Two birds which are icons of Christmas are tumbling catastrophically in numbers. The stars of the chorus of The Twelve Days of Christmas, the turtle dove and the grey partridge (the one that's in-a-pear-tree) are disappearing from many parts of Britain.

Once widespread in the south, the turtle dove population, currently estimated at 14,000 pairs, is now balancing on a knife-edge in Britain, with nearly 60 per cent lost just in the five years to 2010, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said.

The British grey partridge population is estimated to be around 43,000 pairs, but this too has fallen, by 30 per cent over the same period.

Losing six out of 10 turtle doves and three out of 10 grey partridges in five years was nothing short of an unsustainable wildlife disaster, said the society's conservation scientist, Dr Mark Eaton.


"The turtle dove is in a great degree of danger. If this trend were to continue we could be down to fewer than 1000 pairs by the middle of the next decade, with complete extinction a real possibility."

The society's warning came as the Government released its annual report on wild bird populations, which showed that farmland birds as a whole and others such as the skylark and the corn bunting have continued to decline, despite millions of pounds being spent to allow farmers to carry out environmental stewardship schemes.

The breeding farmland bird index was at half of its 1970 level last year, the lowest level ever recorded, which means that just in the time since the break-up of the Beatles, half of the birds visible on a typical country walk have vanished. The Countryside Restoration Trust said yesterday that the decline had happened despite £500 million ($964 million) of public money being poured into agri-environment schemes.

England has 5.6 million hectares in the Entry Level Scheme covering more than 41,500 holders, and 882,000 hectares in England are managed under the Higher Level Scheme, covering 8500 holders, said Robin Maynard, the CRT campaigns director. The total land area in England under all agri-environment schemes is 6.2 million hectares but it's not making any significant difference.

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs accepted yesterday that more needed to be done to support the recovery of farmland and woodland birds.

- Independent