Migratory birds are critically dependent on adequate wintering habitats for their long-term survival. Cantabrian farmland, a mixed agricultural landscape extending across the coastal lowlands of northern Spain, constitutes an important wintering area for many short-distance migrants coming from central-western and northern Europe. Unfortunately, the Common Agricultural Policy of the European Union and national afforestation schemes have resulted in a massive replacement of farmland by pine Pinus spp. and eucalypt Eucalyptus sp. plantations. This work assesses the importance of Cantabrian farmland as wintering grounds for short-distance European migrants and for wintering species that originate in nearby woodlands. We examined the seasonal changes in passerine bird populations in the Cantabrian region and used winter ringing recoveries obtained in the area to evaluate the contribution made by European migrants to winter populations. Bird communities were surveyed along 299 500-m long transects distributed between 67 farmland patches, 67 lowland forests and 14 upland forests. Winter assemblages were more diverse and species more abundant in farmland than in lowland or upland forests, whereas these differences were smaller in the spring. Bird numbers in farmland tripled in winter, numbers increasing by about 6.9 million birds compared to breeding populations. Most of this increase was accounted for by species that also bred in the region and that considerably increased their abundance (65.6% of all wintering birds, with the Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs responsible for 31.4% of the total increase) and by five exclusively wintering species (34.4%, with the Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis accounting for 25.2% of the total increase). The main bulk of this increase is caused by the influx of European migrants. The importance of halting the current spread of eucalypt plantations (which increased over 400% over the past 30 years) and of applying more effective agri-environment schemes to achieve appropriate farmland conservation is discussed.