Our Wildflower Meadows Are In Decline With Dramatic Implications

by Paul Stancliffe

Some of our birds are in real trouble; we know that because scientists at the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) have been analysing bird data, collected by volunteers since the trust started routinely monitoring breeding birds in 1966.  Since that time we have lost almost two-thirds of our breeding Cuckoos, over 90% of our Turtle Doves, and birds such as the Nightingale, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Willow Tit are all rapidly disappearing.  If we look at the different groups of birds it is our long-distance summer migrants and our farmland birds that are experiencing the greatest losses.

Not All Long-Distance Migrant Bird Numbers Are Falling

Our long-distance migrant birds, such as the Cuckoo, Nightingale, Swallow and Swift fly from Africa to spend the summer months here in the UK but not all of these global travellers are in decline; the 25 year trend for Swallow shows that between 1987 and 2012 there was an increase of 42% in the breeding numbers of this harbinger of summer, so it is not all bad news.

Some Farmland Birds Are Doing Okay, Others Are Struggling

For our farmland birds, the picture is similar; some are experiencing dramatic losses, whilst others are doing quite well. Corn Bunting is down by 61% since 1987, Skylark by a third and Yellow Wagtail by two-thirds.  However, Barn Owl has increased by a whopping 277% since the mid-’90s and the two farmland pigeons, the Stock Dove and the Woodpigeon are both doing very well.

The barn owl is increasing in numbers thanks to conservation work

Like the Turtle-Dove, the Yellow Wagtail might be suffering a double-whammy; it is both a farmland bird and a long-distance migrant, spending the winter months in West Africa, south of the Sahara, and the summer months in and around British farmland.  

Clearly something is going on but the picture is quite complicated and identifying the drivers behind these changes is complex too.

House Sparrows Are Slowly Disappearing From Towns And Cities

Of the declining species, it is not just iconic birds like the Cuckoo and Nightingale that are disappearing.  Since the mid-80’s House Sparrows have been slowly slipping away and have disappeared from many towns and cities.  It is difficult to point the finger at any one cause but one of the main drivers is likely to be a net loss of invertebrates.  Climate change, more efficient use of targeted pesticides and habitat loss are all cited as possible causes in this loss of invertebrates.

Bugs Are Vital For Birds

The loss in insect life won’t just be having an impact on those birds that are purely insectivorous, as many mainly granivorous species, such as the House Sparrow, rely on grubs, beetles and other invertebrates to feed their young during the first few weeks of life.  A young House Sparrow grows from a helpless, blind, featherless bird to a fully feathered, functioning House Sparrow in around 14 days! it needs high-energy, protein-rich food to achieve this, and without an insect-rich diet at this time, they face an uphill struggle.

A honey bee and a bumblebee feeding from wild charlock.  
Farmland bee populations have almost halved in the last 50 years

During the last 50 years over half of the invertebrates for which we have data have declined by 50% or more, and if we break this down many of our pollinators have been hit hard.  Bees and wasps are down by 60%, moths by 65% and butterflies by 55%.  Over the same period, we have lost a shocking 97% of our lowland meadows, a total of 64,000 square kilometres, and the majority of those that remain are of poor wildlife value.

Gardens Could Become Vitally Important To Birds And Bees

There is more land given over the gardens in the UK than there are nature reserves.  Imagine what a difference all those garden owners could make if they planted a square metre of wildflower meadow in their garden, or covered the shed roof with a mini wildflower meadow.

The increase in nectar-rich native plants would give an enormous boost to nectar loving pollinating bees, wasps, hoverflies, beetles, moths and butterflies, and go a long way in helping reverse the decline in what has to be one of the most important groups of animals on the planet.  

The knock-on effect would be beneficial to other wildlife too, including birds like the House Sparrow.  It doesn’t stop there, once the plants seed another source of food becomes available.  Imagine too the great sense of wellbeing when looking out on to your very own wildflower meadow; not only will it look great, it might just help save the planet too.

If Paul Stancliffe’s article has inspired you to take more action to support wildlife, Meadowmat has suggested some ways for you to help.

Visit our website for ideas on using wildflowers in gardens, schools, communities and building projects 

or take a look at this short video

How To Create A Wildflower Area In Your Garden