The latest annual report by the Rare Breeding Birds Panel (RBBP) – Rare breeding birds in the UK in 2021 – has been published today (1 November 2023) and reveals mixed fortunes for the UK’s rare breeding birds.
The report brings together vital evidence for the rarest of our breeding birds, many of which are subject to national and international conservation action. Four species of birds of prey, including the Osprey, have reached record totals in the UK, as have several species of rare and colonising herons. However, two species of rare breeding bird failed to breed for the second year in succession.
The data gathered by the RBBP – which includes representatives from JNCC, the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), as well as independent experts – is fundamental to our understanding of the status and trends of the rare and scarce species of UK breeding birds.
The annual report collates breeding evidence drawing together information from volunteers who report their bird sightings to recording networks. The 2021 report covers 111 species or races of rare breeding birds reported breeding, considerably more than any previous RBBP report.
Populations of four rare birds of prey – Osprey, Marsh Harrier, Goshawk and White-tailed Eagle – are now higher than ever reported before. A total of 281 pairs of Osprey were reported to the Panel, of which at least 232 laid eggs, and it is likely that a few more escaped detection in remote areas. When the RBBP start collating records in 1973 just ten breeding pairs were known, all in northern Scotland, but now thanks to conservation efforts the species breeds in all the mainland counties of Scotland, has expanded southwards into northern England, become established in Wales and – due to reintroduction projects – breeds in the East Midlands around Rutland Water and on the Dorset coast.
The report’s findings highlight that 2021 was also a good year for our rarer breeding herons, including Great White Egret and Cattle Egret. These are two of several heron species that are in the process of colonising the UK because of climate change and improved conservation, their breeding ranges pushing further north within Europe. Cattle Egrets began breeding in the UK in 2017 and numbers have increased every year since, with the current estimate of 63–77 pairs. Great White Egrets were reported breeding from 14 sites across southern areas in 2021; the UK population is now thought to number 53–59 pairs.
The fortunes of another rare bird of prey, the Montagu’s Harrier, have been far less favourable. Only one male made a sustained effort to attract a mate and there were no records of any females. Montagu’s Harrier was at a similar low ebb when the RBBP published its first report (for 1973), but numbers did recover in the following years, which may give some hope for this Red-listed bird of prey. The Yellow-legged Gull, a Mediterranean species, started breeding in the UK in the 1990s, and nested every year from 2001 onwards, but last bred in 2019.
The report also documents the very likely attempted breeding by Temminck’s Stint, a wading bird that last bred in the UK in 1997. A pair was present at a Highland site for two months and was seen to indulge in display flights and courtship behaviour and was thought to be visiting a nest; unfortunately, heavy rain in early July resulted in the likely nest site becoming flooded.
Find out more on the Rare Breeding Birds Panel (RBBP) website.