BBS 2016 – A catalyst for conservation

This month saw the release of the Breeding Bird Survey 2016 (BBS), a report that has been produced annually by the BTO, JNCC and RSPB since its introduction in 1996. The survey itself has been running since 1994 and is as important and relevant today as it was then.


BBS - turtle dove
Could we be seeing the extinction of the turtle dove as a UK breeding species? © Jill Pakenham


The following quote was taken from the 1996 report, but could very easily have been included in the current issue:

“The need to monitor wildlife populations has arguably never been so great, with large-scale changes in farming practices and new human development increasingly evident all across the UK. Effective bird conservation would simply not be possible if there were no monitoring programmes to tell us how population levels are changing and, ideally, to provide pointers as to why these changes are taking place.”


3,837 squares surveyed in 2016


Also lifted from the 1996 report, which covered data from 1,565 and 1,725 squares in 2004/5 respectively:

“Our plans for the future are to build upon the success we have achieved so far by maintaining and developing BBS coverage across the UK. Our target of 2,000 to 3,000 survey squares is ambitious but we move a little nearer to it each year”

I am sure the author will be pleased to know that the 3,000 has been surpassed with 3,837 squares surveyed in 2016. So, the survey is not only still relevant, it is as popular as ever.


BBS Willow tits declining
Willow tits are having a hard time – © Grayimages


Sadly, the 2016 report does paint a bleak picture for some of our birds. Both willow tit (-80%) and marsh tit (-41%) numbers have fallen since the 1995 survey. Long-distance migrants have also fared badly with spotted flycatcher (-38%), wood warbler (-57%) and nightingale (-48%) all seeing significant population declines. The demise of the turtle dove is well documented and its numbers continue to fall; for every 100 turtle doves reported in the early 1990s only six remain. The turtle dove may be on a path to extinction as a breeding bird in the UK.

Whilst, clearly these statistics make grim reading, they are vital for bird conservation. Without them, we would be facing silent extinctions for many of our birds. Understanding the trends allows agencies such as the BTO and RSPB to consult with government agencies and implement plans designed to reverse the trends of declining species.


Nearly 3,000 Citizen Science volunteers were responsible for the data used to compile the 2016 BBS report.


Simon Wotton, RSPB Senior Conservation Scientist, said: “The decline in long-distance migrant birds, such as the Wood Warbler, highlights the need for continued international cooperation across political boundaries and across continents. To understand the reasons for these changes and to halt these declines we must work with others along these migratory routes as birds make their yearly journeys to and from these shores. The long-term picture that schemes such as BBS present to us are important tools for nature conservation so thanks must go to all volunteers involved and the organisations that support them.”

Nearly 3,000 Citizen Science volunteers were responsible for the data used to compile the 2016 BBS report. It is no exaggeration, to say that the aforementioned “silent extinctions” would have happened had it not been for their dedication.


BBS 2016 Nuthatches increasing
Nuthatch numbers are increasing – © John Harding (also banner image)


Sarah Harris, BBS Organiser at the BTO, said: “The ups and downs of our breeding birds always make for interesting reading but without the help of 2,796 BBS volunteers across the UK who give up their time to get out there and make on-the-ground observations, the trends that we see unfold just wouldn’t be possible to produce; we owe them huge thanks for all their time and effort.”

Deborah Procter, JNCC Senior Monitoring Officer, adds: “The Breeding Bird Survey produces excellent high-quality data from sites across the UK which enables us to produce population trends for many of our more common breeding birds at UK and country scale. Such data are key to helping us conserve birds and the habitats they depend on.”


There is no doubting the importance of the BBS.


The latest report shows trends for 111 bird species and nine mammal species, at a UK, country and English-region scale. As a result, a staggering 848 bird trends and 53 mammal trends have been calculated for these species at the various scales.

An amazing feat; but more can be done. There are still some gaps from the more remote areas of the UK. The BTO is working on a solution, as Dawn Balmer, BTO Head of Surveys points out in the report: “The BBS methods have been rigorously designed to ensure that robust trends are produced at relevant spatial scales (UK, country, region, county where possible) and the potential biases limited. With this in mind, any potential changes to the BBS methodology are always considered very carefully. Four potential interventions to reduce bias and increase coverage in the uplands were identified.”


BBS 2016 mammal trends - Reeves’ Muntjac
Mammal trends were also included in the report; Reeves’ Muntjac has increased by 104% between 1996 and 2015. © Dawn Balmer


One of these, Upland Rovers, (volunteers offering single, one-off visits to specially selected squares) was trialled during the second half of the 2017 season. This and other proposals to ‘even out’ coverage across the UK will be developed over the coming months.

BBS report coverReturning to the survey results, it was not all bad news. The nuthatch has seen a 90% growth in its breeding population, and that of the Chiffchaff is up by a whopping 109% over the last 23 years. In addition, love them or hate them, the non-native Ring-necked Parakeet is seeing its population soar; there are now 15 times more than in 1995.

There is no doubting the importance of the BBS. We’ll leave the last word to another quote from the 1996 report:

“In a wider context, the BBS aims to promote a greater understanding of the population biology of British birds through a unique partnership of large numbers of skilled volunteers with a small number of professional staff at BTO. The result is high quality monitoring information collected in a highly cost-effective manner.”

Long may it continue.


To read the full report online, click on the image opposite.

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