The State of Nature 2016 – New report examines the causes of wildlife decline in the UK

“The UK is among the most nature-depleted countries in the world,” says the report

56% of the species assessed have declined since 1970, whilst 15% are threatened with extinction

September 21st 2016

A partnership of 53 wildlife organisations published a report last week which gathers together data and expertise from a number of bodies to present “the clearest picture to date” of the status of the UK’s native species. The report, titled The State of Nature 2016, analyses a total of 7,964 species and reveals that 56% of the species assessed have declined since 1970, while 15% (1,199 species) are either extinct or are threatened with extinction in the UK, using internationally recognised Red List assessment criteria.

The partnership covers England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey and the 53 partners include the RSPB, the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, the British Trust for Ornithology, the National Trust, the Woodland Trust, the World Wildlife Fund, the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland, the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management, Friends of the Earth, and a number of rivers trusts and wildlife trusts as well as several specialist organisations concerned with bats, butterflies, bees, dragonflies, bugs, mammals, badgers, fungi, lichen, plants, amphibians, reptiles, frogs, sharks, whales, dolphins, freshwater habitats and marine ecosystems.

The report builds on a previous State of Nature report published in 2013 which analysed data for the period 2002–2013. The new report includes data for more species and takes a longer view by assessing the period from 1970 to 2013. One of the aims of the report is to examine the causes of wildlife decline and to use the diagnosis to highlight the need for conservation projects across the UK, UK Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies. A further aim is to demonstrate through the use of case studies how targeted conservation is helping to tackle wildlife decline with projects that have benefited species and habitats. The report’s authors hope that success stories such as these will inspire individuals, organisations and governments to work together to reverse the decline and “bring nature back from the brink.”

“The drivers of change”

On the causes of wildlife decline, the report’s authors reviewed evidence concerning the long-term population trends of 400 terrestrial and freshwater species in the UK, sampled from a variety of taxonomic groups, the three main groups being insects, vascular plants and vertebrates. The authors were then able to quantify the impact, both positive and negative, of a broad range of drivers, spanning the period 1970–2012. Their findings were similar across the three main taxonomic groups included in the study.

They found that the largest driver of change by far is the intensification of agriculture, which has had an overwhelmingly negative impact on wildlife. Farming has changed dramatically over the forty-year period under review, the report says, “with new technologies boosting yields often at the expense of nature.” The transformation of agricultural land through intensive management has seen an abandonment of mixed farming systems; the intensification of grazing regimes; the increased use of pesticides and fertilisers; the loss of marginal habitats, such as ponds, hedgerows and small woodland; and a switch from spring to autumn sowing, reducing food and habitat for many species. According to the report, however, this last practice has also had a positive impact, leading to “the increased winter survival of some species that eat autumn-sown crops” (though milder winters are also a factor here).

The second biggest driver is climate change, but the impact here has been both positive and negative. For instance, more species from southerly climes have extended their range into the UK than those species from northerly climes that have been lost. In addition, milder winters have increased the survival rate of some species. However, the negative factors here include the loss of coastal habitat due to sea level rise; the adverse effect on marine ecosystems due to increases in sea temperatures; and the disruption to a species’ feeding and breeding habits due to changes in seasonal weather patterns, such as winter storms and wetter springs. The authors also warn that “novel interactions between species caused by changes to their distributions are likely to affect them in unpredictable ways.”

There are four drivers of change that have also had a negative impact on wildlife though to a lesser extent. These are, firstly, hydrological change. This is another land management issue, involving the drainage of wetlands, upland bogs, fens and lowland wet grasslands, and also a sustainability issue, involving the over-abstraction of water. Secondly, urbanisation, involving the loss of green space, including parks, allotments and gardens; the loss of wildlife-rich brownfield sites; and the loss of habitats, such as lowland heathland, to development. Thirdly, a decline in woodland management: the cessation of traditional management practices, such as coppicing, says the report, has led to the loss of varied-age structure and open habitats within woodland. And fourthly, a decline in managing other habitats, such as heathland and grassland: the abandonment of traditional management, including grazing, burning and cutting, is crucial for their maintenance, the report states.

