Biodiversity? The UK is losing it fast

We’re often told that we need positive messaging to turn the UK’s biodiversity crisis around. Talk about the good things rather than endlessly focussing on the bad. There are a few positives of course, like the 1026% increase in the Red Kite population between 1995-2014. Pine Martens are recovering and are being seen in counties right across England, Wales, and Scotland. We’ve far more Large Blue butterflies than half a century ago. But then again, Red Kites were almost persecuted to extinction here. Ditto the Pine Marten. The Large Blue was officially declared extinct in 1979. What we’re calling recoveries are numbers building up from almost zero. In the meantime…well, in the meantime a lot more of our wildlife is disappearing fast…

How do we know? Because a recent report from the RSPB, using data compiled by the Natural History Museum, has been published ahead of this June’s G7 Summit in Carbis Bay, Cornwall, and it shows the frankly appalling state of nature in the UK (which should be particularly embarrassing for the Summit’s hosts given that the current government has already had eleven years in power to do something about it).

Like many similar websites, we’ve taken to calling the UK ‘one of the most nature depleted countries in the world’ following a WWF Report in 2019. Like many sites, we’re derided for it. Critics (who at least need to do some googling before wasting their time writing emails), might like to take notice of this latest report, which states unambiguously that the UK is the worst nation in the G7 for the volume of wildlife and wild spaces lost due to human activity.

Using a measure based on a Biodiversity Intactness Index (BII), an internationally approved scientific measurement of the impact of human activity on plants, animals and landscapes, the UK not only comes bottom of the list for G7 countries in terms of the amount of biodiversity retained but is also third from the bottom across all European countries, ahead of only Ireland and Malta.

The UK’s BII is just 50% which means it has retained only half of its biodiversity since the 1970s, compared with 65% for France, 67% for Germany, and 89% for Canada (which is among the best countries or territories worldwide for retaining its natural biodiversity). In fact, all of the four countries that make up the UK are currently placed in the lowest 12% of global countries and territories for biodiversity intactness

It’s easy to argue that of course vast, mountainous countries like Canada (which has a population density of just 3.78 people per square kilometer, compared with the UK’s 278.67) have fared better than we have on our crowded, intensively farmed, little island – but isn’t that the point? Because we are so small and our wildlife is under so much pressure, we need to be ultra-careful – especially before ripping up ancient woodlands to build railways, get rid of restrictions on house building, or expand the slaughter of our wildlife to appease the dairy and shooting industries.

The truth is that while we like to tell ourselves that we have a world-class selection of national parks and national nature reserves, that we protect the best land by listing it as SSSis, that we love our countryside and are proud of it – we are actually pretty much failing to protect our wildlife at all. Our so-called ‘national parks are largely run as shooting estates and here in England our ‘crown jewel’ national nature reserves cover just 0.7% of the country’s surface area (9% of which is The Wash). And there has been a net decrease in the area of SSSIs in favourable condition; down from 44.0% in 2003 to 38.9% in March 2020. We have ploughed up 97% of all our wildflower meadows since the 1930s. Our insect populations are largely in freefall. The first ever UK Red List of Mammals published last year found that once common mammals like water voles and hedgehogs are now classified as vulnerable to extinction. Our birds – Red Kites aside – are not doing especially well either: the latest BirdTrends report from the BTO released in March this year concluded that, “there are 28 species for which our best long-term trends show statistically significant population declines of greater than 50% over periods of 31–51 years.”

None of this is to belittle the immense efforts that thousands of wardens, rangers, volunteers, and campaigners are making. Nor to belittle the efforts of trusts, conservation organisations and charities. But despite everyone’s work our biodiversity is disappearing in front of our eyes.

And it’s not hard to realise why. They are under-funded, under-resourced, and outgunned by Defra’s lobbyist chums from the far too influential lobbyists from the farming, fishing, building and shooting industries. They are undermined by government policies that have done nothing to reverse declines that have turned our biodiversity into a shrivelled version of what it was less a couple of decades ago, let alone what it was a hundred years ago.

Just recently, the government have been making the right noises about ‘recovering nature’, of refunding Natural England after defunding it for ten years, of taking these declines seriously – but if they try slapping themselves on the back too hard in Cornwall hopefully one of our former European colleagues will be there to ask on our behalf why it’s taken them so long…