1. Changes in agriculture have been linked to widespread declines in farmland bird populations. One approach to the identification of the causes of observed population changes is to investigate historical changes in national demographic rates.
2. We analysed the British Trust for Ornithology’s nest records database to investigate whether long-term farmland population trends could have been driven by changes in several components of the annual breeding performance of 12 granivorous bird species. Clutch size, brood size, chick : egg ratio and daily nest failure rates were analysed with respect to blocks of years during which abundance (as measured by the Common Birds Census) was increasing, stable or declining. The individual components of breeding performance were combined to provide estimates of the production of fledglings per breeding attempt.
3. Most species’ population declines were not associated with poor breeding performance per attempt. Effects of environmental change on this parameter therefore cannot be a general mechanism behind the major population declines seen.
4. A fall in linnet Carduelis cannabina fledgling production per attempt, driven primarily by increased nest failure rates during the egg period, represented the strongest evidence for an important effect of breeding performance on abundance. This change could have driven the principal population decline (1975–86) for this species.
5. Conversely, at least for the declining turtle dove Streptopelia turtur, skylark Alauda arvensis, tree sparrow Passer montanus, yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella and corn bunting Miliaria calandra, breeding performance per attempt was higher while populations declined.
6. Variation in annual survival and fledgling production per breeding attempt alone could not explain changes in abundance for at least seven species. This may suggest that changes in post-fledging survival rates and/or the number of breeding attempts per year could have been important.
7. Management to improve over-winter survival may be critical in reversing the population trends of most declining species, but such management might still best be directed at the breeding season. Post-fledging survival rates and the number of breeding attempts made within a season are little-studied demographic variables that are high priorities for future research and long-term monitoring.