The silencing of the birds
Let us not be the generation that presided over the decline of songbirds, urges Robert Middleditch
LOSING 60% of our songbird population in one year would, by any measure, be a disaster, but the fact that this catastrophic decline has happened so slowly, over several decades, means that few people have noticed. The tree sparrow has plummeted by a staggering 95%, the spotted flycatcher and starling by 89% each.
The UK supports a billion-pound conservation industry, which suggests that we are concerned, yet we have still allowed the local and regional extinction of some songbirds to threaten to turn into national extinctions over a mere two generations. Do we want to be condemned as the generation that passively permitted such a crash in avian biodiversity?
On the plus side, plenty of birds are doing very well: pigeons, crows, jackdaws, magpies, non-native parakeets and some birds of prey—all of which either compete with or eat songbirds. When you add to this the huge increases in predators and scavengers such as domestic and feral cats, grey squirrels, foxes and badgers, all of which also eat songbirds plus their eggs and nestlings, the picture is not so rosy.
It’s wishful thinking to claim that predators and prey naturally find their own balance. We haven’t had a self-regulating eco-system since Neolithic times and virtually all predators are now generalists and opportunists. In addition, the greater numbers of reared gamebirds help to sustain unnaturally high numbers of predators and scavengers.
Huge numbers of birds are taken by cats, but the sparrowhawk is the songbird’s main avian predator. This is natural, but the overall rate of attrition, combined with the number gobbled up by other predators, appears unsustainable.
Man is now the sole mammalian apex predator, but we have gone soft, hooked on anthropomorphic TV. Historically, we’ve managed the balance of wildlife, but the subject has become taboo. Most of the largely urban population can’t bear the thought of anything being killed unless it’s perceived as a pest, such as a mouse, cockroach
In addition, elements of the conservation community itself are now conflicted. A declining wildlife is good for business, attracting rises in membership and legacies. Adopting a robust policy on predators, let alone destructive non-native invasive species, could alienate supporters. Predator control is an unpalatable, no-go area for most politicians, who are intimidated by the animal-rights lobby.
The Government may have directed £500 million a year towards the 73% of farms now in agri-environment schemes via wildflower field margins, beetle banks, skylark plots and so on, but the BTO acknowledges that this has failed to deliver a net benefit for all farmland songbirds. Why? Because creating a paradise for wildlife can also create a paradise for foxes, crows and other scavengers.
Until now, the prevailing line has been that songbird decline is solely due to habitat loss and modern farming. However, broad- leaved woodland has actually increased by a third since the Second World War, total tree cover is back to a level not seen since 1300 and hedgerows are up 11% since 1990. We need to address all the drivers of decline.
Experiments have shown that predator removal can bring positive results. However, if only one or two species are removed, others will take over. Another obstacle to research is the reluctance of licensing authorities, such as Natural England, to grant experimental licences to control predators—indeed, there are calls for legal predator control to be banned or restricted.
Science alone will never be enough to restore biodiversity, but persuading the public that we must adopt a realistic, robust approach to wildlife management is becoming more difficult. When everything seems to involve cost to the taxpayer, better wildlife management need not cost the earth—for example, the restoration of red squirrels in Anglesey has inspired local volunteers to control the non-native grey squirrels there and on the Welsh mainland.
Soon, few people will remember the magic of a full dawn chorus or will have the resolve to do anything about its loss. If we really want to restore songbird populations then, as well as restoring degraded habitat and mitigating the adverse effects of farming, we must wake up to the necessity of predator and scavenger species control.
Increasingly, the public, the media, politicians and some conservationists dare not face this uncomfortable truth, but this cultural disconnect from reality has become a scandal. We will leave a shameful legacy for our grandchildren if we continue to do nothing. Robert Middleditch is chairman of SongBird Survival (www.songbird-survival. org.uk; 01379 641715)