1. Over the past three decades changes in agricultural management have resulted in increased crop and grass production. This intensification has been accompanied by population declines among farmland bird species and a decline in farmland biodiversity. We have analysed trends in agricultural management in order to quantify the degree of intensification, and have considered how they match change in the farmland bird community.
2. Changes in agriculture through time (1962–95) were examined quantitatively for 31 variables representing crop areas, livestock numbers, fertilizer application, grass production and pesticide use. The majority were highly intercorrelated because factors facilitating intensification simultaneously affected many management activities.
3. Change in agriculture was measured using detrended correspondence analysis (DCA). The period 1970–88 saw most intensification, characterized by increases in the area of oilseed rape, autumn-sown cereals, and the use of pesticides and inorganic fertilizers. Spring-sown cereals, bare fallow and root crops declined.
4. Indices of relative population change between 1962 and 1996 were determined for 29 bird species using data from Common Birds Census (CBC) plots on farmland in England and Wales. Principal components analysis (PCA) described a gradient from species that had declined most to those that had increased.
5. The ordinations of agricultural change and bird population change were broadly matching but with a time lag in the response of birds. The most accurately measured agricultural variables for the period 1974–91 matched the changes in farmland birds more closely.
6. We conclude that large shifts in agricultural management are a plausible explanation for the declines in farmland bird populations. We propose a threshold model relating to critical amounts of high-quality habitat or food resources that may be relevant in explaining the lag in response of birds, and propose it should be taken into account in predicting the effects of future agri-environment schemes. Identifying individual factors responsible for bird declines is not possible without detailed experimental work because many components of intensification are interdependent. Birds may be responding to a suite of interacting factors rather individual aspects of farm management. Holistic conservation strategy that encourages general extensification of farming practices will be most likely to benefit farmland bird communities.