THEY were once a familiar sight, easy to spot hovering over roadside verges and fields as they searched for their prey.

But the latest official statistics show that the beloved kestrel has declined by more than 80 per cent in the last 25 years.

Now a call is going out for more attention to be paid to the iconic bird's fall in numbers to ensure that the kestrel bounces back.

The figures show that between 1994 and 2019 kestrel numbers have plunged by 82%.

And the long term decline is the biggest of any monitored farmland bird species in the country, worse than the greenfinch (68% since 1994) and the lapwing (58%). 

The kestrel also suffered a year on year decline of 59% from 2018-2019.

Simon Foster, NatureScot Trends and Indicators Analyst, said: “The kestrel is one of our most unmistakable birds. 

"Twenty or more years ago you would see them all over, but the species has been dropping for quite a number of years.

“Of our farmland birds, kestrels stand out as the largest decline by quite a margin. 

"The numbers started to drop around 1998 and since then they have continued to decline, with only one or two better years.

"Some of that could be linked to vole abundance, after a run of bad years, and the availability of the habitat that they use.

“Studies in France have shown the use of some rodenticides have had an impact on kestrel numbers but we don’t have any similar studies in Scotland.

“In Scotland, we can’t really put our finger on what’s happening. 

"It’s a species we need to focus attention on.”

Kestrels have light-brown plumage with dark spots. The males have a grey-blue head, while females are all brown. 

Kestrels are easily distinguished by their pointed wings and long tail, and ability to hover while looking for small mammals to eat. In fact, this ability earned the bird one of its old nicknames of the "wind hover", as while they hover, they are able to keep their head still, even in strong winds, enabling them to pinpoint their prey by sight.

They should be found all year round in a wide variety of habitats, such as moors, heaths and farmland and are also adapted to survive in cities.

Mr Foster said climate change may be a factor in their decline, as it could affect the food chain, but added there remains hope for the iconic species.

He said: “To some degree, kestrel populations could bounce back. 

"They can produce six chicks in a year so the opportunity to introduce new birds into the population is there if we can get the conditions right.”

The abundance of Scotland’s terrestrial breeding birds is tracked using results from the annual British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) and Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) Breeding Bird Survey.

Since the surveys began, farmland birds have increased by 14% overall.

The greatest long-term increases have been for goldfinch (+363%) and great tit (+175%).

The Scottish Raptor Study Group have reported previously that Scottish vole numbers are decreasing in line with those in the rest of Europe, showing cyclic peaks lower than in previous decades, which would impact kestrel populations as their diet is comprised of voles, mice, shrews, birds and invertebrates and they need to eat several voles a day to survive.

Other factors that may have contributed to the decline include loss of nesting sites, such as old trees with cavities.

The fall in kestrel numbers is revealed just days after figures showed Scotland's woodland bird populations are faring well, recovering from a more than 10% drop linked to the Beast from the East storm in March 2018. It caused widespread chaos, and was also linked to a 12% drop in woodland birds between 2017 and 2018.

But the 2019 results show a return to a more stable position, with a rapid recovery for two of the woodland species most affected by the harsh conditions – wren and goldcrest – whose numbers were up by more than 20%.

Between 1994 and 2019, farmland birds increased by 14% overall.

The most notable long-term rises have been for the goldfinch, up 363%, and great tit, up 175%.

Upland birds continue to show a long-term decline, down 18% between 1994 and 2019, though they were stable between 2018 and 2019.

And in the long-term, the populations of five species – dotterel, curlew, black grouse, hooded crow and dipper – have fallen more than 45%.