A fifth driver of change is forestry, which has had both a negative and a positive impact on wildlife, and again is an issue of land management. An overall increase in the area of forestry plantations, whilst this has increased the habitat for species using coniferous plantations and woodland edges, has also reduced the habitat that plantations replace, particularly lowland heaths and upland habitats.

So what does the report say about positive drivers? The report summarises its analysis by saying, in general, the way habitats are managed has had a greater impact on wildlife than changes in the total amount of habitat. Whilst changes in habitat management have been substantial, changes to the areas occupied by different habitats during the forty-year period have been relatively small, compared to the extent of habitat loss in the past. It is therefore unsurprising that land management features in the positive drivers of change. According to the report, habitat creation and the low-intensity management of agricultural land have had the most beneficial impact on wildlife. Habitat creation, in particular, is classed as a positive driver with no negative impact, and the report cites the examples of the creation of new wetlands, either through conservation work or as a by-product of mineral extraction (see below), and the planting of new broadleaved and mixed woodland.

The low-intensity management of agricultural land involves the introduction of wildlife-friendly farming through programmes such as the Countryside Stewardship scheme. However, this is balanced by the negative consequence of reduced grazing, leading to the loss of some habitats. Increased management of other habitats through conservation management, often by reinstating traditional methods, also has a positive impact, but again is balanced by the negative impact of increased grazing pressure.

The report examines the causes of wildlife decline in more detail by focusing on specific habitats, with sections that deal with farmland; lowland semi-natural grassland and heathland; upland; woodland; coastal habitats; freshwater and wetland habitats; the urban environment, and the marine environment. There are also four separate reports that focus on England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, whilst a supplement to the main report includes a set of tables with statistical breakdowns for habitats, regions, and taxonomic groups. Taking the UK as a whole, the steepest rate of wildlife decline is found in grassland and heathland (a 60% fall), whilst the marine environment shows the smallest at 38%. Comparing regions of the UK, England fares the worst by far, with a 61% decline in vascular plants, a 62% decline in the butterfly population, and a 49% fall in the bird population.

Helping to halt the decline

The report describes a number of ways to protect the natural environment and of helping wildlife to thrive, including: protecting specific sites via national and international legislation; improving habitats; creating new wildlife sites; creating wildlife corridors between sites; taking action on behalf of particular species; and tackling pressures such as climate change.

However, the drivers of change are not the only source of pressure facing the natural environment. There is also the pressure of funding for conservation projects. The report states that government spending on biodiversity has fallen by 32% in the last eight years as a percentage of GDP. Many environmental charities would struggle to exist without funding from alternative sources, such as donations from the general public, whilst many conservation projects are heavily reliant on volunteers, whose help has been indispensable for their completion. In this context, it is fortunate that companies working in the mineral extraction and aggregate industries have demonstrated a strong commitment to playing a significant role in nature conservation, both financially and physically through specific restoration projects, a fact that is acknowledged in the report.

For instance, the Peak District National Park has formed a partnership with Tarmac which will see the company donate £20,000 a year for the next five years to help the National Park employ a new member of staff. The new member of staff will play a lead role in supporting the Park’s programme of conservation volunteering. Tarmac, which owns a quarry near Buxton, has set a target of delivering 50,000 volunteer hours a year by 2020 and, as part of the partnership with the National Park, its employees will help with projects across the Peak District for one day a month for the duration of the partnership. [1]

As another example, earlier this year the company Banks Mining established a £93,000 endowment fund to support the management of Pegswood Country Park in Northumberland, having completed the second phase of a programme of restoration and landscaping work at the 36.5 hectare site. The park includes the site of a former opencast mine which Banks operated between 1997 and 2005, and the first phase of the work, on land to the east of the former mine, was delivered in 2003 while the surface mine was still operational. The ongoing management of the park has now been handed over to the environmental charity Groundwork, and the landscaping work has included the planting of 575 bushes and trees along the side of a lake, the sowing of nectar-rich grasses, and 1.4km of new public footpaths. [2]

