UK species continue to decline - does it matter & what can we do?


Dr Tony Whitbread-©Miles Davies-Sussex Wildlife 

Dr Tony Whitbread tells the Ecologist why, despite serious declines in much of Britain's wildlife, he remains optimistic that nature conservation can provide the tools to reverse these negative trends......
We know what to do and how to do it - what is needed is investment and political willpower

Wryneck, bullhead and wart-biter are just curious names to us today, but to previous generations they were familiar creatures that had special meaning. The wryneck is a strange bird whose arrival in spring signalled the best time to cut oak trees and strip the bark for the leather tanning industry. The bullhead was a common fish in the streams of Sussex, whilst the wart-biter is a cricket which, of course, is supposed to bite warts off.

Sussex has some of the few remaining UK colonies of wart biter, we still occasionally see the bullhead, and the wryneck crops up occasionally, but these and many other species are now so rare that they have little meaning to us today. Losing species, as well as degrading the utility of the environment, also means that we lose parts of our history and parts of our culture. We become more impoverished with every loss.

Against this background, a consortium of environmental bodies launched a report entitled the "State of Nature" on 22nd May 2013. Of 3,000+ species examined over 60% are declining, and about half of those are in steep decline. The general pattern seems to be that specialist species are doing particularly badly and are being replaced by generalists. We are losing the special and gaining the ordinary.

Sussex is one of the most well-wooded counties in England, yet in spite of this woodland species are declining. Some woodland butterflies, like pearl-bordered fritillary and wood white, are down to their last few sites. Woodland birds like lesser spotted woodpecker and willow tit are also much less frequent than they once were. Moths in general are reducing in numbers, with familiar species like the garden tiger moth suffering a 92% reduction, nationally, over the last 40 years.

Insects as a group are starting to become a rare sight, and we have great concerns about the loss of pollinators - lose pollinators today and we lose apples, and many other food crops, tomorrow. Furthermore, the reduction in insects will mean that bird species that rely on insects as a food source will have reduced breeding success.

We have seen reductions in once familiar birds - house sparrow, starling and song thrush are far less common than 20 years ago, and some species, such as turtle dove, look like they are heading towards extinction in England.

We know what to do and how to do it - what is needed is investment and political willpower

Habitat loss is a major cause of species reduction and the figures for this can be equally stark. Flower-rich meadows declined about 97% between 1945 and 1990, and since then it is estimated that in Sussex we have lost half of what was left. This matches a similar long term decline in reed-beds - 97% loss in the long term, so only tiny fragments remain in Sussex. Loss of wetlands means the loss of wetland species. Toads are far less common now and plants like rootless duckweed, blue water-speedwell and tawny sedge are going or gone.

A general picture of decline is, however, partly countered by a number of positive cases. I know an estate in Sussex where the landowner has changed management resulting in pairs of nightingale going up from 9 to 34 in just 10 years, and another where grey partridge is making a come-back.

And there are now several cases where sustainable woodland management is likely to turn the tide of loss, at least locally. A school has built a butterfly haven in the middle of Brighton where 12 species of butterfly appeared in less than a decade - including species that are not "supposed" to colonise quickly.

There are now new grasslands and amenity grasslands being recreated as wild flower meadows, using seed from original ancient meadows, and a new "nature street" initiative is networking urban gardens in Lewes, East Sussex, to the benefit of wildlife.

In general, nature conservation is moving out of nature reserves and restoring a living landscape across the whole environment. Special places are important, but we need to make them better, bigger and more connected. There are many landscape-scale projects out there; we know what to do and how to do it. What is needed is the investment and the political will.

Some may say why bother - species come and go, if there are a few less in future does it really matter? Well, even if you put aside the loss of meaning, history and culture, ignore the immorality of letting our lack of care result in a degraded environment, and put to one side the spiritual enrichment that we would be denying future generations, you are still left with the basic utilitarian need for a healthy environment. We rely totally on the environment, it provides the ecosystem services that we need for our well-being, prosperity and survival. Ecosystems are made of wildlife; the health of our ecosystems is indicated by the richness of wildlife and the effective functioning of ecosystems is determined by wildlife.

And remember - extinction is not just something that happens to other species!

Dr Tony Whitbread is Chief executive of the Sussex Wildlife Trust.