Should I worry about...threatened nature species in the UK?
Updated 00:53, 05-Oct-2023
Mark Ashenden

What's the problem?

"We are a nature-depleted country. The statistics are overwhelmingly negative and they tell us about decline," Richard Gregory, Head of RSPB Monitoring at the Centre for Conservation Science in the UK, told CGTN.

October 4 is World Animal Day, an event to raise the status of species across the planet and improve the standards of their habitats so the headlines from a  203-page report called The State of Nature produced by over 60 organizations, including wildlife conservation groups, government agencies and academics makes sombre reading.

Its aim was to assess how more than 10,000 native plant, animal, and fungi species are faring in one of the world's most nature-depleted countries and stated "the stand-out statistics are a 19 percent decline in the abundance of a big suite of species and a 38 percent decline in types of species. Invertebrates are declining by 13 percent, flowering plants have declined by 54 percent since 1970 and pollinating insects are down by 18 percent."

Nature is under threat for many reasons./ CFP
Nature is under threat for many reasons./ CFP

Nature is under threat for many reasons./ CFP

More bad headlines followed - the report found 43 percent of British bird species, a third of amphibians and reptiles, and a quarter of land mammals are threatened, with 28 percent of fungi and lichen now meeting conservation, red-list criteria.

Wildlife habitats are also a huge concern. Just one in seven are described as being in a good condition. A quarter of peatlands and seven percent of woodlands were deemed to be in a good state. None of the UK sea floor was found in a good condition because of damage from fishing gear.

Gregory, who also helped author the report, said: "The big headline figure is that one in six species in the UK - that's 16 percent of all nature - is now threatened with extinction and potentially being completely lost from the UK in the next decade." That's around 1,600 species under threat.

Steve Ormerod, Ecology Professor in Cardiff and Chair of Natural Resources in Wales, said: "I was RSPB chair when the first State of Nature report had blanket coverage across the media in 2013. It was grim reading for biodiversity then, and 10 years on, it still is.

"Despite the high profile stories of nature in decline, despite declarations of a biodiversity emergency and despite widespread public concern, losses have continued and rates of decline show little sign of abating," he continued. "This is a tragedy unfolding, not only intrinsically as some of our most iconic and representative species slip through our fingers, but also because nature is our life support and the source of our well-being."

Pollinator's need to be boosted say the experts./ Oliver Berg/AP
Pollinator's need to be boosted say the experts./ Oliver Berg/AP

Pollinator's need to be boosted say the experts./ Oliver Berg/AP

What's led to this problem?

More than half of the UK's biodiversity has disappeared due to human activity according to the report, with the main causes of nature loss attributed to intensive land farming practices and the ongoing impact of climate change.

In England, an estimated 70 percent of land is farmed. Despite recent moves towards more nature-friendly land and sea use, the report found only a fifth of UK farrmland is now in an agri-environment scheme, with less than a half of woodland certified as being sustainably managed.

Despite recognition that these measures had improved over 20 years, only about half of fish stocks were still being sustainably harvested. For marine creatures, climate change and unsustainable fishing are the largest factors for driving these numbers downwards.

Gregory believes humans are "living in a way that is working against nature, not with nature," and is happening across all the eco systems.

The food system on land and seas needs to shift towards more nature-friendly farming methodologies.
 -  PRichard Gregory, Head of RSPB Monitoring in the UK

Intensive land use on countryside and farmland and in the seas is critical, according to Gregory. "One of the biggest drivers here globally is land use change. We must move to a much more nature friendly way of farming and fishing and using the land around us to rebalance things because that downward spiral is really bad. We destroy nature at our own peril."

Intensive farming rely heavily on industrial methods, using technology designed to increase yield. This can include planting multiple crops per year, reducing the frequency of fallow years and utilizing non-biotic inputs.

"The intensity in terms of farming practice often comes down to to the level of pesticides and the fertilizers that are being applied," Gregory said. "They're really bad for us as a society because those products are just washing into the rivers."

"We're having to clean these pollutants up from society so we've got a system, the food system on land and seas really needs to shift towards more nature-friendly farming methodologies."


What's the worst that can happen?

"There are average trends of decline, and there are individual stories that are really worrying," Gregory said. "The turtle dove of Christmas fame is on the edge of sliding to extinction in the UK. We could genuinely lose them and we could lose nightingales. 

