Following the State of Nature reports in 2013 and 2016, leading professionals from more than 70 wildlife organisations have joined with government agencies for the first time, to present the clearest picture to date of the status of the UK’s species across land and sea: much our wildlife is barely clinging on in slivers of habitat and in numbers that should make all of us furious.
The State of Nature 2019 report reveals that 41% of UK species studied have declined, 26% have increased and 33% show little change since 1970, while 133 species assessed have already been lost from the UK since 1500.
Butterflies and moths have been particularly hard hit with numbers of butterflies down by 17% and moths down by 25%. Clouds of butterflies that used to be such a typical part of the countryside – wooded glades especially – are long gone. The numbers of species, such as the High Brown Fritillary and Grayling, that require more specialised habitats have declined by more than three quarters.
The UK’s mammals also fare badly with greater than 26% of species at risk of disappearing altogether. The Wild Cat (persecuted out of vast areas of Scotland) and Greater Mouse-eared Bat (which is actually functionally extinct in the UK and has been for a very long time) are, the Report states, among those species teetering on the edge of disappearing.
Much is now known about the causes of decline (hunting, deliberate persecution, enclosure, intensive agriculture, pesticide usage) and about some of the ways in which we could reduce impacts and help struggling species. The evidence from the last 50 years shows that significant and ongoing changes in the way we manage our land for agriculture, and the ongoing effects of climate change are having the biggest impacts on nature.
Pollution is also a major issue. Whilst emissions of many pollutants have been reduced dramatically in recent decades, pollution continues to have a severe impact on the UK’s sensitive habitats and freshwaters, and new pollutant threats are continuing to emerge.
Daniel Hayhow, lead author on the report, said: “We know more about the UK’s wildlife than any other country on the planet, and what it is telling us should make us sit up and listen. We need to respond more urgently across the board if we are to put nature back where it belongs. Governments, conservation groups and individuals must continue to work together to help restore our land and sea for wildlife and people in a way that is both ambitious and inspiring for future generations”
“In this Report we have drawn on the best available data on the UK’s biodiversity, produced by partnerships between conservation NGOs, research institutes, UK and national governments, and thousands of dedicated volunteers. It’s through working together that we can help nature recover but the battle must intensify.”
Whilst the data that the Report shows are alarming there is, according to the experts, also cause for some cautious hope. The Report showcases a wide range of exciting conservation initiatives, with partnerships delivering inspiring results for some of the UK’s nature. Species such as Bittern and Large Blue Butterfly have been saved through the concerted efforts of organisations and individuals. (While small and extremely targetted efforts are interesting, they will have minor impacts compared with what is really needed of course: major restoration of habitats across huge areas of our denuded countryside.)
Reflecting growing concern about the environmental and climate emergencies, public support for conservation also continues to grow, with NGO expenditure up by 24% since 2010/11 and time donated by volunteers having increased by 46% since 2000.
However, public sector expenditure on biodiversity in the UK, as a proportion of GDP, has fallen by 42% since a peak in 2008/09.
Beccy Speight, CEO of the RSPB said “Nature is still being lost across the UK at a deeply concerning rate. Many of the pressures and threats driving these declines – like nature itself – do not respect national boundaries. Whilst governments across the UK have recognised the climate and environment crises threatening our natural world – and that restoring the natural world can provide some of the solutions we need – there desperately needs to be more immediate action and cooperation on the protection of nature between the four countries. We need ambitious legislation with binding targets to not only halt nature’s decline but secure its recovery. And we need that legislation now.”
Rosie Hails, Nature and Science Director at the National Trust said: “The UK’s wildlife is in serious trouble. We know that over 40% of species have declined since 1970 and it’s simply not acceptable. We are now at a crossroads when we need to pull together with actions rather than words to stop and reverse the decline of those species at risk as well as protecting and creating new habitats in which they can thrive.
“We need a strong new set of environmental laws to hold our governments and others to account and to set long-term and ambitious targets. Only a robust approach to environmental protections and law making can deliver this for England, Wales and Northern Ireland. But it’s not just government that needs to act; we can also all do our own bit for nature and wildlife including nature-friendly planting in our backyards and choosing peat-free composts for our gardens that protect precious peatland habitats.
