Agri-environmental indicator - population trends of farmland birds

Data from October 2017 for the period 1990-2014. Planned article update: January 2019.

This Statistics Explained article is a fact sheet on the population trends of farmland birds, one of the European Union (EU) agri-environmental indicators. The article provides a summary of the most recent state of play and is complemented by definitions, measurement methods and the context needed to interpret the data correctly. This article on population trends of farmland birds is part of a set of similar fact sheets that track the integration of environmental concerns into the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) at EU, national and regional levels.

Figure 1: Common bird index, EU, 1990-2014
Source: European Bird Census Council, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Birdlife International and Statistics Netherlands; Eurostat online data code (sdg_15_60)

Main indicator:

Population trends of 39 selected bird species that are common and characteristic of European farmland landscapes.

Main statistical findings

Key messages

  • Between 1990 and 2014, populations of common farmland birds decreased by 31.5 % in the 26 EU Member States that have bird population monitoring schemes.
  • No trend towards the recovery of common farmland bird populations was indicated, in spite of year-to-year fluctuations. While this indicator takes 1990 as a starting point, it should be borne in mind that significant losses of bird populations had already occurred before this date.


Between 1990 and 2014, the population of common farmland birds declined by about one third (31.5 %) as a whole in the 26 European countries with monitoring schemes (Figure 1). In spite of year-to-year fluctuations, no trend towards recovery was observed. Furthermore, the reductions in farmland bird numbers since 1990 have followed on from earlier losses, structured data series for the period before 1990 being available for some EU countries only [1][2].

The long-term downward trend in common farmland bird populations points to a major decline in Europe's biodiversity associated with agro-ecosystems and grasslands. This has been primarily due to agricultural intensification and specialization as well as habitat loss. For example, the increased use of pesticides and herbicides has resulted in reduced insect populations and seed production by plants, thereby reducing food for birds. Through habitat loss and fragmentation, birds have lost their nesting sites, further adding to population declines.

It continues to be a challenge to achieve the wide and effective deployment of conservation measures contained in European policies such as the Birds and Habitats Directives, and the Water Framework Directive, as well as the environmental measures within the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in order to help populations recover at national and European scales.

The 'greening' of the CAP in the 2013 reform included measures to slow down the decline in farmland biodiversity in the period 2014-2020. Assessing the impact of these changes on biodiversity and the population of farmland birds is not yet possible. The effects of the 'greening' will also depend on the type and method of specific implementation measures adopted by Member States and farmers.

Data sources and availability

Indicator definition

Population trends of 39 selected bird species that are common and characteristic of European farmland landscapes.

The farmland bird indicator is intended as a barometer of change for the biodiversity of agricultural landscapes in Europe. Birds are sensitive to environmental change and their population numbers can reflect changes in ecosystems as well as in other animal and plant populations.


Main indicator:

This indicator shows trends in the abundance of common farmland birds across their European ranges over time.

Links with other indicators

The indicator 'Population trends of Farmland birds' is linked to the other indicators presented in Eurostat’s dedicated section on agri-environmental indicators.

Data used and methodology

The data for this indicator originates from national monitoring data collected by the Pan-European Common Bird Monitoring Scheme (PECBMS). PECBMS is a partnership involving the European Bird Census Council (EBCC) , the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), BirdLife International and Statistics Netherlands that aims to deliver policy-relevant biodiversity indicators for Europe.

Trend information spanning different time periods is derived from annual national breeding bird surveys in 28 European countries (26 EU Member States (Croatia and Malta are not participating), plus Norway and Switzerland). Highly skilled volunteer ornithologists carry out counting and data collection. Data are collected nationally on an annual basis during the breeding season by common bird monitoring schemes. National bird monitoring data are gathered using several count methods (e.g. standardised point transects/line transects, territory mapping etc.), using a variety of sampling strategies (from free choice of plots to stratified random sampling), and individual plot sizes vary within each country (from 1x1 km or 2x2 km squares or 2.5-degree grid squares to irregular polygons).

