Sir, – Colin Strang-Steel’s letter ‘Throw songbirds a lifeline’ (September 16, 2017) discusses the perceived decline of bird populations. He attributes this to the ‘unprecedented rise in the number of predators, both avian and mammal’. 

Many songbird species did, indeed, decline rapidly in the second half of the 20th century. The 2016 Breeding Bird Survey* provide Scottish population trends for the more recent period 1995 to 2015 – a period coinciding with the introduction of agri-environment schemes. 

The results provide evidence that many songbirds are recovering from these historic declines – tree sparrows have increased in Scotland by 429% over these years; yellowhammer numbers are also increasing (+37%); as are those of reed bunting (+41%), house sparrow (+50%), dunnock (+57%), common whitethroat (+117%) and goldfinch (+181%). The same picture is also true for a number of songbirds associated with native woodland habitats, such as blackcap (+460%), chiffchaff (+648%), tree pipit (+100%), and great tit (+64%). 

There are exceptions to this welcome trend, including species requiring highly targeted conservation management (eg corn buntings) and those declining due to disease (eg greenfinch, -55%) or other, largely unknown, factors (eg swift, -57%).

The overall picture, however, is that most songbird populations in Scotland have increased in recent years, whilst populations of their predators have increased or remained stable (though some, such as the kestrel, are declining rapidly). 

Songbirds have evolved alongside their native predators. It is recognised that songbirds produce lots of young every year to compensate for the many that are inevitably preyed upon or fall to other natural sources of mortality, such as hard winter weather. 

The historic declines of songbirds last century were clearly linked to changing farming practices and intensification driven by agricultural policies. With many farmers having created and managed habitats over the past 20 years, however, and helped by other factors such as mild winters and supplementary feeding, populations are now bouncing back. 

This is a good news story and should not be lost in the ‘predator versus prey’ debate. The Scottish farming community deserves credit for helping to reverse these species’ fortunes. We should also acknowledge the key role of agri-environment schemes in this recovery.

As your correspondent correctly points out, the same good news cannot be reported for waders, whose populations continue to decline nationally.

Our peewits, oystercatchers and whaups have a different evolutionary strategy to songbirds.

Daniel Brown
Senior Conservation Advisor, 
RSPB Scotland.

*The latest BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Birds Survey Report can be accessed here