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Intensive farming is the primary driver of bird decline in Europe

New research has identified the use of pesticides and fertilisers in agriculture as the leading cause behind the continent’s dwindling avifauna populations.

According to more than 50 researchers who analysed data collected by thousands of scientists in 28 countries over nearly four decades, intensive farming is the primary driver of bird decline in Europe.

The report, which found the continent’s avifauna populations to have dropped by about a quarter since 1980, identified the use of pesticides and fertilisers as the leading cause of this.

It examined 170 species to establish the different human-induced pressures affecting them by correlating this with statistics on the climate crisis, land use and forest cover changes, urbanisation, and agriculture practices.

Compared with a generation ago, 550 million fewer birds now fly above us, with wild species like swifts, yellow wagtails, and spotted flycatchers – those reliant on invertebrates for food –the hardest hit.

‘It’s more than a smoking gun,’ said Richard Gregory, a senior conservation scientist at the RSPB, and one of the lead authors of the study (published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

‘I don’t think a study has looked at all these factors in one go, in such a sophisticated fashion, correcting for one variable alongside another; and it comes out with a very clear message.’

As revealed by the study, farmland species suffered the most precipitous decline, with numbers falling by 56.8 per cent since research began.

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Additionally, numbers of urban dwelling birds are down 27.8 per cent, and among woodland dwelling birds the fall was 17.7 per cent.

‘The losses are quite huge,’ Gregory said. ‘And a lot of them go back to that kind of an insect diet or linkage with insects, which is suggestive of a link to the way we’re farming land.’

What he refers to here is the mass slaughter of invertebrates as pests which is creating a ‘trophic cascade’ up the food chain.

Second to this contributor is urbanisation, which is seeing cities steadily losing to development what little plots of green space they had, followed by rising temperatures due to global warming, which makes it difficult for cold-preferring species of birds to survive.

‘We know many of the urban birds that live in those environments, that their numbers are declining very strongly, driven we think by the problems in relation to the food supplies, but also house construction and how that’s changing, how the modernisation is removing their natural kind of nest sites in those areas,’ Gregory said.

He asserted that only the rapid implementation of transformative change in European societies and agricultural reform led by both policymakers and the general public would pose a solution.

This call was echoed by the RSPB’s head of sustainable land use policy in England, Alice Groom, who says ‘governments should ensure agri-environment schemes reward nature-friendly farming practices such as flower-rich margins and herbal leys that are proven to enable farmers to produce good food whilst supporting progressive reductions in the use of pesticides and fertilisers.’