In November 2017, DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) completed a report on bird populations. It showed a range of declines, particularly in populations of farmland birds, seabirds and woodland birds between 1970 and 2016.
As we have monitored birds for a long period of time, there is longer term data available compared to other classes of animal. This allows us to consider population change over time. Due to their position in the food chain (they eat insects), birds are also a useful indicator on the fitness of the environment.
The DEFRA report highlights a significant decline in farmland birds taking place between the mid-1970s and mid-1980s. During this time there was a significant change in agricultural practice – i.e. changes in how farm management was undertaken. These changes had impacts on other animals as well. These changes often related to a movement away from mixed farming, leading to:
- An increase in pesticide use
- A decrease in hedgerows
- An increase in fertilizer use
- Changing grassland management, with fewer hay meadows
These changes, although leading to greater food production, are recognised as having a negative impact on the environment generally, and specifically in relation to farmland birds, such as the cirl bunting. As a result there have been changes to environmental stewardship schemes to support farmland bird species. But at the present time, the numbers for many farmland bird species are still much lower than they were in the 1970s.
Farmland covers around three-quarters (75%) of the UK land mass. This means that the changes that took place in farm management had an impact on a huge proportion of habitat area. This has created diversification of some species, expanding the areas they live in by moving to different locations from their former agricultural home. For example the goldfinch, very much a farmland bird until 20 years ago, has now adapted well to suburban life and garden feeders.
How can I make my garden more bird friendly?
There are many ways we can make our gardens more bird ‘friendly’. Providing food, water and shelter will allow them to use our garden space as a substitute to their former agricultural and woodland homes. Your garden may not seem very large, but birds don’t see the same boundaries as we may, so think of the combined area the UK could provide!
As food can be particularly scarce in the winter, thinking about how to support birds in this season is important to help them keep their energy levels up and stay warm. As well as feeding birds using feeders there is a range of plants you can provide that offer good food sources and even a small outside space can provide a valuable food source for birds.
Provide winter food by delaying tidying up the garden, leaving seed heads on plants such as teasels. This not only saves you time but can also protect the soil in your garden – so helps prevents flooding as well. Climbing plants provide a home for various insects and these, along with berries found on climbers, are a food source for birds. With ivy or honeysuckle you can expect to see a range of birds from starlings to finches. Feeding at bird tables and on the ground also provide valuable food sources. The RSPB provide information on this.
Water is also important for birds, both during the summer and winter, to quench their thirst but also as a way to wash out dirt and lice. If you don’t have space for a pond, provide water in a shallow and gently sloping bird bath – such as a plant pot saucer.
Both shelter and feeding sites for birds can be provided by the larger plants in your garden – trees, shrubs and climbers. Different vegetation heights provide for different species of bird, allowing shelter from the weather and predators as well as places to nest. Songbird Survival provides information on native hedging plants that are ideal for both food and shelter for birds in the UK.
Providing all these fantastic resources should increase the birds that visit your garden. You are also likely to notice who visits as you look to see if birds are making use of your outside space. Recording bird visits is interesting and taking part in larger scale activities, such as the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch means that what you see can input into long term scientific data.