One in five British mammals face extinction

| 13th June 2018
Red squirrel in tree

Red squirrel in tree

Flickr (Creative Commons)
The red squirrel, wildcat and the grey long-eared bat are all under severe threat, according to the first comprehensive review of their populations for more than 20 years, writes CATHERINE EARLY

It is possible that declines in many species are being overlooked because of a lack of robust evidence.

Climate change, loss of habitat, pesticide use and road deaths are putting extreme pressure on Britain’s 58 terrestrial mammals, research has found. 

Populations of hedgehogs have plummeted by up to 66 percent in 20 years due to changes in agricultural practice and pesticide use, road accidents and loss of nesting habitat, the research found. 

Water vole numbers are estimated to be a tenth of the one million recorded in 1995, following changes in land management, including wetland drainage arable cultivation and watercourse canalisation. They are also eaten by American mink.

However, the research also found that five species of British mammal have increased in numbers in 20 years, while 18 species, including the otter, polecat, beaver and wild boar, have increased their geographical range. 

The study was carried out by researchers at the Mammal Society, the University of Sussex, Queen Mary University of London, NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, and the University of Exeter. 

It was commissioned by the government’s nature conservation advisor, Natural England, working with counterpart organisations in Wales and Scotland. The data will be used to prioritise conservation actions and set the agenda for future research. 

Species being overlooked

The Mammal Society highlighted the urgent need for more research since very little information is available for some species. For example, the study found that rabbit populations are likely to have declined by around nine percent since 1995. However, other surveys have recorded larger slumps, of between 24 percent between 1995 and 2014, and 48 percent between 1995 and 2012. 

Last month, the organisation launched a “mammal mapper” app to enable members of the public to record sightings of local mammals using their smartphone.

Professor Mathews, lead author of the review, said: “The report highlights an urgent requirement for more research to assess population densities in key habitats because at present, uncertainty levels are unacceptably high. It is possible that declines in many species are being overlooked because a lack of robust evidence precludes assessment. 

“There is also an urgent need to quantify precisely the scale of declines in species such as the hedgehog, rabbit, water vole and grey long-eared bat. Effective and evidence-based strategies for mammal conservation and management must be developed before it is too late.”

"Ecological armageddon"

Meanwhile, naturalist and TV presenter Chris Packham has warned of an “ecological Armageddon” in the UK. 

According to an interview with Packham in the Guardian, British people have normalised a “national catastrophe” and only see a wealth of wildlife in nature reserves, with the wider countryside bereft of life.

“Nature reserves are becoming natural art installations,” he said. “It’s just like looking at your favourite Constable or Rothko. We go there, muse over it, and feel good because we’ve seen a bittern or some avocets or orchids. But on the journey home there’s nothing – only wood pigeons and non-native pheasants and dead badgers on the side of the road.

“It’s catastrophic and that’s what we’ve forgotten – our generation is presiding over an ecological apocalypse and we’ve somehow or other normalised it.”

In July, Packham will be visiting 50 wildlife sites around the UK to assess the extent to which the nation’s wildlife is under threat. During the “bioblitz”, Packham and his team will record numbers of all forms of wildlife: from flies to fungi, mammals, moths, birds and butterflies. 

The data they record will create a benchmark to help measure the rise and fall in numbers of different species in the future. Packham will be livestreaming the bioblitz here

This Author

Catherine Early is a freelance environmental journalist and the former deputy editor of the environmentalist. She can be found tweeting at @Cat_Early76.

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