"For animals and plants, we're also really losing things in a very dramatic fashion. Nature's good for us because it provides all sorts of ecosystem function, healthy food and fiber and clean water and air. But it also provides us that kind of soulfulness.

"The solace, the joy and the inspiration. There are strong arguments and value-driven arguments to say we really should be protecting nature for future generations. It has an intrinsic right."

If things don't change then the report states many species will simply be never seen again. Lost forever.

And for those that might feel there is an element of scaremongering, the report points to all the species that have already been lost. Among the 10,000 species analyzed in the UK, 151 had been found to be already extinct. 

Iconic species like the great auk (flightless bird), kentish plover, black tern, large copper butterfly and the Norfolk damsel fly. "These species in nature, in the whole world, we've lost altogether. That strikes me as a real concern," Gregory said.

Warm words are fine, but we need broad scale bold action to address these alarming statistics.
 -  Professor Richard Gregory, Head of RSPB Monitoring

What's the solution?

Reversing these declines will be a huge challenge. Even slowing down the numbers of species being threatened will be a massive job - a job where governments, organizations, businesses, industries and individuals all have a part to play, according to the nature experts.

The UK government says it will invest in its '30-by-30' pledge, to protect 30 percent of land for nature by 2030, aiming to create and restore at least 3,200 square kilometers of new wildlife habitats. It has also vowed to spend $31 million on a Species Survival Fund and $920,000 for woodland and peatland restoration.

Gregory strongly feels a collective approach is imperative and points to the origins of the report and how government agencies worked with nature conservation organizations and research agencies to provide common goals and 'joined-up views.'

"It isn't a sort of 'us and them' saying these things," Gregory said. "It's the collective recognition and there are some fantastic elements of ambition. We have an Environment Act in England with an ambition to halt species decline and recover species abundance by 2042, and we have ambitions to reduce extinction rate. 

"In Scotland and Wales as well, there's a strong enthusiasm to move forward with progressive targets, plus around the UK there are big schemes, millions of pounds in species recovery projects and for particular species. 

"It's all great, but it has to be much bigger and much bolder. And is regulation part of it? I think that's a strong debate that needs to go forward."

The report argues farming should have closer ties with nature./ CFP
The report argues farming should have closer ties with nature./ CFP

The report argues farming should have closer ties with nature./ CFP

Gregory highlights the regulation to improve air pollution encouraging the recovery of many plants such as lichen, as well as regulating the freshwater environment that improved water quality and led to the return of salmon and otters in the river Thames in London. 

However, changing land use is one of the top priorities, says the report. "All this recovery is stalling because we're going backwards. Pollutants from the run-off from farming and sewage is back. It's kind of a medieval thing and really shouldn't be part of a modern society.

"Farmland is so extensive in the UK. It's 70 percent of the land so it has a dominant effect on nature and on the environment more generally. It's one of the biggest factors on a global scale and land use needs to change."

The report, backed by several other studies into agriculture around the UK, suggest nature-friendly farming is a key solution and can even boost production. One example in central England showed turning over land from crops to wildlife habitat increased yields. 

"It is all about making space for nature in farmland," Gregory said. "If we devoted 10 percent of each UK farm to be nature-friendly and be out back to a wild semi-natural habitat, we'd have beetle banks and flower rich habitats for pollinators and birds. If we put back the hedges and farm ponds, we know that we can help recover nature in that fashion.


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"There's growing recognition of that in the UK, in Europe and globally. But we've got to move more quickly. Warm words are fine, but we need action and broad scale, bold action to address these really very alarming statistics."

There is some hope. The report found 'targeted conservation' and big efforts to restore habitats and protect species had worked well. It said a marine protected area in Lyme Bay, Devon, had significantly increased specie numbers since trawling was banned in 2008. Plus there had been 600 sq kilometers of the Cairngorms, in the Highlands in Scotland restored for woodland-dependent wildlife.

Alongside governments and environmental organizations, individuals perhaps have a responsibility as well.

Ormerod, also an adviser to government on nature conservation, is passionate about what the country should be doing and has a stark warning.

"Alongside governments and environmental organizations, citizens have a big role too with their daily choices of how they use energy, food and travel," he said. "Those of us who work as environmental professionals, I think, live with a daily sense where hope sits alongside despair. But the restoration of nature is an imperative in which we cannot afford to fail."

Should I worry about...threatened nature species in the UK?

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