Cyber conservation: plotting bird populations online

Nightingale by Steve Young
Nightingale by Steve Young

The dramatic decrease in Britain’s farmland bird populations over the past 30 years is well known, and more recent declines in the numbers of some woodland species have now put them too on the list of conservationc oncern. It has been learned over the years that birds can be protected more effectively if habitat management is targeted in areas where populations of the most vulnerable species still occur. With this in mind, the Bird Conservation Targeting Project has been set up.

A partnership between Natural England, the RSPB, the British Trust for Ornithology and Forestry Commission England, the project will create and annually update maps for species that are likely to benefit from positive land management. National and local records and surveys will be used to compile the maps, but birdwatchers can also make a contribution by submitting their sightings to BirdTrack, the online recording system that is operated in partnership between the RSPB, the BTO and BirdWatch Ireland.

Improving habitat

The bird maps will inform the government about where to channel resources to conserve the most birds for their money, and thus theywill play a part in turning around species declines. More than 30 farmland and woodland species will be specifically targeted with efforts to improve their habitat. One of these, Corn Bunting, has suffered a decline of more than 85 per cent over the past 25 years because less food is available to it. A detailed map showing the distribution of Corn Bunting will ensure that grant funding will pay for habitat improvements specifically where this species occurs.

The government spends hundreds of millions of pounds on land-management schemes each year. Higher Level Stewardship, for example, is a grant scheme for farmers in England and many of its options are designed to benefit birds of arable farmland. It will not be possible to fund precise management at all sites that have farmland birds like Skylark and Yellowhammer, but maps for species such as Grey Partridge and Tree Sparrow, as well as Corn Bunting, can be used to ensure that the arable options chosen will benefit the highest numbers of threatened species.

One species already enjoying the benefits of targeted funding is Cirl Bunting, which increased by 146 per cent between 1992 and 2003 on land where farmers in its strongholds in south Devon were paid to leave weedy stubble over winter and create wildlife-friendly field margins and hedges. This success story proves that putting the right land management in the right places does work.

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What has been achieved for farmland species should be possible for woodland birds too. Reasons for the decline of woodland species are complex, but recent research indicates that prime causes are changes in woodland structure and reduced management of the habitat. A return to active woodland management is likely to lead to benefits for wildlife.

Black Grouse, Stone-curlew, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Nightingale, Common Redstart, Willow Tit, Tree Pipit, Grasshopper Warbler and Tree Sparrow are among the species we hope will be helped by this project. All have suffered dramatic declines in recent decades, but we know that by improving their habitat – and by targeting the specific areas where they occur by means of the most comprehensive and up-to-date distribution maps – we can improve their fortunes.

Every contribution counts

The contributions of many individual birdwatchers to these maps via BirdTrack have already proved extremely important. This bird-recording scheme allows you to store and manage your sightings online, and at the same time contribute directly to the conservation of birds. With more than 60,000 records a year in England alone, it helps to pinpoint where government land-management schemes will be most effective for birds, and the more records that are submitted, the better the targeting will be.

As a case in point, Nightingale has shown a marked range contraction and continuous decline since the 1980s, which have been caused by poorer habitat quality, among other factors. So far, almost 30 per cent of Nightingale sites known to the Bird Conservation Targeting Project have been recorded by birdwatchers using BirdTrack. If you enter a record of breeding Nightingale on one of your bird lists, this record will appear on a targeting map as a circle surrounding the relevant 1-km Ordnance Survey grid square. The information you provide will influence whether the landowner is eligible for a grant to improve the bird’s habitat.

Your records will be of maximum conservation value if you record the number and breeding status of the birds you observe. BirdTrack also makes it easy to forward your records to the local county recorder, contributing to the knowledge of birds in your area, or to analyse your own records by comparing lists. It’s quick and easy to select the site and enterthe birds you have seen. Why not give it a go? Your records can really make adifference for conservation.

For more information about the project, see www.rspb.org.uk/targeting.