Common birds and butterflies

Briefing Published 29 Nov 2018 Last modified 14 Dec 2018
9 min read
Common birds and butterflies


Indicator past trend

Selected objective to be met by 2020

Indicative outlook for the EU meeting the selected objective by 2020

Abundance and distribution of selected species (common birds and grassland butterflies)


Common birds

Red triangle: deteriorating trend

butterflies Red triangle: deteriorating trend


Common birds
Red triangle: deteriorating trend

Meet the headline
target of the EU Biodiversity Strategy:
to halt the loss of
biodiversity and the
degradation of ecosystem
services and restore
them in so far as
is feasible


Red circle: it is unlikely that the objective will be met by 2020

It is highly unlikely that the objective will be achieved by 2020 given the continuing declining trends for common birds and grassland butterflies.

For further information on the scoreboard methodology please see Box I.3 in the EEA Environmental indicator report 2018

The Seventh Environment Action Programme (7th EAP) states that, by 2020, the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystem services should be halted. Trends in the abundance of common birds and grassland butterflies are among the key indicators in monitoring this. Between 1990 and 2015, the common bird index decreased by 8 % in the EU, with the common farmland birds index having decreased by 32 %. A significant decline of 34 % was also apparent for grassland butterflies. The main reasons for the continued decline in these species’ populations are changing rural land use, the intensification and specialisation of farming (including high levels of pesticides and fertilizers input) or land abandonment in areas with natural constraints. Based on the continuing marked downward historical trends in these species’ populations and despite the increased introduction of biodiversity measures into the Common Agricultural Policy and the efforts already captured under the Nature (Birds and Habitats) Directives and the EU Biodiversity Strategy, it is highly unlikely that the objective will be achieved by 2020.

Setting the scene

The EU is losing biodiversity and the 7th EAP (EU, 2013) contains the objective of halting the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystem services by 2020, as well as restoring them in so far as is feasible. Biodiversity is not only important in its own right, as it also provides society with a wide range of ecosystem services upon which we depend, such as food, water purification, pollination etc. This briefing examines trends in the abundance of common birds and grassland butterflies. These are considered to be excellent barometers of overall biodiversity and of the health of ecosystems, as they occur in many habitats and are sensitive to environmental change (EEA, 2018). For aspects related to legally protected species and habitats, see the briefings on EU protected species (AIRS_PO1.7, 2018) and habitats (AIRS_PO1.8, 2018).

Policy targets and progress

Halting and reversing the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystem services by 2020 is the central aim of the EU Biodiversity Strategy (EC, 2011). This aligns with the 7th EAP objective of halting the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystem services by 2020. 

Figure 1 shows that between 1990 and 2015, there was a decrease of 8 % in the index of 168 common birds in the 26 EU Member States that have bird population monitoring schemes. The decline in common farmland bird numbers over the same period was more pronounced, at 32 % (39 species), while the common forest bird index (34 species) decreased by 3 %.  The trends remain very similar when Norway and Switzerland, two other EEA member countries for which data are available, are included in the indicator coverage; for more information see the EEA indicator on abundance and distribution of selected species (EEA, 2018).

While this indicator takes 1990 as a starting point, it should be borne in mind that significant decreases had already occurred before this date.


Figure 1. Long term trends for common bird species, EU 

1. The solid lines show the smoothed trend while the dashed lines show the unsmoothed trend. The 95 % confidence intervals can be viewed through the EEA indicator CSI050.
2. Croatia and Malta are not included in the EU total due to lack of data.

The negative trend in farmland-related biodiversity is supported by the population index of 17 grassland butterfly species with a high sensitivity to habitat degradation and loss (see Figure 2). In spite of year-to-year fluctuations, which are typical features of butterfly populations, grassland butterfly numbers are declining significantly. In 2015, the index was 34 % below its 1990 value. As with bird indices, the reductions observed since 1990 are on top of decreases before that time, although no structured data series for butterflies are available before 1990.

Figure 2. Long term trends for grassland butterflies in 15 EU countries

Note: The shaded area represents 'confidence limits'.


The long-term trends shown in Figures 1 and 2 demonstrate that the EU has experienced a major decline in biodiversity associated with agro-ecosystems and grasslands (EEA, 2015). This has been primarily due to the loss, fragmentation and degradation of natural and semi-natural habitats (Donald, P.F et al, 2001; Van Dyck, H. et al, 2009). These changes have been mainly caused by the homogenisation and loss of habitat as a result of agricultural intensification, intensive forest management, land abandonment and urban sprawl. For example, increased use of pesticides and herbicides results in reduced insect populations and seed production by plants, thereby reducing food for birds (Vickery J.A. et al, 2009; Musitelli, F. et al, 2016). Through habitat simplification and loss as well as fragmentation, birds lose their nesting sites, which adds to population decline (Guerrero, I. et al, 2012). The main driver of the decline in grassland butterflies is the change in rural land use, in particular intensive agricultural production with high use of agrochemicals (i.e. fertilisers and pesticides). The loss of species-rich semi-natural grasslands has been particularly detrimental (Nilsson, S., G. et al, 2013).

These negative trends show no sign of changing, despite progress in enacting and implementing European policies (such the Birds and the Habitats Directives (EU, 1992 and 2009), and the Water Framework Directive (EU, 2000)), as well as the environmental measures within the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

To date the CAP has not influenced agricultural practices enough to reduce overall loss of biodiversity. The outcomes of the latest Habitats Directive reporting round demonstrate the lack of any substantial progress in the conservation status of natural and semi-natural grasslands targeted by the Directive. The vast majority of assessments of the conservation status of agricultural habitats, as well as of woodland and other forest habitats, remain unfavourable (AIRS_PO1.8, 2018).

