A single tree stands in the middle of a field. The colours are dark and muted and mist hangs on the horizon.

Over the last few centuries the UK has been chipping away at its nature as agriculture and industrialisation swept the country © Matt Gibson/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

UK has 'led the world' in destroying the natural environment

Centuries of farming, building and industry have made the UK one of the most nature-depleted countries in Europe.

Extensive agricultural lands and road networks, in combination with other factors, have reduced the wildlife in the UK to a point hardly seen elsewhere.

While the UK has made some gains, natural landscapes have been so heavily degraded over decades and centuries that we are simply not doing enough to turn back the tide. 

Biodiversity is the name we give to the variety of all the plants, animals, bacteria and fungi with which we share the planet. It is the range of species found in every habitat on Earth, including in the woodlands, on the seashores and on the tops of mountains.

As humans change the environment, from building roads to digging up fields, we chip away at this diversity of life, reducing the number of species that are found in any one place.

This is causing species around the planet to decline at a concerning speed.

A new analysis looking into how much biodiversity is left in different countries around the world has shown that the UK has some of the lowest amounts of biodiversity remaining.

Before the Industrial Revolution, forests covered much more of the UK than they do now. Large areas of wilderness were home to animals and plants which are now a rare sight, or gone completely. Red squirrels, beavers, wolves and bears were once common in the British Isles.

The advent of mass farming, factories, roads, trainlines and urban sprawl has been a death knell for wild places, and it was accelerated by the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century. And things are getting worse, not better.

More than 40 million birds have disappeared from the UK's skies since 1970, according to the RSPB.

The brown soil of a freshly ploughed field streched into the distance, while a few trees and green hills can be seen on the horizon.

The key driver of biodiversity loss is land-use change, particularly when it is converted to agriculture fields © Colin/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Dr Andy Purvis and a team of researchers at the Museum have developed a Biodiversity Intactness Index that allows them to track the state of biodiversity across regions, countries, and habitats.

'The UK is where the industrial revolution was born, and it changed the landscape forever,' says Andy. 'We have led the world in degrading the natural environment.

'Although recently there have been lots of improvements, our ecosystems are very heavily modified. To the extent that humans are adapted to think of agriculture as a natural system, when it isn't at all.'

The UK only has half of its natural biodiversity left.

When compared to the G7 countries, this puts the UK is at the very bottom in terms of how much biodiversity still survives. When compared across all countries in the European Union, only Ireland and Malta come out worse, and the UK is in the bottom 10% of all countries globally.

Why biodiversity matters

Everything that we do, from the water we drink, air we breathe and food we eat is all dependent on the natural world. The processes that keep our reservoirs clean and the food in the fields growing are all underpinned by the wildlife - or biodiversity - that surrounds it, and without any of these, other species simply would not be able to survive.

It is not, however, the mere presence of these species that matters most but their relationships with each other and how they interact to create a complex network of life. As individual species are then pulled from this web, the woodland or meadow ecosystem in which they live eventually collapses. 

A close up of a young European brown bear side on as it looks slightly off camera.

The UK used to have a huge array of biodiversity, including the European brown bear, but this has been steadily stripped away © Erik Bundgaard/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The result of species loss would therefore not only be a disaster for the animals and plants themselves, but for us too.

This means that understanding just how much biodiversity is left is crucial in knowing what we need to do to help protect the environment and reverse these losses.

Katia Sánchez Ortiz worked with Andy and his team to help improve the way in which the levels of biodiversity intactness are calculated using the Biodiversity Intactness Index, focusing particularly on islands.

When this index was used to look at the state of wildlife in the UK, the results were stark.

'Unfortunately, it is looking very bad for the UK,' says Katia. In fact, Katia's work has helped to show that the UK has some of the lowest biodiversity left in Europe and across the western world.

While countries such as Canada and Finland have 89.3 and 88.6% of their biodiversity left intact, the UK only has 50.3% remaining.

Mist hangs above a English meadow, with a profusion of yellow flowers growing among longer green grass. The hazy outline of a forest can been seen in the distance.

The main debate now is how to balance agricultural lands with species-rich landscapes such as meadows and forests © Marilyn Peddle/Flickr CC BY 2.0

A nation of farmers

As a result of being an island nation and the epicentre of the industrial revolution, the UK has seen dramatic and devastating destruction of the natural world.

'In the UK, the decline in biodiversity is likely to be largely caused by the pattern of land use change,' explains Katia. 'But as an island it also means that human pressures can be more concentrated in a smaller area.'

As an island, it also means that it can be more difficult for species that have been driven to local extinction to repopulate the country. 

But for Katia and the team, the main driver for the declines seen across the UK are clear.

'What we repeatedly see in our models is that agriculture is one of the main drivers of strong biodiversity declines,' says Katia. 'Even when we consider different human pressures, such as human population density and road development, we always find that the most shocking biodiversity declines are across agricultural sites.

'That is the key point, the fact is that we need to find a way to slow down agricultural expansion.'

The continued spread and intensification of farming and development in the UK over the last 200 years has meant that most landscapes have not escaped some form of human influence.

The fact that this started such a long time ago means that in some cases we think of these altered landscapes as being their natural state, when in reality they were already heavily depleted of their wildlife.

A brown sea eagle, with its wings spread and legs hanging down, flies low over the blue sea while the mountains of Scotlands western coast rise up in the background.

The UK needs to be thinking more about what the landscape was like long before humans began altering it, something which has been happening with the reintroduction of sea eagles © James West/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

'I think this is a wakeup call for governments,' says Katia. 'It is an urgent call pointing out that there is a need to take more and faster action to stop this dramatic biodiversity loss as much as we can.

'It is important to spare land from agriculture, but we also need to take into account that we still need to keep producing food for everyone. An ongoing discussion is whether we should be sparing land and focusing on having more restricted agricultural areas but with more intense production, or whether a better approach is to promote the development of low intensity agricultural land that could occupy larger areas.'

We are at a crucial moment where we need to have these discussions. A recent RSPB report has found that the UK has lost the last ten years in which we could have been enacting change.

Conservation organisations are calling for urgent conversations now about the nation's development and intensification to find ways to stop, or at least slow down, the loss of the UK's wildlife.