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Huge declines in bird populations - with one in four species now in serious trouble

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Populations in freefall include familiar species in Scotland, such as swifts, house martins and greenfinches

As the nature crisis deepens, it has been revealed that one in four UK bird species is in serious trouble – with sharp declines in many Scottish populations.

Populations in trouble include familiar species in Scotland, such as swifts, house martins and greenfinches.

These have all been placed on the Red List - birds of the highest conservation concern – and as have others such as ptarmigan and Leach’s storm petrel, which – in the UK – only breed in Scotland.

The report - Birds of Conservation Concern 5 - assesses the population of all of the UK’s 245 regularly-occurring bird species, and has placed placed 70 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. 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.

Ptarmigans have moved from the Green List straight to the Red List. The iconic montane species is only found in the Highlands of Scotland and has declined 81% since 1961.

Swifts and house martins 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). Swifts and house martins are species that are closely associated with people because they nest in eaves of buildings.

Greenfinches, once a familiar garden visitor, have 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 and 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.

Leach’s storm petrel, a nocturnal seabird which occurs only in Scotland nesting in burrows on islands, not only joins the Red List but is also added to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) list of species that are globally threatened with extinction.

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 including dunlins and purple sandpipers. Fifty-nine species of bird remain on the Red List from previous assessments; many of these, such as starlings and curlews, are continuing to decline.

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, 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. White-tailed eagles became extinct in the UK due to persecution in the 19th century; the last bird was killed in Shetland in 1918. Almost all of the UK’s population is now found in Scotland but numbers remain low overall at just 123 pairs in 2019, with an estimated ten new territories being established annually, though this may be an under-estimate.

NatureScot ornithologist Dr Andrew Douse said: “This concerning assessment adds to growing evidence that many of our species are being heavily impacted by factors including climate change, habitat loss, disease, invasive non-native species and decline of prey species. Nature is in crisis. Nature and climate change are intrinsically linked, and we need to tackle them both together, or we tackle neither.”

Dr Liz Humphreys, senior research ecologist at BTO Scotland, added: "Kittiwake and Leach's storm petrel have now been classified as globally threatened, and the state of the UK's internationally important seabirds continues to be a major concern.”