A barn swallow sits on a rope against a blurred background.

The UK's swallow population is estimated to have fallen by 43% since 2012. Image © Robert Schneider / Shutterstock.

Read later


During Beta testing articles may only be saved for seven days.

A third of surveyed UK bird species have declined since the 1990s

Some of the UK’s most recognisable birds are vanishing before our eyes.

The latest survey from the British Trust for Ornithology reveals that counts of swifts, swallows and house martins have fallen sharply in the past 30 years.

A landmark report has revealed the health of the UK’s bird populations.

This year’s edition of the UK Breeding Birds Survey is a milestone in more than one way. As well as marking 30 years of the community science project, it highlights how uncommon once ubiquitous birds are becoming.

Numbers of swifts have dropped by two-thirds since 1995, while swallows are now about half as common as they were a decade ago. A lack of food and breeding sites are thought to be among the leading causes, following centuries of habitat loss in the UK.

Simon Wotton, a Senior Conservation Scientist at the RSPB, says that the survey shows where targeted action could help to stem the decline in the country’s birdlife.

“By looking at this valuable long-term data we can see which species most need our help and where our efforts are best spent when addressing the nature and climate emergency,” Simon says. “The changes in range and abundance of some of our bird species should give us cause for concern, and impetus for action.”

The declines observed in the survey mirror similar trends in a recent report from the UK government, which found that almost half of the country’s bird species declined between 2015 and 2020. 

A turtle dove stands on the floor of a forest in front of a blurred background.

Turtle dove populations are now 97% smaller than they were in the 1990s. Image © scigelova / Shutterstock.

Bad news for the UK’s birds

The Breeding Birds Survey paints a worrying long-term trend for the UK’s birds. Of the 119 species assessed in the survey, the researchers found that the populations of 42 species have fallen in the past 30 years.

Among the birds with the steepest declines are the willow tit and wood warbler, which over the past three decades have fallen by 95% and 81% respectively. Their numbers are now so low that the survey is struggling to monitor their populations effectively.

The numbers of more well-known species like the swift, swallow and house martin have also declined significantly. While swallows and house martins initially increased in numbers between 1995 and 2010, both species have declined by 40% or more in the past decade.

A common link between all these birds is that they eat insects. A variety of surveys have revealed that these invertebrates are under intense pressure, with an estimated 40% decline of all insects worldwide. Within the UK alone, the numbers of flying insects – an important source of food for many birds – fell by as much as 60% over the last two decades.

Fewer insects mean less food for the birds, putting pressure on species already threatened by habitat loss. This is being driven by unsustainable agricultural practices, including the conversion of wild meadows and woodland into pasture.

As a result, it’s no surprise that farmland species have been faring particularly badly. Turtle doves, for example, have seen a shocking decline of 97% since the 1990s.

A red kite swoops in front of the camera, with its wings bent and feet tucked beneath it.

Red kites have had a dramatic resurgence in the UK since the 1990s, when just a few breeding pairs were left. Image © Rob Palmer Photography / Shutterstock.

Signs of hope?

While the outlook may look bleak for many birds, the report does show that targeted action can turn historic declines around.

When the survey began in the 1990s, the red kite was on the verge of extinction in the UK. Hundreds of years of hunting meant that only a handful of breeding pairs survived.

But following a concerted programme of captive breeding and reintroductions, sightings of this bird of prey are once again common as the population of red kites has soared by 2,232%. This means there are now over 10,000 of these birds across the UK.

Preventing the persecution of other species could lead to similarly strong recoveries. While numbers of the turtle dove may be perilously low across Europe as a whole, efforts to restrict hunting appear to be having an impact.

In 2023, the estimated number of European breeding pairs was the highest it's been for a decade, and given time it’s hoped these birds may rebound in the UK too.

Habitat restoration will also be important. Recreating lost meadows, woodlands and hedgerows will provide the diversity of plants and environments that the UK’s wildlife desperately need, and give them a fighting chance at recovery.