Kingfisher sitting on a rail

The UK's wildlife is continuing to decline despite efforts to reverse these trends

© Richard Towell/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The state of nature: 41 percent of UK species have declined since 1970s

A new report has found that the UK's wildlife is continuing to crash, with hundreds of species now at risk of disappearing from our shores altogether. 

Over the past 50 years, urbanisation, agriculture, pollution and climate change have all caused the nation's plants and animals to dwindle - a trend that has continued unabated within the last decade despite efforts to reverse these losses.

Scientists, researchers and conservationists from across the UK have announced in the latest State of Nature report that the nation's wildlife is continuing to decline at a deeply concerning rate despite efforts to reverse these trends.

The beaver is one of fewer success stories after being reintroduced to the UK 300 years after they were hunted into extinction

© Nick Upton/RSPB

They found that wherever they look, from woodlands and farmland, to marine and freshwater environments, species are declining in both number and abundance as the impact of human activities are hitting hard with no sign of stopping. 

Since the 1970s, it has been shown that 41% of all UK species studied have declined.

Some groups are faring worse than others. For example, 26% of the UK's mammals are at a very real risk of becoming extinct, while 22% of seabird species studied have declined in the last five decades.

On a species level, the figures are even more shocking. Since the 1950s the number of hedgehogs have declined by 95%, while turtle doves have crashed by 98% and even numbers of the common toad have fallen by 68%.  

John Jackson, the Head of Science Policy and Communication at the Museum, says, 'The report is amazingly comprehensive, and it is worrying.

'The UK is not bad - relatively speaking - when it comes to the natural environment, but with the standards that we set for ourselves there will be wide agreement that we are not doing well enough.'

The continuing declines during the last few decades are on top of centuries of persecution, pollution, habitat loss and degradation that had already drastically reduced the UK's wildlife.

This has resulted in 133 species having gone extinct in the UK since the 1500s. These include the more charismatic lynx and wolves, but also smaller but no less important species such as the apple bumblebee, Mitten's beardless moss and the common tree frog. 

The UK's Overseas Territories contain globally significant breeding colonies of seabirds

© Alastair Wilson/RSPB

Dr Daniel Hayhow, a conservation scientist for the RSPB and the lead author of the report, says, 'We know more about the UK's wildlife than any other country on the planet, and what it is telling us should make us sit up and listen.

'We need to respond more urgently across the board if we are to put nature back where it belongs. Governments, conservation groups and individuals must continue to work together to help restore our land and sea for wildlife and people in a way that is both ambitious and inspiring for future generations.'The responsibility of the UK to protecting its wildlife extends far from its immediate shores.

There are three Crown Dependencies and 14 Overseas Territories scattered across the oceans, home to an estimated 100,000 species, of which at least 1,549 are found nowhere else on the planet.

These places are of global importance, encompassing a huge range of habitats from sub-Antarctic islands in the South Atlantic to rainforests of the Caribbean. They are also under threat.

The report shows that of the species that live in these dependencies, 40% of sharks and rays, 36% of reptiles and amphibians, 11% of mammals and 8% of birds are classed as threatened, and  therefore at risk of global extinction. 

Important habitats around the UK are being fragmented by towns, cities and roads

© Colin Wilkinson/RSPB

Working together

The State of Nature report is released every few years. It is the result of a partnership between over 70 organisations, including the Museum, which together aims to give the most comprehensive analysis of how wildlife is faring in the UK, its Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories.

Using data collected by scientists and volunteers through the decades, the report tracks the health of the UK's wildlife, bringing together information on not only different habitats, plants and animals, but also the drivers of these declines. 

Dr Fred Rumsey is a Senior Curator in Charge at the Museum and is involved with several of the specialist botanical societies which fed into the report.      

'The whole report is a sobering one,' says Fred. 'It is always shocking when you see everything pulled together.

'It shows that in spite of all the legislation and the goodwill that has happened we are continuing to lose diversity, while habitats are still being lost and their quality declining.

