Why conservation must start at home: 10 British species we need to save to protect our food chain

The pangolin and the Sumatran rhinoceros might be in danger of extinction, but there’s plenty of British flora and fauna that we should be equally concerned about. Simon Lester sends out an SOS for 10 species that we must save to help repair an increasingly fragile food chain.

We tend to get excited about creatures at the top of the food chain, but the frightening truth is that they’re dependent on the flow of energy that ripples up from the plants at the bottom to the apex predators.

It’s this delicate, complex thread that’s under threat because once-common species are rapidly dwindling. Here, we single out 10 species that were far more common 50 years ago, which we should be worrying about.


Common frog

Rana temporaria

Watching the metamorphosis from tadpole to froglet has thrilled many a young naturalist. However, as the common frog has been in steady decline since the 1970s, it’s getting harder to find frogspawn in some areas — often the only indication that frogs are present, as they’re secretive creatures that mainly feed at night on insects, worms and slugs.


Song thrush

Turdus philomelos

Song thrush - Turdus philomelos

This songster belts out its flute-like tones, but a subtler and more sinister sound gives away its presence: the tap, tap, tap of a snail shell being hammered home on the bird’s stone anvil.

These natural sites of industry are becoming rare and, as the snails disappear, so do the thrushes, with their beautifully constructed nests containing four or five bright-blue eggs embellished with black spots.


Sawflies

Symphyta

Rhogogaster chlorosoma sawflies

The 500 species of sawfly have been a valuable food source for some 250 million years. They’re way down the food chain — they’re food themselves — and adults only live for nine days. Their larvae appear at the right time to fuel a productive spring and summer for birds and other creatures. The female lays her eggs in their specific host plant via a saw-like ovipositor, hence the name.

They’re a major pest — they communally and systematically strip each leaf — but their decline on farmland, due to increasingly effective insecticides, has had a major impact on the wild grey partridge.


Skylark

Alauda arvensis

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The presence and crystal-clear song of this little brown job on arable or downland brightens anybody’s day, but larks are food for raptors — notably the hen harrier — and, as ground-nesters, they’re also hoovered up by badgers and foxes.

Although adult skylarks devour seeds and invertebrates, their young depend on an insect diet. One reason for their decline is that modern cereal crops are too thick for them to nest in; some farmers turn off the drill to leave small bare plots for access.


Sweet violet and common dog violet

Viola odorata and Viola riviniana

Common Dog Violet

Common Dog Violet

There are 10 species of violet in the UK, but the only one with a scent is the exquisite sweet violet. They’re disappearing from hedgerows due to denser, suffocating grass, the result of misdirected fertiliser, which is worrying as they’re an important part of the lifecycle of several fritillary butterflies and critical for the small pearl-bordered fritillary, as only violet leaves sustain the caterpillars.


Glow-worm

Lampyris noctiluca

A female glow worm (Lampyris noctiluca) glowing at sunset to attract a mate in Devon.

When I first saw the strange, bioluminescent light that the rather drab female glow-worm emits from her tail in summer months, I had to look twice to check that I wasn’t going mad, but the enchanting phenomenon is another of Nature’s efforts to attract a mate in the shape of a slim brown beetle, rather than a worm.

However, I suspect that children lulled to sleep by glow-worm-effect night lights would have nightmares if they knew the Dracula-like feeding methods these beetles deploy in order to kill and dissolve their favoured prey of snails and slugs.


Rabbit

Oryctolagus cuniculus

Rabbit

They were brought to Britain by the Romans to feed us, but soon became a staple for several predators. They also quickly became a serious agricultural pest, sculpting the edges of cornfields and allowing arable weeds to thrive. Intensive rabbit grazing of down and heathland gave other plants and invertebrates an opportunity to exploit this niche situation.

However, now that numbers are plummeting due to viral haemorrhagic disease, a massive chunk of biomass is missing from the food chain, which will impact on other species.


Spiny seahorse and short-snouted seahorse

Hippocampus histrix and Hippocampus hippocampus

A spiny seahorse

A spiny seahorse.

These two types of seahorse need such a pristine seabed to thrive that their presence indicates a healthy habitat, often including eel grass. Poor swimmers, they use their tails to anchor themselves to the weed, while sucking up food through their trumpet-like mouths.

Arguably one of our most politically correct creatures — they mate for life and the male both incubates and gives birth to the young after receiving the females’ eggs — their numbers have dropped alarmingly in the past 10 years. Studland Bay in Dorset is believed to be the only place where it’s still possible to see both species.


Cowslip

Primula veris

Cowslips

It’s still possible to enjoy grassland studded with their nodding yellow heads, but only in places where they’ve been nurtured. If they thrive in spring, it’s a good indication that there will be a floristic treat throughout summer, as other rarities have their time.

With a sweet perfume, they provide an early source of nectar for many insects and are the primary food plant for the Duke of Burgundy butterfly.


Three-spined stickleback

Gasterosteus aculeatus

Three-spined Stickleback - Gasterosteus aculeatus

This diminutive but pugnacious fish provides a tasty snack for a wealth of species higher up the food chain, from kingfishers to pike. These tiddlers have long entertained children, for whom finding them while dabbling in a stream might be their first hands-on experience of Nature.

The three-spined stickleback positively glows at spawning time, when males build nests and adopt a bright-red belly, with complementary bright-blue eyes.