Back to nature: Creating new habitats

The RSPB is also involved in a number of partnerships with mineral extraction and aggregate companies, not only working with them on specific projects but also at a national level. The RSPB leads a nationwide minerals restoration programme in partnership with the Mineral Products Association, the British Aggregates Association, and Natural England. The partnership, called Nature after Minerals, recently launched a new website which provides advice on a range of land management issues, including priority habitat creation; species protection; and strategic minerals planning. The resource enables practitioners to share best practice and showcases case studies that illustrate how restoration projects have benefited biodiversity and have engaged the local community.

Moving on to specific projects, the RSPB recently announced a collaboration with Brett Aggregates and Boskalis, a dredging contractor, which will involve transporting clay, chalk and other construction spoil from tunnelling and building projects to a Brett Aggregates site at Cliffe in Kent, close to the Thames estuary, where it will be used to fill two lakes. Shallows and islands will then be created in the larger of the two lakes, providing an enhanced habitat for wading birds and other wildlife, and complementing the neighbouring 236-hectare RSPB Cliffe Pools nature reserve. A report by Agg-Net says that the Brette Aggregates site at Cliffe is ideally located “as materials from large projects such as the Thames Tideway Tunnel scheme and other commercial developments can be delivered by boat or barge to the wharf-side operation.” Julian Nash from the RSPB said this type of site is rare in the UK and is significant for both the internationally important wetland birds of the south Thames estuary and marshes, and as a nationally important saline habitat. In winter, Cliffe Pools can attract up to 7,000 dunlins, 2,000 lapwings and 3,000 ducks including teal, wigeon, shoveler, mallard, gadwall and pintail, as well as other species including redshank and grey plover plus birds of prey in the scrub and grassland areas, including marsh harriers.

Meanwhile, in Cambridgeshire, the RSPB is at the halfway stage in a 30-year partnership project with Hanson UK which will see the creation of the UK’s largest reed bed from a working sand and gravel quarry. In May, Hanson handed over a further 96 hectares of restored land at its Needingworth Quarry which will double the size of the RSPB Ouse Fen reserve. A report by Agg-Net says the handover will make the reserve bigger than 200 football pitches: “The Hanson-RSPB wetland project at Needingworth is the biggest planned nature conservation restoration scheme in Europe. It began in 2001 and is primarily being created for bitterns, a species that until recently was very rare in Britain. The reserve is also home to other scarce species such as marsh harriers, bearded tits, otters and water voles. Hanson will continue to hand over parcels of land as sand and gravel extraction is completed, eventually forming a 700-hectare reserve and recreating some of the lost wetland habitat that once dominated the Fenland landscape but was lost due to drainage and land-use changes. The reed bed will cover around 1.5 square miles, almost doubling the natural wetland habitat.”

The State of Nature report says that habitat creation is one of the most significant drivers of positive change for the UK’s wildlife and points out that much of this habitat creation has taken place at post-extraction mineral sites, “where old quarries are converted to new wetlands, including reed beds, marshes and open water.” Whilst this is an obvious benefit to wetland species, what about grassland and heathland, the habitat that shows the steepest rate of species decline across the UK?

Some wetland projects do incorporate grassland into the landscaping where this is feasible and desirable, but for a project that deals specifically with grassland we turn to another RSPB partnership, this one with CEMEX. As we reported in a previous news item, the RSPB is working with CEMEX to provide habitats for the twite in Derbyshire and for the turtle dove in Warwickshire. The company is managing hay meadows and creating conditions that will allow plant species more usually associated with arable land to flourish and to provide seeds for the birds to feed on at critical times of the year.