“As the country’s biggest private landowner we have set ourselves some key targets by 2025. This includes an ambition to create 25,000 hectares of new priority habitats such as new butterfly habitat in the Heddon valley in Devon to help butterflies like the High Brown Fritillary (left) and moorland at the Dark Peak in the Peak District to help birds like Golden Plover.
“We are also championing sustainable farming with an ambition for at least 50 per cent of our farmland to be ‘nature-friendly’, with protected hedgerows, field margins, ponds, woodland and other habitats allowing plants and animals to thrive.”
Nikki Williams, Director of Campaigns and Policy at The Wildlife Trusts, said, “Nature is in big trouble but we know how to bring it back. Local action is already making a real difference and now the government needs to play its part. We need a Nature Recovery Network established in law – one that is locally developed and nationally connected – this would help join up our last remaining wild places by creating vital new habitats. It’s time to make nature a normal part of childhood again and restore wildlife so it can recover and thrive across urban jungles and the countryside once more – where it can be part of people’s daily lives.”
David Noble, Principal Ecologist at the BTO, said, “We owe a huge debt to the thousands of volunteers who give up their time to take part in the huge range of surveys that enable us to produce reports such as this. There is considerable change in the plants and wildlife we share this country with, and it is essential to understand the underlying causes, identify species and habitats under most pressure and collectively take appropriate conservation action. Without the dedication of these volunteer naturalists, our knowledge and capacity to respond would be very much poorer – thank you to them all.”
Natural England Chair Tony Juniper said, “Today’s report paints a stark picture of the state of some of our most-loved species. These losses matter as they represent an unravelling of the web of life upon which we depend.
“There are some grounds for optimism in the report and I want to celebrate the partners and landowners up and down the country that make real changes on the ground, and we are working with a range of conservation organisations including through the Back from the Brink programme to put over 100 priority species on the road to recovery by 2020.
“However, this report is a wake-up call. More needs to be done to achieve the ambitions of the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan to reverse nature’s decline so that our children can experience and benefit from a richer natural environment.”
Toos van Noordwijk, Director of Science, Policy and Innovation, Earthwatch said, “The 2019 State of Nature Report highlights the plight of our wildlife and shows that we are still a long way from leaving our environment in a better state than we found it, while the climate and biodiversity crises make painfully clear that this is desperately needed. Amidst this serious message, the report also provides inspiration and hope. Thanks to the incredible hard work and determination of conservation charities and their army of volunteers, there are signs of recovery in some areas. As individuals we can all take positive action for nature, for example by avoiding pesticides, planting for pollinators or installing homes or feeders for local wildlife. And of course, we will make the biggest difference by working together, whether that be communities uniting to transform neighbourhoods into Naturehoods, or farmers coming together to improve water quality through catchment sensitive farming.”
Dr Emily Dennis, Senior Ecological Statistician, Butterfly Conservation said, “Due to numerous pressures, butterfly and moth populations in the UK continue to show worrying declines. Through suitable management, some conservation successes of our most threatened species, such as Duke of Burgundy and Large Blue, show that conservation action and research are vital to help save species from further decline.”
Christine Reid, Principal Conservation Adviser, Woodland Trust said, “We must tackle nature decline at the same time as we tackle the climate breakdown. By creating more and better managed native woodland habitats we tackle both problems together. The additional effect of increased pests and diseases facing our native trees and woods, like ash dieback, will have wide-ranging impacts on wildlife and mean we need to redouble our efforts. Now is the time to fight back against both nature decline and climate change.”
Nida Al-Fulaij Grants Manager, PTES, said, “The State of Nature Report documents the alarming state of our wild species and spaces. Many of our mammals are particularly at risk. Hazel dormouse populations continue to decline at an alarming rate. But it’s not too late to reverse this trend. We have both the time and the will to respond. The overwhelming contribution to this report by thousands of volunteers across the UK shows just how much people care about our wildlife and wild spaces. It’s vital we act now to protect them.”
Dr Gary Powney, Quantitative Ecologist at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, which compiled the distribution trends for the State of Nature Report, said “Thanks to the efforts of wildlife recorders across the UK, we have access to a treasure trove of data. We analysed more than 60 million records relating to the geographical range of thousands of plant and animal species. The vast majority of recorders are volunteers, demonstrating the vital role that citizen scientists play helping us to monitor the health of our natural world and supporting important scientific research.”
