Shocking decline leads to Red-listing of Rook, Swift, Meadow Pipit in Wales

New Wales Birds of Conservation Concern lists: 60 species on the Red List which has doubled in length in 20 years.

Once common birds have been disappearing for decades, and now the Rook, Swift, Meadow Pipit, and Greenfinch have been added to the list of birds threatened with extinction in Wales.

Habitat loss, agricultural intensification, and massive over-use of pesticides have caused populations of birds to crash across Britain. The UK has lost a staggering 19 million pairs of breeding since the 1990s, and once familiar and widespread species are now on the brink of disappearing altogether. The latest assessment of the status of all 220 species of bird that regularly occur in Wales – Birds of Conservation Concern 4 – shows that 60 species are now of ‘highest conservation concern’ and have been placed on the assessment’s Red List.

Published by a coalition of Wales’ leading bird conservation and monitoring organisations, the new Report places 60 species on the Red List, 91 on the Amber List and 69 on the Green List. Worryingly, the Red List now accounts for more than one-quarter (27%) of Welsh species, more than ever before.

Most of the species were placed on the Red List because of severe declines, having halved in numbers or range in Wales in recent decades. Others remain well below historical levels or are under threat of global extinction. Since the previous assessment, Corn Bunting and Corncrake have been declared extinct as breeding birds in Wales.

A number of species have jumped straight from Green to Red. The rapid decline in numbers of breeding Rooks and of wintering Purple Sandpipers in Wales, and the deteriorating global status of Leach’s Petrel, means that they have jumped from Green to Red since the 2016 assessment.

                                                                              Rook, now Red-listed in Wales

Muddled thinking

Until 2019 Rooks were still included on the General Licence in Wales – meaning they could be shot by ‘land managers’ without restraint – but were finally given protection, much to the annoyance of gamekeepers,  when serious declines could no longer be ignored. An apparently unironic statement at the time by David Pooler, North Wales Chairman of the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation, managed to muddle anger over additional protection for declining wildlife whilst bemoaning – er, rapidly declining wildlife: “This will be a disaster for rural Wales, making the jobs of gamekeepers, farmers and pest controllers more difficult at the very time when rapidly declining wildlife in the Welsh countryside needs all the help it can get.”

Another concern found in the report is the placing of Swifts on the Red List and House Martin on the Amber List for the first time. This is likely to reflect trends across the rest of the UK that suggest that the tidying up of roof spaces has removed nesting sites, and far fewer aerial insects are available for Swifts to feed on.  Worryingly a recent report also found that damper summers are altering how long Swifts can feed.  A 2013 survey found that numbers of Swifts in Scotland fell by 42% between 2011 and 2012.

The Greenfinch, a once familiar garden bird, has moved from Amber to Red after a population crash (71% in Wales since 1995) caused by a severe outbreak of the disease Trichomonosis. This parasite-borne infection is also believed to be responsible for the ongoing decline of Chaffinch, which has been moved to the Amber List. Both diseases have spread around bird feeders, reinforcing the need to ensure that anyone putting food out for birds clean their feeders regularly.

Intensive agriculture

After decades of intensive agriculture (71% of all land in the UK is farmed) which has destroyed nesting sites and removed vast numbers of invertebrates and worms from the soil, the future of many rapidly declining upland, grassland and wading birds such as Curlew, Redshank and Lapwing remain in the balance. Work commissioned by National Resource Wales suggests that breeding Curlew could be on the verge of extinction in Wales in the next decade without urgent intervention, making it the most pressing bird conservation priority in Wales (and across the rest of the UK).

A glimmer of good news comes from the ongoing recovery of the Red Kite. Entirely confined to mid-Wales until the 1980s, the species (which is suffering from increasing persecution on shooting estates) has been moved on to the Green List thanks to the efforts of people across Wales and reintroductions.