'We still have a problem in that the habitats which are preserved are becoming increasingly fragmented and face increasing pressures. We have a better understanding of what we need to do in the future, but it is still a great concern.'

The biggest drivers

Field of wheat

Changes in agricultural practices have had a huge impact on farmland birds, which have declined by 54% between 1970 and 2017

© Colin Wilkinson/RSPB

There are a number of major causes that have been identified as the drivers of the declines, including agriculture, urbanisation, pollution, hydrological degradation and climate change.

While agricultural production has continued to rise, it has seen a huge decline of nature with nesting farmland birds declining by 54% between 1970 and 2017 while 35% of butterfly species in these habitats have declined over the same period. 

Many farmers are actively working towards making their land more wildlife-friendly, but finding a solution that works to reverse these larger trends has been difficult particularly when this requires landscape-scale changes.  

Urban centres have continued to grow, with an 8% increase in the number of people now living in urban areas between 1970 and 2018. This is putting an increasing pressure on the surrounding countryside as cities expand and roads carve up suitable habitats.

But urban growth doesn't always lead to problems, as wildlife can thrive in towns and cities. In some groups it can even lead to an increase in biodiversity due to an increase in the types of available habitats.

While all of the main issues affecting the UK's wildlife might be concerning on their own, all their impacts are exacerbated by climate change.

The current projections predict that as the climate warms the UK can expect warmer, wetter winters and hotter, drier summers. Sea levels are likely to rise, increasing the risk of coastal flooding, while extreme weather in the form of droughts and floods are likely to increase in frequency.

While urbanisation is increasing, it can be managed to help wildlife thrive

© Ben Andrew/RSBP

These changes to the environment impact on wildlife on many different levels. These include changes in the onset of seasonal events, such as when flowers start to bloom or when birds begin migrating. Species' distributions can also change, with many animals moving their ranges north as the climate warms.

The picture of these movements is complex and not uniform across the UK's environments, however.

'There will be differences between marine and terrestrial habitats,' explains John. 'For example, the marine environment is very fluid and you actually have an increase in biodiversity because there are more southern water species coming in to the warmer waters, but at the same time there will be a movement in fish stocks.

'We traditionally rely on cold water fish stocks, such as cod, and these may move north.'

This can have significant knock-on effects. It relies on there being suitable habitats at higher latitudes for these species to move into and those ecosystems which rely on specific timings of seasonal events to rapidly adapt which is not always possible.

The report is built on data that has been collected by countless volunteers and citizen scientists across the country

© Ben Andrew/RSPB

How to help

'The fact that this report exists reflects a mass of individual interest in the natural world,' says John. 'It reflects that cultural value that is attached in the UK to understanding and interacting with nature.'

This report would have been impossible without the help of countless citizen scientists and volunteers up and down the country going into their patch and recording what they see. It is down to these people, both young and old, that this data exists and that we can build one of the most comprehensive pictures of wildlife anywhere in the world.

Change can only happen if the data underpinning it all exists. Members of the public can help out by simply documenting what is in their garden or by joining larger conservation organisations and lending them a helping hand.

By helping people connect with nature, they are more likely to want to protect it

© Tom Simone/RSPB

There is also hope that as global environmental movements have picked up speed in the last few years, those who can make big differences are starting to sit up and listen.    

'There seems to be a much wider appreciation of the severity of the problem, not just from the public but also from people within the business sector,' explains Fred.

'It seems to me that businesses are really taking on the fact that there are environmental issues and that they are potentially part of the problem, but that they can also be part of the solution.'

It is not just about large scale change - although that certainly needs to happen. Individuals do do small things to make change.

'As individuals, progress is made in little tiny steps and if every person makes a little improvement once, and that is multiplied up by millions, then that really does make the necessary change,' says Fred. 

'We need people to carry on recording and to make others more aware of what wildlife is, where it is, and why it matters.'

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