Dr Jo Judge, CEO of the National Biodiversity Network Trust said “The 2019 State of Nature Report highlights the issues facing the UK’s wildlife and that we need to take more action now. We are extremely fortunate to have thousands of volunteers and amateur experts in this country – who have been recording and sharing their wildlife data for decades – and without whom a report like this would not have been possible.
It is these same volunteers who will be crucial in the continued monitoring of our natural world to see what progress we are making towards reversing the declines seen in this report.”
Dr Mark Wright, Director of Science at WWF said, “We know that nature is in crisis and our wildlife is disappearing – we are in the midst of a nature and climate emergency right here at home. If we want a planet that still has butterflies and bats, with clean air and water that is protected for future generations, then we need a response that matches the scale of the challenge we are facing. The decisions made in the year ahead will determine the future of our world and the wildlife we share it with. Recent polls have shown the environment is a top priority for UK voters and we must work together to press the government to urgently introduce ambitious new laws to protect and restore our environment as we leave the EU. The new Environment Bill must be world-leading with bold legal targets and a strong watchdog that hold the government legally accountable for halting the loss of nature at home and overseas. It is time for leaders to unite behind the biggest issue of our generation and catalyse a movement to save our planet.”
Fiona Mathews, Professor of Environmental Biology, University of Sussex and Chair of the Mammal Society said, “We have identified seven species of mammal which are in grave danger of disappearing from our landscape, the wildcat, greater mouse-eared bat, grey long-eared bat, black rat, red squirrel, water vole and beaver. Populations of some of Britain’s most iconic mammals, including the hedgehog and the dormouse, are also declining. Wildlife charities are united in their belief that there is hope. We highlight, in the State of Nature, some of the key threats to British Wildlife, including urban expansion, pollution and land management. There are now opportunities to tackle these issues and create an environment good for both wildlife and people. We also call on the public to help us find out more about the state of British mammals and identify ways to halt the decline. We have the data gathering technology at our fingertips and we would urge everyone to get involved.”
Jenny Hawley, Senior Policy Officer, Plantlife said, “Plants fuel the diversity of life on earth: they are the building blocks of all habitats and the foundation of complex food-webs that include all our other wildlife including insects, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds. We know one in five British wildflowers is under threat and continued declines, as revealed today, must be urgently addressed if we are to better protect the wealth of wonderful wildlife plants underpin. This means doing much more to unroot the drivers of decline such as the intensification of agriculture, climate change, and air pollution. Where wildflowers lead, wildlife follows: the marsh fritillary butterfly feeds almost exclusively on Devil’s-bit Scabious, so lives or dies according to the prospects of its food plant.”
Andy McCutcheon, Principal Environment Services Officer, Agriculture, Countryside & Land Management Services (ACLMS) “Guernsey welcomes the opportunity to be part of the State of Nature report. The report paints a picture which should concern everyone. We have had a Biodiversity Strategy in place for nearly four years and this report forces us to face facts. It is only by understanding what we are losing and how we are losing it that we can begin to reverse the serious decline in our species rich habitats such as unimproved grassland.”
Marcus Yeo, Chief Executive of JNCC, representing the country nature conservation bodies:
“We’re pleased to be able to work with our NGO partners to provide best available evidence that can be used by all to better understand how nature is changing across the UK. We recognise that the continuing declines in biodiversity require urgent action from across society. This report also highlights success stories from which we can learn, and which should be celebrated. Conservation is successful when we all work together.”
Paul de Zylva, campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said, “As we lose nature we lose a huge part of what makes us happy and healthy. The UK’s ministers and business persist in planning and funding – often with public money – disastrous projects and practices which will only continue to destroy nature. Our government has made repeated declarations in recent years to halt, and reverse, the decline of nature – even leading negotiations on global commitments around this.
The years following have shown a complete inability to do any more than ‘talk the talk’; setting targets as little more than a PR exercise without any ambition to follow through on them.”
