is being done to reverse declines. With almost double the number of birds on the Red List since the first review in 1996, we are seeing once common species such as swift and greenfinch now becoming rare. As with our climate this really is the last chance saloon to halt and reverse the destruction of nature. We often know what action we need to take to change the situation, but we need to do much more, rapidly and at scale. The coming decade is crucial to turning things around.”

The BTO’s CEO, Prof Juliet Vickery, said: “It is both sad and shocking to think that the house martin, a bird that often, literally, makes its home under our roof, has become Red-listed. As a long-distance migrant to Africa we know very little of its life outside of the UK, but possible causes include a lack of food as a result of insect declines, and fewer nest sites from refurbishment of housing and the move to plastic soffits. Putting up artificial house martin nest cups to provide safer nesting sites may not be the whole answer but it’s a simple positive step many of us can take.”

JNCC’s Director of Ecosystem Evidence & Advice, Steve Wilkinson, said: “It is concerning to see three more long-distance migrants added to the UK Red List. We will continue to work with overseas partners to better understand the challenges faced by birds such as house martin and swift as they make their annual round trip between the UK and wintering grounds in Africa. Only through co-operation with countries along these flyways, can we hope to protect migrants like Bewick’s swan, whose distribution is shifting in a rapidly changing climate.”


Notes for editors

  1. The report was compiled by the Birds of Conservation Concernpartnership, comprising the British Trust for Ornithology, Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Natural England, Northern Ireland Environment Agency, Natural Resources Wales, NatureScot and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
  2. Birds of Conservation Concern 5 is funded as part of Action for Birds in England, a conservation partnership between Natural England and the RSPB.
  3. The partnership would like to say a huge thank you to the thousands of voluntary and professional surveyors who have collected data on our bird populations, without whom such assessments would be impossible.

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Notes to editors

The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust – providing research-led conservation for a thriving countryside. The GWCT is an independent wildlife conservation charity which has carried out scientific research into Britain’s game and wildlife since the 1930s. We advise farmers and landowners on improving wildlife habitats. We employ 22 post-doctoral scientists and 50 other research staff with expertise in areas such as birds, insects, mammals, farming, fish and statistics. We undertake our own research as well as projects funded by contract and grant-aid from Government and private bodies. The Trust is also responsible for a number of Government Biodiversity Action Plan species and is lead partner for grey partridge and joint lead partner for brown hare and black grouse.

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For information, contact:
Kate Williams
Telephone: 01425 651000
Email: press@gwct.org.uk

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