A software package named TRIM (Trends and Indices for Monitoring data) is used to calculate national species' indices and then to combine these into supranational indices for species, weighted by estimates of national population sizes. TRIM allows for missing counts in the time series and yields, unbiased yearly indices and standard errors using Poisson regression. Weighting is applied to allow for the fact that different countries hold different proportions of each species' European population. Updated population size estimates, derived from BirdLife International, are used for weighting. Although count methods in the field are different in different national schemes, these differences do not influence the supranational results because the indices are standardised before being combined. An improved hierarchical imputation procedure was introduced in 2005 to calculate supranational indices. Supranational indices for species were then combined on a geometric scale to create multi-species indicators.

Country coverage (i.e. reflecting the availability of high-quality monitoring data from annually-operated common bird monitoring schemes, employing generic survey methods and producing reliable national trends): Austria (since 1998), Belgium (Brussels since 1992; Flanders since 2007; Wallonia since 1990), Bulgaria (since 2004), Cyprus (since 2006), the Czech Republic (since 1981), Denmark (since 1975), Estonia (since 1983), Finland (since 1975), France (since 1989), Germany (since 1989), Greece (since 2007), Hungary (since 1999), Ireland (since 1998), Italy (since 2000), Latvia (since 1995), Lithuania (since 1994), Luxembourg (since 2009), the Netherlands (since 1984), Poland (since 2000), Portugal (since 2004), Romania (since 2006), Slovakia (since 1994), Slovenia (since 2008), Spain (since 1996), Sweden (since 1975) and the United Kingdom (since 1966). Missing years for countries are imputed from the results of neighbouring countries.

For the 2014 indicator update, 167 common bird species were studied and 39 species were selected that use preferably farmland habitats during their breeding season and are present across Europe. So far, three versions of PECBMS European species classification for farmland, forest and other common birds have been produced and used. The first set of European indicators was based on European trends of 47 common bird species, classified by national coordinators of monitoring schemes and other experts who met at the PECBMS workshop in Prague in 2002. For the second set of European indicators, based on an enlarged species sample, the classification was improved. It was based on a publication by Tucker & Evans (1997), describing habitats and their importance for birds in Europe. Since 2007, when the third set of European indices and indicators was produced, data on over 150 species have been used and the species classification has been based on assessments within biogeographical regions in Europe.

The 39 farmland bird species selected are:

Alauda arvensis Emberiza melanocephala Passer montanus
Alectoris rufa Falco tinnunculus Perdix perdix
Anthus campestris Galerida cristata Petronia petronia
Anthus pratensis Galerida theklae Saxicola rubetra
Bubulcus ibis Hirundo rustica Saxicola torquatus
Burhinus oedicnemus Lanius collurio Serinus serinus
Calandrella brachydactyla Lanius minor Streptopelia turtur
Carduelis cannabina Lanius senator Sturnus unicolor
Ciconia ciconia Limosa limosa Sturnus vulgaris
Corvus frugilegus Melanocorypha calandra Sylvia communis
Emberiza cirlus Miliaria calandra Tetrax tetrax
Emberiza citrinella Motacilla flava Upupa epops
Emberiza hortulana Oenanthe hispánica Vanellus vanellus

European indices are calculated using the single European species classification which, by default, attributes the species to one of the broad groups (farmland, forest or other common birds) and only includes species with a wide distribution and a large population in Europe. The Single European species classification does not exclude the possibility of different species classification at a country level. A bird species can be, for example, characteristic for farmland in one country and for forests in another country. The monitoring does not yet take into account where the species was found in the field. However, geo-referenced monitoring is planned for the future.

For further details please see the European Bird Census Council website.


Policy relevance and context

The EU has taken action on the protection of biodiversity for a considerable number of years, for example, by adopting the Birds Directive (Council Directive 79/409/EEC) (updated in Council Directive 2009/147/EC) and the Habitats Directive (Council Directive 92/43/EEC).