Dr Jacob Bedford, University of Plymouth, said, “Our marine environment is undergoing continued change as a result of both direct human pressures and climate change, including the reshuffling of plankton communities which support the UK marine food web. It is only through continued monitoring that impacts of pressures such as overfishing and climate change can be efficiently assessed and managed. Given our reliance on the ecosystem services provided by a healthy and functioning marine ecosystem, it is crucial that conservation of marine biodiversity is kept high on the political agenda.”
Hendrikus van Hensbergen, Chief Executive, Action for Conservation said “Action for Conservation is proud to be a partner of the State of Nature 2019 report and to have supported many of the inspiring young people involved in the publication through our programmes. Young people are already at the heart of driving solutions to the climate and biodiversity crisis and we should further encourage them to share their voice and advocate for change. The State of Nature Report is a wake-up call. The stark declines in UK wildlife are already impacting the resilience of nature, the climate and our own livelihoods and we must take urgent steps to turn this situation around. I hope that the report will inspire more young people to take up this vital cause.”
Clare Blencowe, Chair of the Association for Local Environmental Records Centres, said, “In revealing the scale of ongoing wildlife decline, the latest State of Nature Report highlights the tremendous value of the National Biodiversity Network: the thousands of volunteers, national organisations and local groups who together coordinate biological recording, monitor wildlife sites and provide essential insights into changes on the ground. Local Environmental Record Centres are proud of their role in ensuring data are available to inform local planning and decision-making, as well as countrywide assessments. The Local Nature Recovery Strategies now proposed by government could provide multiple benefits but will require local biodiversity information needs to be met if they are to deliver the best outcomes for people and nature; reinforcing the need for a cohesive UK environmental information infrastructure.”
Dr Kevin Walker, BSBI’s Head of Science, said, “Britain’s wildlife is arguably the best monitored in the world thanks to the millions of hours invested by thousands of committed volunteer recorders. State of Nature 2019 utilises this unique resource to provide the most complete picture of the state of Britain’s wildlife ever assembled – and the results are alarming. Whilst there are some ‘good news’ stories, up to half of the species in some groups are in serious trouble. Plants provide the bedrock of a healthy ecosystem and it is clear from the results that their declines are exacerbating more marked declines in other groups that rely on them, notably insects, mammals, birds and butterflies.
However, there is hope – thanks to the work of the organisations that form the SoN partnership, we have an unrivalled understanding of why our wildlife is in trouble; the litany of causes includes habitat loss, modern farming methods, pollution, persecution and increasingly climate change. But we also have the knowledge, technologies and increasingly the public will to put things right; so let’s start to act now, as one united conservation movement, to make the changes needed for the good of British wildlife and for the generations to come. Our children and their children will thank us for it.”
Gill Perkins, CEO Bumblebee Conservation Trust, said, “Once again the State of Nature team has provided a valuable update on what’s happening to the UK’s wildlife. The full report published today complements the day to day work we and 1000s of citizen scientists do on bumblebees. We know from our ‘BeeWalk’ citizen science recording scheme that some of our commonest bumblebees are in decline. We all have much to do to ensure that we reverse the declines, in both species and habitat quality, to ensure the UK’s full range of wildlife is both thriving and valued.”
Dr Helen Smith, Conservation Officer, British Arachnological Society, said, “invertebrates are at the heart of healthy ecosystems, far outnumbering vertebrates in numbers of species and abundance. With well over a million spider records collected entirely by expert volunteers, this important group can now form part of our assessment of the state of nature. Half of our 688 species are either nationally scarce or rare and 16% are threatened with extinction. More encouragingly, species recovery programmes for two of our rarest and most spectacular species – the Fen Raft Spider and Ladybird Spider – show that targeted research and conservation action can restore sustainable populations for the future.”
Dominic Jermey CVO, OBE, Director General, ZSL (Zoological Society of London), said, “The continuing loss of the UK’s wildlife is obviously of huge concern but we mustn’t give up hope as conservation successes are happening too, even in the most unpromising conditions. The River Thames, for example, was declared ‘biologically dead’ in the 1950s but thanks to dedicated measures to restore habitat and tackle pollution, is now a thriving ecosystem home to more than 100 species of fish including seahorses, eels and sharks; porpoises; and a growing seal population too. It can be done!”