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Wildlife in Crisis (Still): State of Nature

Madelaine Stannard discusses the UK’s latest State of Nature report, and its disappointing revelations.


Somewhere in the UK, in an office or a meeting room, someone signs off on the document, heavy hearted, and puts down their pen. Perhaps they pinch the bridge of their nose and sigh at the disappointing news the report will deliver. It is news that will ultimately affect every single one of us, in some small or perhaps large way. The consequences of what this news entails will trickle down from where it began, all the way to where it ends, as do we. Unfortunately, the urgency and importance of this news won’t quite be conveyed as it should. That’s because it exists in a world that, through its own apathy and disconnect, created these problems in the first place. The worst part? Most people will never even hear about it.


That’s not to say this news is all bad - between the pages and pages of doom and gloom, there are silver linings of hope. But, just like the disappointing news, these too will never make their way to the front pages, as they deserve. Our world is cluttered with things and noise in a way that leaves no room for anything else - not even the ground beneath our feet and the birds that wheel above us in the sky. Although this news is making its way to you somewhat late, there is still time. The state of nature simply cannot wait.


What is the State of Nature Report?


The State of Nature Report is the culmination of work by thousands of people, collecting data on the UK’s biodiversity. Scientists, analysts, volunteers and citizen scientists are involved in monitoring species, all to give us an accurate and up to date understanding of nature in the UK, Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories. The previous report was published in 2019, working with over 60 partner organisations and countless individuals, to understand trends in populations of species and the quality of their habitats. The latest report was published towards the end of 2023, and its results are less than glamorous…


54% of flowering plants have seen a decline in their distributions since 1970. For how much longer will we see beautiful wildflower meadows like this? Image Credit: danigeza on Pixabay.


Some Telling Results…


Unsurprisingly, things aren’t looking good. Britain is, and has been for some time, one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. One in six species are now threatened with extinction, and yet nobody is talking about it. If you needed another reminder of how far-removed from nature the UK has become, this is it. For every six species you could name, the chances are that one of them is vulnerable.


Scientists and volunteers surveyed 753 terrestrial and freshwater species, only to find that their abundance has declined by 19% on average since 1970. While 205 of these species have increased in abundance, 290 have significantly declined in their numbers. Let’s take a closer look at some of these species, and how their abundances and distributions are changing…

 

The distribution of a species, its geographic range and the boundaries within which it lives, is vulnerable to change and fluctuation. Threats like climate change, habitat loss, and invasive species mean that the distributions within which an animal or plant lives often become smaller. 54% of flowering plants and 59% of mosses and liverwort (ancient bryophytes, surviving from the very origin of land plants) have seen declines in their distribution as their ranges contract across Great Britain. In Northern Ireland, bryophytes have suffered even greater declines, with 62% of species losing ground. 13% of invertebrate species across the UK have suffered distribution declines too, and in certain insect groups, such as those crucial for pollination and pest control, they have decreased 18% and 34% respectively.


The State of Nature report also looks at the marine environment. In thirteen species of seabird, abundance has declined on average by 24%. This figure is heightened in Scotland. It even predates the devastating outbreak of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, which has since decimated seabird populations. Seabirds are some of the most iconic species the UK has to offer, but without further monitoring, scientists are currently still to determine what their future looks like. Marine mammals are not immune to the losses either. For instance, there are notable local population declines for the Harbour Seal, around parts of Southeast England (25%), Scotland and the Northern Isles (~40%).


The Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus) is one species of seabird that may be facing declines across the UK. It has also been severely impacted by the recent outbreak of HPAI. Image Credit: Madelaine Stannard/@madelainestannardwild.


What About The Good News?


There are some signs of hope for a number of the species studied in the latest report. Marine benthic organisms (those that live on the seafloor), for example, show an overall increasing trend in abundance! The word ‘overall’ is key, because many groups, like starfish and sea stars, continue to decline. But, on average, seafloor species appear to be recovering in numbers, a trend mirrored by rare and colonising birds. Nevertheless, they only account for 0.1% of all birds in the UK. While some of the rarer or newly arriving species are beginning to thrive, the vast majority continue to struggle.

 

For every sliver of positivity, that rightfully should be celebrated, the report can deliver a less optimistic figure. But we shouldn’t lose all hope, or let the mountain of what we’ve already lost discourage us. Mountains are meant to be climbed, and understanding the issue at hand is the first step. Education is awareness. Awareness is action. And action, at least, is something. You might read this article and feel doubtful of how you, as an individual, can do anything to counter some of what we are seeing. And, you’re mostly right. One person can rarely save an entire species, group, or ecosystem from extinction. But together, through communication, concerted efforts, and organisation, we can combine our collective small-scale actions and intentions and create something bigger. The first step?


Talking.

 

Wild encourages you to share the State of Nature Report 2023, or this article, with your friends, family, and colleagues.


About the Author: Madelaine Stannard is based in Sheffield, studying a Bsc in Zoology with a keen interest in animal behaviour, endangered species recovery and science communication. You can find her on Instagram @madelainestannardwild for wildlife photography and sci-comms, or on her website Maddie Stannard Wild.

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