State of Nature report: 1 in 7 of the UK’s wildlife species is at risk of extinction

UK branded one of the world’s worst countries for Nature in ‘insubstantial’ report.

The natural world needs our help as never before,’ warns Sir David Attenborough in his forward to the depressing State of Nature 2016 report, realised last week, which found that the UK is ‘among the most nature-depleted countries in the world’, ranking 189th out of 218 assessed. One in seven of our wildlife species is at risk of extinction and more than half (56%) are in decline.

The study is infinitely more thorough than the inaugural report three years ago, pooling data from more than 50 organisations—twice as many as in 2013—including the RSPB, BTO, National Trust, Natural history Museum, Plantlife and Wildlife Trusts, to monitor 9,670 species (up from 3,148 in 2013). However, farmer and writer Robin Page of the Countryside Restoration Trust believes that the report paints ‘an incomplete picture’ and he’s not alone. ‘Three organisations that should have been included were not consulted—the Countryside Restoration Trust, the GWCT and Songbird Survival,’ he says.

Despite the Wildlife Trusts’ Director for England Stephen Trotter’s assertion that ‘this is not a fight with farmers—farmers are part of the solution to the problem’, this time, the finger of blame is pointed squarely at the ‘intensification of agriculture’ and its policy-driven new technologies used ‘at the expense of nature’. NFU Vice President Guy Smith argues that this ‘makes little sense’ as, in the past 25 years, ‘British agriculture has not intensified’—quite the opposite has happened. He adds: ‘We’re the generation of farmers that have embraced conservation, but, mysteriously, that never seems to be recognised by the wildlife NGOs.’

‘It seems unfair to overlook this,’ agrees James Spreckley, head of the Agricultural and Landed Estates team at law firm Lodders, especially as many farmers ‘embrace this responsibility at their own cost’ and ‘are expected to operate in a challenging economic environment which takes no account of this role’.

Two-thirds of farmers have signed up for agri-environment schemes, 30,000km (18,641 miles) of hedgerows have been revived and fertilisers and pesticides are used less than ever before. As a result, greenhouse-gas emissions from agriculture have decreased by 16% since 1990. ‘Other causes acknowledged in the report, such as urbanisation, climate change or increasing predator pressure, need greater attention,’ adds Mr Smith.

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Back in 2013, the study was criticised for neither consulting the gamekeeping community nor investigating fully the severe effect of predation on wildlife. This repeated exclusion, says a spokesman from the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation, shows that ‘its authors simply do not understand the finer points of wildlife management’. He laments that ‘casual readers will go away with only half a story’.

‘Numbers of badgers and buzzards, for example, have all increased in the past 20–30 years,’ adds Mr Smith. ‘Sometimes, the wildlife lobby would rather turn a blind eye to that, like Nelson at Copenhagen.’

Mr Page goes even further, commenting that as the study largely ignores predation and overpopulation, it is ‘superficial, insubstantial and just a PR exercise’.

The report does admit that, although about 75% of land in the UK can be classed as agricultural, its analysis focuses on enclosed farmland, which covers 40%. Climate change is acknowledged as the most significant long-term threat to Nature globally, but, in the short term at least, its benefit outweighs the detriment, with increased wintertime survival and more southern species expanding into the north than northerly species lost. However, rising sea levels and warmer waters are clearly threatening. Other culprits are hydrological change, a decrease in traditional forest management, such as coppicing, which affects woodland habitats, and the abandonment of practices such as grazing, burning and cutting, crucial for the maintenance of heathland and grassland habitats.

The report notes that public spending on UK biodiversity has fallen by 32%, from 0.037% of GDP in 2008 to 0.025% in 2014–15. CLA Deputy President Tim Breitmeyer is of the opinion that farmers and environmental and wildlife groups must work together, especially as, from 2020, new policy is inevitable: ‘We encourage Green groups to acknowledge that farmers are best placed to continue to deliver biodiversity improvements and to share their ideas and experience in formulating policy to deliver a better state of Nature for our nation.’

State of Nature: the figures

In terms of species decline, the worst areas are the lowlands (down 60% between 1970 and 2013), followed by coastal areas (58%), uplands (55%), freshwater, wetlands and woodland (53%), farmland (52%), urban (47%) and marine (38%)