The plight of the turtle dove was highlighted last year when the IUCN added the turtle dove to its Red List list of bird species threatened with extinction. [3] Turtle doves are migratory birds that spend less than half a year in the UK but come here to breed, primarily in the east and south-east of England. Operation Turtle Dove reports that their numbers have fallen by 97% since the 1970s, the main reason being changes in arable farming practice which has had an impact on their habitat and food supply. Farmers and landowners in the east of England have subsequently taken up their cause via the Countryside Stewardship scheme, creating feeding habitat for the birds and allowing their food plants to return to the arable landscape.

Threatened with extinction

The turtle dove was not the only bird to be added to the IUCN Red List of bird species in the UK; the puffin, the Slavonian grebe, and the pochard were also added to the list. The causes of the puffin’s decline are thought to be their vulnerability to pollution and also a decline in their food supply, which has reduced the survival rate of young birds. The decline in Slavonian grebes in the UK is thought to be due to a reduction in successful breeding pairs, whilst the decline in the pochard population is thought to be due to hunting and the destruction of habitat. These additions mean that the Red List of bird species in the UK has doubled from four to eight. [4]

Reacting to the news last October, Martin Harper, the RSPB’s Director of Conservation, said: “Today’s announcement means that the global wave of extinction is now lapping at our shores… The erosion of the UK’s wildlife is staggering and this is reinforced when you talk about puffin and turtle dove now facing the same level of extinction threat as African elephant and lion, and being more endangered than the humpback whale.”

The RSPB said that several themes emerge from an examination of the changes to the UK’s birds in the IUCN Red List, including “a deterioration in the fortunes of some sea birds, such as puffin and razorbill; an ongoing and increasingly intense threat to wading birds, such as godwits, curlew, oyster catcher, knot and lapwing; and an increasing deterioration in the status of marine ducks, such as common eider, which joins the velvet scoter and long-tailed duck as species of concern.”

Returning to the State of Nature report, whilst there are a number of success stories with regard to targeted species, the overall picture remains one of general decline. The song thrush population has halved in the UK since 1970, whilst the hedgehog population has declined by a third in the last twenty years. An index of species status, based on abundance and occupancy data for 2,501 terrestrial and freshwater species in the UK, has fallen by 16% since 1970. In addition, using data for 213 priority species, an index describing the population trends of species of special conservation concern in the UK has fallen by 67% since 1970. The report also cites a new measure that assesses the health of a country’s biodiversity, and this suggests that the UK has lost significantly more nature over the long term than the global average. “The index suggests that we are among the most nature-depleted countries in the world,” says the report.

The report summarises the overall picture thus: “The loss of nature in the UK continues. Although many short-term trends suggest improvement, there was no statistical difference between our long and short-term measures of species’ change, and no change in the proportion of species threatened with extinction.”

The State of Nature 2016 was launched by David Attenborough at the Royal Society in London on September 14th and is available as a PDF download from the RSPB website.


[1] See the article ‘Tarmac backing conservation in Peak District,’ as reported by Agg-Net.

[2] See the article ‘Banks Mining complete Pegswood restoration,’ as reported by Agg-Net.

[3] The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) use a range of categories to assess the status of a species with regard to its population and the priorities for conservation. These are: 1. Extinct; 2. Extinct in the wild; 3. Critically Endangered; 4. Endangered; 5. Vulnerable; 6. Near Threatened; 7. Least Concern; 8. Data deficient; and 9. Not evaluated. The turtle dove is listed as ‘critically endangered’ in the UK and ‘vulnerable’ globally.

[4] See BBC News for a summary, but note that ‘critically endangered’ in the UK does not necessarily reflect the global status of a species, as in the case of the turtle dove above.


Photograph: Ouse Fen, Phase Seven © Copyright Hugh Venables and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. The photograph was taken in 2012 and the caption says that sand and gravel extraction by Hanson has finished in this area, “which will now be re-profiled and covered in a peaty topsoil in preparation for the conversion to a reed bed as part of the RSPB Ouse Fen reserve.” The reed bed will eventually cover around 1.5 square miles, making it the largest reed bed in the UK. For more information, see RSPB Ouse Fen.