SOME of Ireland's most iconic birds are dying off due to a change in farming methods, experts have warned.
Now, with a review of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in progress, conservationists are concerned funding used to encourage wildlife protection may be reduced.
According to BirdWatch Ireland (BWI), which monitors populations, numbers of farmland species have dropped to their lowest levels since records began.
Those affected include the skylark (down by 46pc), the linnet (62pc), the corn bunting (66pc) and the once-thriving grey partridge (82pc).
Data from the Countryside Bird Survey showed the lowest ever quantity of yellowhammers was recorded in 2009.
"Farmland birds are indicators of the health of ecosystems in our wider countryside," said Alex Copeland, a senior conservation officer at BWI.
"Maintaining the health of these systems supports not just birds and biodiversity but the soils where we grow crops or graze livestock, the water we drink and the air we breathe."
Experts put the startling decline down to a dramatic shift in farming methods. This includes the removal of hedges to expand field sizes and increases in the cutting of hay fields.
The issue has led to a stand-off between conservationists and farmers over the future division of CAP funding between environmentally friendly schemes and traditional farming grants.
Ireland's annual EU funding of about €1.7bn is divided into two strands. The first gets funding of around €1.3bn and refers to general farming grants. The second goes toward funding more niche and often environmentally friendly farming practices.
Mr Copeland said with pressure from the farming lobby, more money could be diverted by the Government into general farming. However, the Irish Farming Association stressed it was a firm supporter of the second strand of funding and that its members were intrinsic to helping to protect species.
"It is incorrect (to suggest) that farming and protecting habitats are mutually exclusive," a spokesman said.