Mystery of the silent woodlands: scientists are baffled as bird numbers plummet

by Michael McCarthy, Environment Editor

25 February 2005

It has hardly been noticed, but it is another sinister warning sign of a world going badly wrong. Populations of some of Britain's most attractive woodland birds are plummeting at a rate that threatens them with extinction, and nobody knows why.

Precipitous declines in the numbers of some species, of up to four-fifths, have been registered over the past 30 years, but scientists are just realising what is happening, and they have no simple explanation.

In its scale and its range, the phenomenon is one of the most ominous events in the natural history of Britain over the past half-century. Perversely, the decline comes at a time when Britain is planting more woodlands than ever, and forest management has never been more sympathetic to wildlife conservation.

About a dozen species of small birds that have flitted through our woodlands for thousands of years are suddenly in serious trouble. This may be associated with climate change, linked to the damage that excess deer numbers are doing to the undergrowth in woodlands, or in some cases, linked to trouble for birds on migration routes to and from Africa.

The endangered species are less familiar than common garden visitors such as robins and blackbirds, which is perhaps why their disappearance has taken longer to register. But now a study, appearing next month, makes the picture clear for the first time.

It shows that five of the species - the spotted flycatcher, the lesser spotted woodpecker, the lesser whitethroat, the lesser redpoll and the tree pipit - plunged by more than three-quarters between 1966 and 1999, and continues to decline.

The population of the spotted flycatcher fell by no less than 85 per cent, and that of the lesser spotted woodpecker by 81 per cent. Another five species - the willow tit, the marsh tit, the woodcock, the dunnock or hedge sparrow and the willow warbler - fell by between half and three-quarters, and two more species, the songthrush and the bullfinch, fell by nearly a half.

Yet another group, for which there are no reliable numerical figures, is nevertheless known to have fallen significantly in either numbers or in range, or in both. These include the long-eared owl, the hawfinch and the nightingale.

In southern England, where the situation is worst, some of these species have virtually disappeared. "These birds are falling off the radar in a quite catastrophic way and we have no real idea why," said Graham Appleton of the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), Britain's leading bird research organisation. Three of its researchers, Rob Fuller, David Noble and Des Vanhinsbergh, produced the study with Ken Smith, a researcher from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

The most puzzling and perhaps most worrying aspect of the woodland bird decline, apart from its remarkable scale, is that there is no obvious single cause, as there has been with the dramatic and well-known decline over the past 30 years of British birds on farmland.

Species of the fields such as the skylark, the grey partridge, the corn bunting and the turtle dove have also dropped enormously in numbers, but the reason is well-known, the range of new agricultural practices that came in with the intensive farming revolution.

Turning these declines around by more wildlife-friendly farming methods is now official government policy, and may well eventually succeed.

But the difficulty with addressing the woodland bird decline is that there is no obvious simple reason for it, and thus no obvious simple solution.

In their study, which will be published in the March edition of the journal British Birds, the researchers offer seven possible causes which may be behind the declines. They are:

* Pressures on migrant birds during migration, or on their wintering grounds in Africa;

* Climate change in Britain itself, especially changes in the timing of the emergence of insects used as food, and the drying-out of woodlands;

* Reduction in the actual numbers of insects and other invertebrates;

* Impacts of land use on woodland edges and on habitats outside woodland;

* Reduced management of lowland woodland;

* Intensified habitat modification by deer, which eat the woodland bushes, shrubs and grasses, and stop regeneration of trees, reducing nesting areas and insect populations;

* New pressure on nests and young birds from predators, such as grey squirrels, members of the crow family, and great spotted woodpeckers.

But at present, these possibilities are speculative, and the true causes of an enormous change in Britain's natural environment remain a mystery.

©2005 Independent News & Media (UK) Ltd.



I have been battling with the NRPB for years and the pigeon racing orgs about the problems with birds from masts. I can always tell when the output on my local mast is up because the birds diappear. I have filled in numerous online surveys from the RSPB about birds in the garden. I made a hoohaha last two years about bats - we used to have a big colony here which totally disappeared when the mast were erected. Since then we have had a couple of odd ones. However since other masts have been put up (and I believe that my house is now in a hot spot) I haven't heard any for a while. The sparrow population has also gone down AGAIN since other masts have been put in the area.. I believe, watching the birds, that in a very small way there is an evolutionary change but it is too small. The most noticable thing is in the size of the birds - small chicks growing very quickly to large birds. Robins also seem to be 'immune' but I am talking about one family only as opposed to a lot 4yrs ago.


sue fergusson


It does seem odd that the bird associations haven't taken up the concept that the EMF environment is one birds are sensitive to. We've noticed it! I've saved your observations into a growing document of similar bits and pieces on non-human observations. I feel fairly convinced that the changing planetary magnetic field, coupled with military specials and regular communications, are really screwing a lot of the environment up. Some deliberate, but most quite unknowingly.