The environment-related elements set out in the EU reform package, in particular for EU agriculture and cohesion policies, backed by the initiatives for greening the EU budget under the Multi-Annual Financial Framework 2014-2020, are designed to support these objectives. Greening of the CAP aims to promote environmentally beneficial agricultural and forestry practices such as crop diversification, the protection of permanent grassland and grazing land, and sustainable agroforestry. Rural Development Programmes 2014–2020 address restoring, preserving and enhancing ecosystems through payments to cover the cost of farmers adopting environment- and climate-friendly land management practices.

The mid-term review of the EU Biodiversity Strategy comprehensively assessed progress towards the headline target (and towards all six targets) and concluded that the EU is not on track to meet the objective of halting biodiversity loss and the degradation of ecosystem services by 2020 (EC, 2015). Despite environmental measures implemented so far, the continuing declining trends apparent for regularly monitored groups, such as grassland butterflies and farmland birds, illustrate well that it is highly unlikely that the objective will be achieved by 2020.

Outlook beyond 2020

It is difficult to forecast how soon biodiversity, as illustrated by the abundance of bird and grassland butterfly populations, will recover, as their state is influenced by a complex combination of environmental factors and policy measures. Substantial positive impacts of the CAP reform and the measures anticipated under the Multi-Annual Financial Framework 2014-2020 on common species associated with farmland might become visible in the 2020-2030 period, as long as these policies are implemented thoroughly and on a large scale throughout the EU. On the other hand, other factors that could adversely impact the outlook beyond 2020 include the negative impact of climate change on biodiversity and ecosystems, particularly on those specialist species groups that are dependent on non-intensive agriculture and forest ecosystems. The increased competition for land could also intensify agricultural production in the EU, through land take via urbanisation (AIRS_PO1.3, 2018), as well as for the production of renewable energy and biofuels (AIRS_PO2.6, 2018).

About the indicator

This indicator shows trends in the abundance of common birds and grassland butterflies over time across their European distribution. It is an index indicator (relative values, 1990 set to 100). The data collection methods are scientifically sound and the methods used are harmonised (national systems may differ but indices are standardised before being combined), and are peer-reviewed and statistically robust. Skilled volunteers collect national data on an annual basis. Bird monitoring schemes currently exist in 26 EU countries (EU-28 minus Croatia and Malta) and butterfly monitoring schemes in 15 EU countries (Belgium, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom).  

Footnotes and references

Donald, P.F. et al, 2001, ‘Agricultural intensification and the collapse of Europe’s farmland bird populations’, Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B, 268, 25-29.

EC, 2011, Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions ‘Our life insurance, our natural capital: an EU biodiversity strategy to 2020’ (COM(2011) 244 final).

EC, 2015, Report from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council ‘The mid-term review of the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020’ (COM(2015) 0478 final).

EEA, 2015, SOER 2015 — The European environment — State and outlook 2015, European Environment Agency ( accessed 13 February 2018.

EEA, 2018, ‘Abundance and distribution of selected species (CSI050/SEBI 001)’, European Environment Agency ( accessed 16 November 2018. 

EU, 1992, Council Directive 92/43/EEC of 21 May 1992 on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora (OJ L 206, 22.7.1992, p. 7–50).

EU, 2000, Directive 2000/60/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 October 2000 establishing a framework for Community action in the field of water policy (OJ L 327, 22.12.2000, p. 1–73).

EU, 2009, Directive 2009/147/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 30 November 2009 on the conservation of wild birds (OJ L 20, 26.1.2010, p. 7–75).

EU, 2013, Decision No 1386/2013/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 November 2013 on a General Union Environment Action Programme to 2020 ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’, Annexe A, paragraph 28a (OJ L 354, 28.12.2013, p. 171–200).

Eurostat, 2017, ’Statistics explained — SDG 15 – Life on land’ ( accessed 13 February 2018.

Guerrero, I. et al, 2012, ‘Response of ground-nesting farmland birds to agricultural intensification across Europe: Landscape and field level management factors’, Biological Conservation, 152, 74-80.

Musitelli, F. et al, 2016, ‘Effects of livestock farming on birds of rural areas in Europe’, Biodiversity and Conservation, 25, 615-631. Van Dyck, H. et al, 2009, ‘Declines in common, widespread butterflies in a landscape under intense human use’, Conservation Biology, 23, vol. 4, 957-965.

Nilsson, S., G. et al, 2013, ‘Land-use changes, farm management and the decline of butterflies associated with semi-natural grasslands in southern Sweden’, Nature Conservation, 6, 31-48.

Vickery J.A. et al, 2009, ‘Arable field margins managed for biodiversity conservation: A review of food resource provision for farmland birds’, Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, 133, 1-13.

AIRS Briefings

AIRS_PO1.3, 2018, Urban land take, European Environment Agency.

AIRS_PO1.7, 2018, EU protected species, European Environment Agency.

AIRS_PO1.8, 2018, EU protected habitats, European Environment Agency.

AIRS_PO2.6, 2018, Renewable energy sources, European Environment Agency.

Environmental indicator report 2018 – In support to the monitoring of the 7th Environment Action Programme, EEA report No19/2018, European Environment Agency

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