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UK wildlife becoming the ‘living dead’
Laura Edgecumbe-Ansdell and Tom Levitt
25th February, 2010
While the UN is celebrating the international year of biodiversity conservation groups in the UK worry that a rising number of isolated populations are in danger of becoming extinct
Biodiversity is in decline in the UK. Even the Government admits as much, saying we have lost more than 100 species during the last century and that ‘many more species and habitats [are] in danger of disappearing, especially at the local level’.
Defra statistics released in April 2009 show a deterioration in levels of breeding seabirds, wintering waterbirds, woodland and grassland habitats; farmland bird populations declined by 13 per cent in England between 1994 and 2007; mammals like dormice have disappeared from 50 per cent of their former habitats and only 140,000 native red squirrels remain.
Earlier this month the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) estimated 80 per cent of English and Welsh ponds were in a ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ condition.
And the charity Pond Conservation estimates 75 per cent of Britain’s rivers fail new European standards on biodiversity.
The details make for grim reading.
‘We’re all trying but clearly not trying hard enough because the erosion of our wildlife continues,’ says a spokesperson for the RSPB.
Habitat loss and farming
Conservation groups like the RSPB see habitat loss as the key factor behind the decline. For example, the UK has lost 97 per cent of its wildflower meadow over the last 70 years.
As well as being a home to many species, meadows are also an important nectar source for pollinators such as bees, whose population in England has fallen from 182,000 colonies in the early 1960s to 83,000 colonies today.
According to Professor James Bullock, a conservation ecologist at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) the biggest driver of this habitat loss is farming practices.
More than 70 per cent of UK land is under ownership or management of farmers and the intensification of production methods over the past half a century has reduced variety in plant species while agrochemicals such as nitrogen and insecticides have decimated insect species.
Professor Bullock says pollution run-off from farming is killing biodiversity.
'A key problem is "atmospheric deposition", essentially a high concentration of nitrogen is seeping into ecosystems from intensive agriculture and industry. Because of this, there is loss of species even in protected habitats.'
He also believes we may actually be underestimating the extinction threat to some species, such as the Marsh Fritillary butterfly, because as habitats disappear colonies are quickly becoming isolated.
‘Populations may be on a path to extinction and might essentially be seen as the living dead because isolated colonies are likely to die out due to a lack of new colonists and over time may become weaker due to low genetic variation and inbreeding,’ he says.
Biodiversity Action Plans
The UK has been attempting to safeguard certain habitats and species under its so-called Biodiversity Action Plans.
So far 436 such plans are in operation and involve measures such as tightening up planning to prevent landowners removing hedges or ploughing biodiverse grasslands.
The Environment Agency has been attempting to clean up waterways and has been praised with turning around the fortunes of river otters, now living in every English county.
The last decade has also seen the introduction of ‘agri-environment schemes’ (AESs) that pay farmers to take measures to protect biodiversity on their land.
Two thirds of agricultural lands in England are now managed under AES, protecting more than 40 per cent of hedgerows (101,665 miles). The scheme has been praised for improving biodiversity, particularly for the plants and birds of arable land, grasslands and low-lying areas.
However, Professor Bullock says agri-environment schemes will not on their own be enough: ‘there needs to be a move to more sustainable farming,’ he says.
‘But with a pressing need to feed the population this will be hard. As in the climate debate, society itself needs to commit to a change in lifestyle in many ways.’
Back from the brink
What the UK has been doing quite successfully in recent years is re-introducing extinct species.
European beavers, re-introduced in Scotland last year, are known as a keystone species because of their positive influence on habitats and other species. The trees they cut down manage woodland to allow other species to thrive and their dams can slow down the flow of rivers and prevent flooding.
Later this spring, conservation groups working with Natural England are planning to reintroduce the short-haired bumblebee in Kent, a decade after it became extinct.
However, RSPB spokesperson Graham Madge says ‘high-profile’ reintroduction of flagship species should not detract from the ‘whole body of work needed on habitat restoration’.
There is hope in some quarters that recent attempts to start putting a value on biodiversity may be bringing a new urgency to efforts to tackle the decline.
In an interview with the Ecologist, economist Pavan Sukhdev, who is heading up the groundbreaking TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) report due out later this year, said politicians were starting to ‘better understand nature and what it brings to us’ and the value of safeguarding it.
His interim report cited many examples, including how maintaining native bee populations was worth $361 a hectare to coffee farmers in terms of the pollination service they provide.
Hilary Benn, the secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs has praised Sukhdev’s work and has said the UK needed to ‘realise the true economic value of biodiversity’.
‘The protection and restoration of ecosystems is a sensible and cost-effective investment in this planet’s economic survival and growth,’ he said.
However, ecologists such as Professor Bullock warn against an over-reliance on assessing biodiversity in economic terms.
‘There is much interest in determining the economic value of services provided to society by ecosystems, but we shouldn't write off the Red Squirrel for example because it is assessed not to be worth anything in economic terms.
‘Such species perform a wide variety of services we just cannot put a price on and are important to us culturally, spiritually and aesthetically,’ he said.
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