Last Summer a large petition and many objection letters were raised because of my concern for the wildlife of Pagham Harbour Nature Reserve once a TETRA mast was installed alongside the area.

In the minutes of the harbour advisory board meeting of September 8th 2004, the following comment is lodged.

"A number of conservation organisations had been contacted in order toascertain if they had planned to carry out research on this topic, each of which had advised that the issue had been given low priority as it was extremely difficult to ascertain the reasons for changes in behaviour short term".

I had given all organisations a blow by blow account of the behaviour of the three orphaned thrush fledglings that had adopted our garden as a feeding ground and had become so tame that they tapped on the window for raisins and walked into the house if the door was left open. In July 2004 my area was hit by tetra testing emisions at high power, and swaths of the area were totally without any birds except for seagulls, pigeons and magpies, for 3 days.

Only two of our little thrushes ever returned to our garden, and this took over a week. They were very wary and nervous, would not come near us, their feathers were in poor condition and they mostly sat under bushes in a dejected way.

It has taken four or five months for these thrushes to trust us enough to stay put while we put out food. But they never tapped on the window or came into the house again.

During that period last summer we found several dead birds in the area.

I think it is time these wildlife organisations left their desks and joined the real world!



I have a friend who lives in Hampstead Norreys near Newbury. She used to exercise a horse and her route frequently took her near the M4 (on adjacent track). This horse was perfect in traffic, never took any notice of cars, the nearby busy road etc. Then a mast was erected near the motoway and he became very badly behaved, shied, tried to run away if she ever took him down there. She tried writing to the council and to the BHS (British Horse Society) but they were not interested. (Can give you more precise details if you want them) However, horses are very sensitive (hearing and otherwise) and it might be worth trying to find out if other riders have problems with newly erected masts.

Cheers, Ann


The 7 horses with the same liver complaint were in the Kent area. They were special horses used for displays etc (a team of 12?) For this reason, they did not roam freely in the fields and were given specialist care. A tetra mast was put up on a neighbour's land 300 yards from their stables and after 4 months 7 of the horses contracted some sort of liver disorder which left the vet puzzled and unable to treat.

In Kent, 12 special horses for displays etc were not let out in the fields and had special care. 7 of the 12 contracted a liver disease and the vet could not treat or diagnose it. There was a TETRA mast in the neighbouring field. The owner of the horses was seeking help with this from Mast Sanity.



It was me who started the horse thing! I promised Andy fuller details, the story is:

A friend who lives near East Ilsley/Newbury used to exercise a horse for someone. She used to daily cross a bridge over the A34 where there was already one mast in existence - the infamous mast disguised as a tree. The horse was always absolutely fine about traffic etc until two more masts were put up on the other side of the bridge then he became quite unmanageable, leapt about, refused to cross the bridge etc. My friend thought about it and the fact that, if you put metal in a microwave you can hear the waves pinging about, and she concluded that microwaves were probably bouncing off vehicles on the road and he could hear it and was upset because of it. Anyway, she had to give up using the crossing and although she wrote to the council and BHS, she got short shrift.

A side issue to this is that she happened to know an elderly woman who lived on the hillside in a relatively isolated house close to the three masts. This woman began to suffer cancerous patches on her scalp, the cancer spread and she died within a short period. The horse has also since died, he was found dead in his field and the owners were surprised because he was just turned 20 which is quite young for a horse with a relatively easy life. You could say this is all something and nothing but I do wonder whether there are other horse owners with problems and one just doesn't hear about it in the rush to live our glorious mobile-enhanced life (gosh, I feel depressed about it all this morning!)

Cheers Ann


I can relate the story of two such cases. Two farms, surrounded by masts, have experienced the problem of cancers in their animals. Over the last couple of years the one farm have lost 3 dogs and a racehorse to cancer (the cancer in the horse started in the eye and spread, I think to other parts) and the neighbouring farm lost their horse to cancer of the rectum last year.

Elsewhere in the village we have lost dogs who "go off their legs" - one household lost both of their dogs to cancers (one ended up with a cancer which was almost the size of the rest of his body!).



A friend asked me to forward this.


This maybe of interest - I have 3 horses and in their field is a huge electricity pylon. The grass immediately under the pylon is yellow and sparse compared to the grass elsewhere. Also the horses will never walk under it!!!

Makes you wonder

Peace Be


From Mast Network


Electromagnetic pollution of the environment

Micro Waves Effects on Wildlife Animals

Radio tracking collar disturbs water vole breeding

Invisible Poisons

One day we'll all know - Let's hope it isn't too late


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