The 2023 State of Nature report indicates that 16 percent of the 10,008 species assessed are at risk of extinction and declares the UK as one of the most nature-depleted countries on earth.
Compiled by nearly 60 conservation organisations, the 2023 State of Nature report is the most comprehensive natural survey of the UK and the Republic of Ireland. Focusing on three measures of biodiversity change (abundance, distribution and extinction risk), the report highlights UK wildlife continues to decrease despite our commitment to halting and reversing biodiversity loss by 2030.
Ecological data spanning fifty years has demonstrated climate change, unsustainable fishing, and how we manage our terrestrial land and marine environments has the greatest impact on UK wildlife. Considering changes to agricultural practices in recent years, the report states that “policy-driven increases in agricultural productivity have met the increase in demand but many management practices have had negative impacts on nature.” Farmed landscapes represent 71 percent of the UK, contributing to wildlife decline through agricultural intensification and the extensive use of pesticides and fertilisers. The report highlights that “between 1970 and 2020, farmland birds have declined on average by 58 percent” in the UK. Small mammals such as mice and shrews which also frequent farmland, decreased “by 29 percent between 1970 and 2016”. The conservation response to this widespread loss of biodiversity had mostly included the promotion of Agri-Environment Schemes (AES) to “promote more sustainable and nature-friendly farming”, with the proportion of farmland within an AES increasing.
Poor management of marine environments, including overexploitation by fisheries, is are also a key driver of change in marine biodiversity. In 2019, 27 percent of the UK fish quota – those that may be legally caught and landed – were overfished, and a substantial reduction in large species such as cod and saith was observed in the same year. The abundance and distribution of marine species is more difficult to track, but the report has identified the abundance of 13 species of seabirds have fallen on average by 24 percent since 1986. In Scotland over the same period, 11 seabird species experienced a severe decline of 49 percent. It is important to note that these statistics predate the current outbreak of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, the deadliest ever recorded in the UK, which has affected bird populations since 2021.
UK wildlife is increasingly impacted by “development in areas prone to flooding” and the corresponding flood risks posed by climate change. York students will be especially aware of the severe flooding experienced by the city as recently as last year, which saw the River Ouse peak at 4.6 metres in February following Storms Franklin and Eunice. Lowland and wetland areas provide essential habitats for our ground-nesting birds including curlews, skylarks, and lapwings. Skylarks are reported to have declined by “56 percent between 1970 and 2016”, in line with agricultural intensification. With climate change increasing the frequency and severity of springtime floods, ground-nesting birds such as skylarks may experience further habitat loss and reduced breeding success.
Despite an overwhelming number of our species showing decline, the report does highlight conservation successes for individual species such as the stabilisation of red squirrel populations in Scotland. The RSPB estimates there to be only around 121,000 red squirrels left in wild habitats in Scotland, representing “more than 75 percent of the total UK population.” Historically threatened by habitat loss, red squirrels must increasingly compete with non-native grey squirrels for habitats and food, while also increasing transmission of the deadly squirrelpox virus. The Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels (SSRS) project is a partnership between several nature NGOs and “works with volunteers and landowners to protect red squirrel populations”. Grey squirrels tend to outcompete their smaller red relatives for resources and replace native populations within 15 years. The SSRS has protected the red squirrel’s range from further contraction and their populations have increased in localised areas.
But as the report reminds us, “halting declines and reducing extinction are not the end goal of conservation.” Instead, these successes are merely a step in the direction of the UK meeting “Goal A” of the Global Biodiversity Framework – to “increase the abundance of native wild species to healthy and resilient levels by 2050.”