Patterns of change in distribution (presence/absence) and abundance since the late 1960s were examined in 20 species of farmland bird in southern Britain in predominantly arable (eastern), predominantly mixed (central) and predominantly grassland (western) regions. Comparisons were made between changes in distribution and in abundance to determine whether these measures show similar relationships to environmental change. Local extinctions of selected species and reductions in species richness were significantly greater in the predominantly grassland region. Decreases in abundance were greatest in seven species in the predominantly arable region, two in the mixed region and nine in the grassland region. Changes in distribution and abundance showed consistent patterns in three species, turtle dove Streptopelia turtur L., yellow wagtail Motacilla flava L. and reed bunting Emberiza schoeniclus L. In another four species, grey partridge Perdix perdix L., lapwing Vanellus vanellus L., tree sparrow Passer montanus L. and corn bunting Miliaria calandra L., decreases in abundance were greatest in the arable region, yet declines in distribution were lowest. For other individual species, changes in distribution were too small to draw any conclusions in relation to farm type. We suggest that modern grassland systems are suboptimal habitats compared to arable or mixed agricultural land for many farmland species that occur at relatively low density in the more western, grass-dominated region. Declines in abundance are therefore more likely to lead to local extinction in these areas than in eastern areas where abundance is higher. However, the role of changes in grassland management on bird populations requires further research. It is suggested that conclusions drawn from changes in distribution alone, in the absence of supporting data on changes in abundance, may be misleading where the aim is to assess how large-scale spatial dynamics of populations relate to environmental change.