We use ornithological atlas data to assess evidence for the existence of a number of spatial patterns of range contraction in British breeding birds. For 18 of the 25 species which suffered the greatest range contractions between 1968 and 1991, there wais a greater likelihood of local extinction in areas where the species was initially less widespread, so ranges tended to contract towards their cores. However there was evidence for a number of other patterns, with some species having a greater likelihood of local extinction in the centres of their ranges and others suffering random local extinctions throughout their range. The different spatial patterns identified were largely independent of the overall range contraction suffered by each species nationally. We suggest that range contractions in British birds can generally be explained better by a general decline in habitat quality or other factors than by contagious anthropogenic effects, as might be expected in a country with a long history of human environmental modification.