State of Nature reveals the destructive impact of intensive farming, urbanisation and climate change on plants, animals and habitats
September 14, 2016 — More than one in 10 of the UK’s wildlife species are threatened with extinction and the numbers of the nation’s most endangered creatures have plummeted by two-thirds since 1970, according to a major report.
The abundance of all wildlife has also fallen, with one in six animals, birds, fish and plants having been lost, the State of Nature report found.
Together with historical deforestation and industrialisation, these trends have left the UK “among the most nature-depleted countries in the world”, with most of the country having gone past the threshold at which “ecosystems may no longer reliably meet society’s needs”.
The comprehensive scientific report, compiled by more than 50 conservation organisations, spells out the destructive impact of intensive farming, urbanisation and climate change on habitats from farmland and hills to rivers and the coast. It found that the fall in wildlife over the last four decades cannot be blamed on past harm, but has continued in recent years.
“It wasn’t just all back in 70s and 80s, it is still happening now,” said Mark Eaton, at RSPB and the lead author of the report. “We are getting ever more efficient in our farming. In a way it is something to be celebrated, how good our farming science and technology is, but it does squeeze nature out.”
Eaton said that there were good examples of wildlife and habitat recovery, but such projects were too few to turn the tide, with public funding for biodiversity having fallen by 32% from 2008 to 2015. “The ability to do it is within our grasp, it is just about resources and the willingness,” he said.
Sir David Attenborough, who wrote the foreword to the report, said: “The natural world is in serious trouble and it needs our help as never before. We continue to lose the precious wildlife that enriches our lives and is essential to the health and well-being of those who live in the UK.”
“But the State of Nature 2016 report gives us cause for hope too,” he said. “Landscapes are being restored, special places defended, struggling species being saved and brought back. But we need to build significantly on this progress if we are to provide a bright future for nature and for people.” Nature provides economic and health benefits of about £30bn a year, according to a 2011 government analysis.
Overall, the new report found that 56% of species declined between 1970 and 2013, and 53% between 2002 and 2013. While the rest of the species were increasing, Eaton said: “We are seeing a lot of turmoil, some species going up really, really fast and some going down equally fast. It does not look like a healthy, natural situation. If that carries on, you end up with just 50% left.”
Insects and other invertebrates, which make up 97% of all animal species, are particularly struggling, with 59% in decline since 1970. These provide vital services such as pollination and keep soils healthy, said Eaton: “The work they do for us is just immense. If they were to disappear, I think we’d see environmental breakdown very quickly. They are about the most important things out there.”
Among the species in decline, great crested newts, hedgehogs and corn marigolds have suffered from changes in farming practices. The draining of bogs has harmed the large marsh grasshopper, while the degradation of heaths has caused the sand lizard population to fall.
Urbanisation is a cause of falling water vole numbers, while bottom trawling offshore has harmed the ocean quahog, a bivalve which can live for 500 years. Climate change has brought both hazards and opportunities, with the mountain ringlet butterfly seeing its range contract, while new fish are migrating into warmer UK waters, perhaps filling a gap left by overfishing in previous years.
The toad, skylark and beetles such as the wormwood moonshine are among the species of special conservation concern in the UK that have fallen in number by 67% since 1970 overall, and by 12% between 2002 and 2013.
However, some bats, including the soprano pipistrelle, have increased thanks to new legal protection and the creation of new reedbeds has enabled bitterns to recover from just 11 booming males in 1997 to 156 in 2015. Some species have also been reintroduced, including the hazel dormice, the large blue butterfly and the short-haired bumblebee.
The report includes a new “biodiversity intactness index”, which analyses the loss of species over centuries. The UK has lost significantly more nature over the long term than the global average, the report said, with the UK the 29th lowest out of 218 countries.
“It is quite shocking where we stand compared to the rest of the world, even compared to other western European countries: France and Germany are quite a way above us in the rankings,” said Eaton. “The index gives an idea of where we have got to over the centuries, and we are pretty knackered.”
A spokeswoman for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), said: “Our natural environment is cleaner and healthier than at any time since the industrial revolution – woodland cover in England is at its highest level since the 14th century, we have improved water quality in 9,000 miles of rivers since 2010 and in the last five years almost 19,000 miles of hedgerow have been planted.”
The government’s own assessment, published in August, found that much of England’s best-loved wildlife remains in serious decline, with 75% of over 200 “priority” species across the country falling in number.
The Defra spokeswoman said: “Protecting our precious environment and supporting our world-leading farmers, a cornerstone of our economy, will form an important part of our EU exit negotiations,” she said.
Eaton said the EU referendum result presented an opportunity for change: “There was a lot of nervousness about Brexit on the conservation side, but the opportunity to take control of where public money goes on farming is huge. It’s public money, so let’s see a wider range of public benefits from it, including wildlife, water quality and flood prevention, other than just food.” The National Trust and a group of Conservative MPs have made similar calls.
About 75% of the UK’s landscape is classed as agricultural, with 40% consisting of arable fields and grasslands. The report found “agricultural change was by far the most significant driver of declines”, as a result of switching from spring to autumn sowing, which reduces food and habitat for many species, intensification of grazing, increased use of pesticides and fertilisers and loss of marginal habitats, such as ponds and hedgerows.
The report said environmental stewardship schemes carried out by some farmers were beneficial but remained at a small scale: “At present, the hoped-for widespread recovery of farmland wildlife is yet to be seen.”
NFU vice-president, Guy Smith, said intensification of farming had ended in the early 1990s: “Therefore it makes little sense to attribute cause and effect to ‘the intensification of agriculture’ in the UK in the last quarter of a century when there hasn’t been any. Other causes acknowledged in the report, such as urbanisation, climate change or increasing predator pressure need greater attention.” He said two thirds of farmers have signed up for agri-environment schemes.
“Above all we need to remember farming is here to provide one of the fundamental staples to life: food,” said Smith. “If we undermine British farming’s competitiveness or its ability to produce food, we risk exporting food production out of Britain and increasing Britain’s reliance on imports to feed itself.”