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The sorry state of biodiversity in the UK

As the Government publishes its new Biodiversity Indicators report and TV conservationist and wildlife activist, Chris Packham's Bioblitz campaign draws to a close, it’s clear that things are not looking good for UK wildlife. Lush Times writer Katie Dancey-Downs reports

How does the view out the garden window compare now, to how it looked in 1978? Forty years ago, how many more Small Tortoiseshell butterflies would flit past, and how many more Little Owls would be taking up residence in neighbouring trees?

A new report from DEFRA paints a stark picture of the state of biodiversity in the UK, detailing both the trends over the last 40 years, and changes within the last year. The report offers a chance to assess the UK’s progress on meeting its biodiversity goals, set out in 2010.

The report shows both improvements and declines in different areas of biodiversity, but Miles King, ecologist, Lush Times columnist, and CEO of environmental charity People Need Nature, finds the overall report worrying. He is concerned that so many of these indicators are pointing in the wrong direction, and that our most cherished species are continuing to decline.

“The indicators showing an improvement are almost all measuring processes, such as number of days spent volunteering, or percentage of fish stocks sustainably harvested. Those indicators measuring actual wildlife, or environmental problems like nitrate pollution, do not show improvements, indeed most show deteriorations,” he says.

Last week [19/07/18], Prime Minister Theresa May announced a new bill to protect the Environment. The UK Government has repeatedly pledged to be “the first generation to leave our environment in a better state than that in which we inherited it.”

To this, Miles King says: "These latest environmental indicators highlight just how far we have to go, as a society, to meet this pledge.

“If the Government is really serious about leaving the Environment in a better state than it found it, that Bill will need to include some extraordinarily ground-breaking proposals. And politicians will need to provide the resources to see those proposals actually happen,” he says.

The birds and the bees

A long list of 2,890 species, including creatures like the Skylark, Short-haired Bumblebee, and Harvest Mouse, have been designated in the UK as “priority species,” with special actions to conserve them.

According to the new report, overall these species are in trouble. The report assessed 215 of the priority species, and found that between 2010 and 2015, while some species’ numbers increased, there were many more which decreased. Overall, the UK’s priority species declined by 18%, in just five years.

The report explains that bird populations in particular are a good indication of the broad state of wildlife in the UK.

It explains: “This is because birds occupy a wide range of habitats and respond to environmental pressures that also operate on other groups of wildlife.”

The significant decrease in farmland and woodland birds, then, is a stark warning. Both these groups have declined both over the last year, and in the long term.

The British Trust for Ornithology contributed to the report, and says that there are now 28 species in the UK which have faced a long-term decline of more than 50%. The Nightingale, Willow Tit, and Tree Sparrow are among some of the birds facing the steepest decline, but the Turtle Dove wins the unenviable spot of the bird with the greatest decline - numbers have fallen 98% since 1967.

But there’s good news for the world’s only flying mammal - bats. These creatures make up more than a quarter of the UK’s mammal population, and the new report has found that since 1999, bat populations have increased by 31%. Eight widespread bat species have been monitored, with summer field surveys, roost and winter hibernation counts all making up the promising statistic provided by the Bat Conservation Trust.

The declining butterfly effect

Butterflies and other pollinating insects like bees are also falling in the long-term. Without insects to pollinate, there could be a huge impact on the diversity of wildflowers and crops.

The Butterfly Conservation has just launched the Big Butterfly Count, where people are encouraged to get out into Nature, and take part in the drive between now and August to monitor butterfly numbers in the UK.

Broadcaster and President of Butterfly Conservation, Sir David Attenborough, is fully behind the Big Butterfly Count.

He says: “A cause for great concern over recent years is that many of our once common and widespread species like the Large White, Small Copper and Gatekeeper have started to struggle, mirroring the declines of rarer species. Butterfly Conservation has also revealed that butterflies are declining faster in our towns and cities than in the countryside.”

Butterfly Conservation surveys officer Dr Zoe Randle believes that habit loss is having a serious impact on the UK’s butterflies and moths. The charity attributes this to intensive farming, commercial forestry, and urban development. Pollution, pesticide use, and climate change are also pushing butterflies out, she says.

“Butterfly declines are not just devastating because of the beauty we are losing from our world. Butterflies are small and delicate, which makes them sensitive to change. Their fortunes help us assess the health of the environment. Butterfly declines are an early warning to all wildlife that something is wrong,” she says.

Changing the state of Nature

According to Miles King, tackling the root causes of Nature loss means changing the way we farm, how we take fish from the sea, and how we build new houses, roads and other infrastructure.

“We still need to use the laws we already have to much greater effect; and create a new way of supporting farmers to grow food in ways which give nature a little space to live on farmland,” he says.

Over the last week, environmentalist and TV presenter Chris Packham has been visiting wildlife sites across the UK with his Bioblitz tour, which reaches its final location today. Bioblitz is being described as a citizen science revolution, and alongside a campaign to audit the state of Nature in the UK, the team is sending out a message that wildlife reserves are not enough.

This is a chance to see what conservation attempts have been successful, and where we are failing Nature.

With Chris Packham’s Bioblitz, the Big Butterfly Count, and the new biodiversity report all arriving at the same time, UK biodiversity has found itself in the spotlight. Sir David Attenborough has a reminder of why this is something we should all care about:

“I have been privileged to have witnessed some truly breathtaking wildlife spectacles in far-flung locations, but some of my most memorable experiences have happened when I’ve been simply sitting and watching the wildlife that lives where I do.”

If these trends continue along the same trajectory, watching wildlife from windows of our UK homes is likely to become more and more difficult, and the impacts on humankind and the planet will be huge.

Some of my most memorable experiences have happened when I’ve been simply sitting and watching the wildlife that lives where I do - Sir David Attenborough

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