At the stakeholders’ conference on Biodiversity and the EU - Sustaining Life, Sustaining Livelihoods, jointly organised by the Irish Presidency and the European Commission in Malahide (May 2004) was adopted the Message from Malahide. The Message identified 18 objectives and related targets which could form the basis for future priority action in reaching the 2010 EU target of halting the loss of biodiversity (the Gothenburg objective) as well as contributing to the global target of significantly reducing the current rate of loss of biodiversity by 2010.

In line with the results of the Tenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) held in Nagoya, Japan (October 2010), a new EU biodiversity strategy, 'Our life insurance, our natural capital: an EU biodiversity strategy to 2020', was adopted by the European Commission in May 2011. This provides a framework for the EU to meet its own biodiversity objectives and global commitments as a party to the CBD. The strategy is built around six mutually supportive targets, which address the main drivers of biodiversity loss and aim to reduce the key pressures on nature and ecosystem services in the EU. Each target is further translated into a set of time-bound actions and other accompanying measures. The strategy also highlights the need to enhance contributions from other environmental policies and initiatives including sectoral integration across EU policies such as agriculture, fisheries, forestry, water, climate and energy. Target 3A of the strategy seeks to maximise “areas under agriculture across grasslands, arable land and permanent crops that are covered by biodiversity-related measures under the Common agricultural policy (CAP) so as to ensure status of species and habitats that depend on or are affected by agriculture”.

In 2013, the Seventh Environment Action Programme (EAP) was adopted, which will guide European environment policy until 2020.

Agri-environmental context

This indicator needs to be seen in the context of the two pillars of the CAP 2014- 2020. Within the framework of the provision of direct payments under CAP Pillar 1, so called “Greening measures” have been introduced which include declaring Ecological Focus Areas, maintaining permanent grassland and crop diversification. Relevant policy measures supported under the CAP Pillar 2 and the rural development programmes include agri-environment-climate schemes and payments to farmers in areas with natural constraints or for adapted farming in areas with environmental restrictions, such as Natura 2000 sites. For monitoring and evaluating the implementation of the CAP, the Farmland Bird Index is both a Context- and an Impact Indicator.[3]

Birds are good indicators for the suitability of the wider environment for wildlife, including that of farmland, especially for bird species that highly depend on this habitat during the breeding season. This is because they rely on various biodiversity elements (habitat quality, ecosystem integrity, local resources connected to biodiversity such as plants or insects). Thus, they are responsive and sensitive to environmental change. Birds that occupy farmland habitats will be affected by both the availability of food and the structural diversity in farmed areas. For many bird species, good data on distribution and population trends exist, with ongoing monitoring schemes providing the continuity for establishing time series.

An assessment of the trends among breeding populations of these characteristic birds can help to determine the quality of agricultural habitats and how this quality is changing over time. The negative trends of breeding populations indicate an unfavourable and worsening status of the species' habitat. Agricultural intensification has been identified as one of the major causes of a decline in population size. In particular, this may include simplification of crop rotations, reduction in spring sowing of cereals, crop specialisation and loss of diversity, increased pesticide use - including herbicides and insecticides, increased fertiliser use, elimination of marginal habitats, loss of hedgerows, drainage of marginal habitats, changes in crops and cropping patterns, loss of hay meadows, and abandonment of low-intensity farming systems. Other land use changes such as urbanisation, development of infrastructures and industrialisation may also have an influence on the decline in farmland birds.

Further Eurostat information



Dedicated section

Other information

External links

  • Publications:
  • Database:
  • European Bird Census Council
  • Other external links:
  • European Commission
  • DG Agriculture and Rural Development
  • DG Environment
  • European Environment Agency


  1. Donald, P.F., Green R.E. & Heath M.F. (2001). Agricultural intensification and the collapse of Europe’s farmland bird populations. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B, 268, 25-29.
  2. Firbank L.G., Petit S., Smart S., Blain A. & Fuller R.J. (2008). Assessing the impacts of agricultural intensification on biodiversity: a British perspective. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B, 363, 777-787.
  3. European Commission (2015). Technical Handbook on the Monitoring and Evaluation Framework of the Common Agricultural Policy 2014 – 2020.