The UK’s wildlife is continuing to decline according to a new landmark study published today. Already classified as one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries, nearly one in six of the more than ten thousand species assessed (16%) are at risk of being lost from Great Britain.
However, this figure is much higher for some groups such as birds (43%), amphibians and reptiles (31%), fungi and lichen (28%) and terrestrial mammals (26%). Much loved species such as Turtle Dove, Hazel Dormouse, Lady’s Slipper Orchid and European Eel now face an uncertain future. There have also been declines in the distributions of more than half (54%) of our flowering plant species, with species such as Heather and Harebell being enjoyed by far fewer people.
State of Nature is the most comprehensive nature report covering the UK, its Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories. Working with leading professionals from over 60 research and conservation organisations, the report – following previous editions in 2013, 2016 and 2019 – uses the latest and best data from monitoring schemes and biological recording centres, collated by the incredible work of thousands of skilled volunteers, to provide a benchmark for the status of our wildlife.
Since 1970, the abundance of species studied has declined on average by 19%. However, we also know that before widespread monitoring began, the UK’s biodiversity had already been highly depleted by centuries of habitat loss, unsustainable farming practices, development, and persecution.
Spotted Flycatcher, copyright Glyn Sellors, from the surfbirds galleries
As a result, due to human activity the UK now has less than half of its biodiversity remaining. The evidence from the last 50 years, presented in the State of Nature report, shows that the intensive way in which we manage our land for farming and the continuing effects of climate change, are the two biggest drivers of nature loss. At sea, unsustainable fishing and climate change are the major contributing factors.
Beccy Speight, the RSPB’s Chief Executive, said: “The UK’s wildlife is better studied than in any other country in the world and what the data tell us should make us sit up and listen. What is clear, is that progress to protect our species and habitats has not been sufficient and yet we know we urgently need to restore nature to tackle the climate crisis and build resilience. We know that conservation works and how to restore ecosystems and save species. We need to move far faster as a society towards nature-friendly land and sea use, otherwise the UK’s nature and wider environment will continue to decline and degrade, with huge implications for our own way of life. It’s only through working together that we can help nature recover.”
Many groups studied show worrying declines. More than half of plant species have decreased in their distribution (54%) as have 59% of bryophytes (mosses and liverworts). The distribution of invertebrates in the UK has also decreased on average by 13% since 1970, however there are much bigger declines in groups which provide important services such as pollination and crop pest control. The distributions of pollinator species, including bees, hoverflies and moths, have decreased by 18% on average, whilst those species providing pest control, such as the 2-spot Ladybird have declined by more than a third (34%).
The State of Nature report also found that out of the assessed habitats which are important for wildlife, only one in seven (14%) were found to be in a good condition and only one in fourteen (7%) woodlands and a quarter (25%) of peatlands were assessed to be in a good ecological state. Due to habitat damage from fishing gear, none of the seafloor around the UK was found in good condition. However, restoration projects, such as for peatland and seagrass beds, are now underway to stem declines. Not only will restoring these habitats have clear benefits for nature and people, but they can also help us mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change.
Despite recent moves towards more nature-friendly land and sea use, as yet only a fifth of farmland is now in agri-environment schemes with only some of that helping nature, just 44% of woodland is certified as sustainably managed and only half of fish stocks are sustainably harvested. While all three measures have improved markedly over the past 20 years, there is still a very long way to go. The best available information suggests that nature-friendly farming needs to be implemented at a much wider scale to halt the decline in farmland wildlife and must be considered alongside the triple challenge of responding to the climate and nature crises whilst still meeting people’s needs for food, energy, and fuel.
Optimistically, the report also highlights where concerted wildlife conservation action has made a key difference to many species and habitats. For example, large-scale restoration projects, such as Cairngorms Connect – which covers 60,000 ha – benefits a suite of woodland dependent species. In Lyme Bay Marine Protected Area the number of species increased markedly since trawling was banned in 2008. The RSPB’s Hope Farm has demonstrated that food production can function alongside measures to benefit wildlife as breeding bird populations increased by 177% over a 12-year period.
Nature conservation works but the scale and ambition need to be rapidly ramped up to tackle, stop and reverse the declines demonstrated by State of Nature.