Nature and Biodiversity

Where have all the songbirds gone?

The 2020 state of UK birds report, which found a significant bird population decline across all three ecosystems: wetland, woodland, and farmland.

The 2020 state of UK birds report, which found a significant bird population decline across all three ecosystems: wetland, woodland, and farmland. Image: Colin Davis/Unsplash

Alexandra Clark
Founder and Principal, Sentient Ventures
Tom Chapman
Head of Food Systems Impact, Sentient Ventures
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  • The decline of native bird species in the UK has been driven primarily by the expansion of agriculture.
  • The song thrush population, for instance, has declined by 81% over the past four decades.
  • The loss of birdlife can have negative impacts on mental well-being, as studies have shown that encounters with birdlife and birdsong can improve mental health and alleviate stress.

Welcome to the sixth mass extinction. This may sound dramatic and difficult to comprehend. It may also feel distant and unrelated to our everyday lives, despite being caused by human activity. Scientists warn that it ‘may be the most serious environmental threat to the persistence of civilisation because it is irreversible’. We are bombarded with statistics, such as the fact that 69% of global wildlife has declined in the past 50 years. It’s often difficult to see how this relates to our everyday lives. However, the real-life evidence of this decline can be seen (and heard) when you look out of your window.

The last weekend of January saw the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) hold its annual Big Garden Birdwatch, which urges UK citizens to take an hour to observe and count birds in their garden or local park. This enables a year-on-year snapshot of bird numbers in the UK. The results to date are devastating, and this year will likely confirm the 2020 state of UK birds report, which found a significant bird population decline across all three ecosystems: wetland, woodland, and farmland. On average, all UK bird species (apart from those raised for human consumption or shooting) are in decline.

Populations of wild birds in the UK by habitat, 1970 to 2019
Populations of wild birds in the UK by habitat, 1970 to 2019 Image: UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The song thrush is one of the UK’s finest songsters, described by 19th century English poet Robert Browning as the "wise thrush; he sings each song twice over", due to their characteristic song, with melodic phrases repeated twice or more. The male can have up to 100 phrases in his repertoire, imitate other birds, and even telephones. For centuries the song thrush has enriched our natural soundscape; yet, over the past four decades, the population has declined by 81%. In 1996 over half of the garden birdwatch participants saw a song thrush; this was down to just 3% in 2019.


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What does the loss of our native birdlife mean for us?

A recent study led by academics at King’s College London found that ‘everyday encounters with birdlife were associated with time-lasting improvements in mental wellbeing’ and recommended more efforts be made to develop and protect bird habitats. This confirmed the results of an earlier study conducted during the pandemic by the University of Surrey that found that birdsong improves mental health and alleviates stress.

The Big Garden Birdwatch coincidentally happened days before the UK government published its new Environmental Improvement Plan (EIP). The EIP aims to halt and reverse biodiversity decline and includes some encouraging targets, including restoring at least 500,000 hectares of wildlife habitat and 400 miles of river through 25 new or expanded national nature reserves.

Land used to feed the UK
Land used to feed the UK Image: The National Food Strategy

A further commitment is for everyone in the UK to live within 15 minutes of green or blue space by 2030 to improve well-being. While these initiatives are welcome, critics highlight a lack of detail and budget. These comments are valid, but there is a massive elephant in the room; the omission of the need to shift away from our most environmentally damaging action: the production of animals for food.

The catastrophic decline of our native species has been driven primarily by the expansion of agriculture. The combined land used for grazing and crops to feed animals accounts for 85% of the total agricultural land. It is the leading driver of biodiversity loss by occupying areas that could provide vital space for ecosystems, converting virgin habitats to farmland, and poisoning rivers, soils, and lakes with excessive pesticides, fertilizer, and waste.

Have you read?
  • Global Risks Report 2023

Avoiding grassy deserts

The song thrush is not alone; our skies are emptying of swifts and nightingales. Starlings, once a fixture of English gardens, have declined by 66%. And it’s not just birdlife; analysis from 2022 found countryside hedgehog populations have declined by an average of 8.3% a year for the past two decades. What is the point of everyone living within 15 minutes of a greenspace if this space is bare? Nothing but a grassy desert. Devoid of life; devoid of song. We don’t just need green space; we need living space.

At Sentient Ventures, we are working to address this elephant in the room. Our mission is to enable innovators and change-makers to disrupt the animal product market and accelerate our transition to sustainable and healthy diets. If we reduce the land used for animal agriculture by even half, we can stimulate a transition to a nature-friendly regenerative economy. More food could be grown for people, including high-value crops like vegetables, nuts, and fruits. There would be space for solar and wind farms to produce cheaper, sustainable energy. Moreover, vast areas could be rewilded, improving biodiversity and providing access to living spaces for everyone across the UK.

You can learn more about our mission and how to get involved here.

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