How to help wildlife

Turtle dove, hedgehog, harbour seal, early bumblebee, small tortoiseshell butterfly, natterjack toad (c) NaturePL / Photoshot / RSPB / Butterfly Conservation

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A stocktake of UK nature suggests 60% of animal and plant species studied have declined in the past 50 years.

The State of Nature report, compiled by 25 wildlife organisations - from the RSPB to the British Lichen Society - collates assessments of 3,148 species.

Conservationists hope it will offer clues to the fate of the UK's 59,000 species.

Beetles and wildlfowers are among the most vulnerable species.

According to the document, reasons for the decline are "many and varied" but include rising temperatures and habitat degradation.

Species requiring specific habitats have fared particularly poorly compared to the generalists able to adapt to the country's changing environment.

  • Turtle doves have declined by 93% since 1970
  • Hedgehogs have declined by around a third since the millennium
  • The small tortoiseshell butterfly has declined in abundance by 77% in the last ten years
  • Natterjack toad numbers have changed little since 1990
  • The early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) and the tormentil mining bee (Andrena tarsata) have shown strong declines in range since 1970
  • The population size of the V-moth is estimated to be less than 1% of what it was in the 1960s
  • Corn cleavers has undergone one of the most dramatic declines of any plant species
  • Harbour seals have declined by 31% in Scottish waters since 1996
  • There is only a single bastard gumwood tree left in the whole world

"This ground-breaking report is a stark warning - but it is also a sign of hope," said naturalist Sir David Attenborough, who launches the report today.

"We have in this country a network of passionate conservation groups supported by millions of people who love wildlife," he said.

"The experts have come together today to highlight the amazing nature we have around us and to ensure that it remains here for generations to come."

Speaking to BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Sir David said there was no single answer to the question of how people could help stem the decline in Britain's wildlife.

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But he added: "What you have to do to help bats differs from what you have to do to help frogs or butterflies or pond life. Yet each one of these has an organisation which is knowledgeable and willing to help anybody who wants to know how to support these species that they're concerned about."

Conservationists encourage the public to get involved in monitoring projects and take practical actions to protect their wildlife through conscientious gardening and land management.

The organisations rely upon data collected by the public in annual surveys such as the RSPB Bird Garden Birdwatch and Butterfly Conservation's Big Butterfly Count plus dedicated monitoring by volunteer enthusiasts.

The State of Nature report pulls together individual reports published in recent years charting the fortunes of bees, birds, moths and mammals in the UK and analyses material from ongoing studies.

But the data still only covers 5% of the UK's estimated 59,000 native species.

While the report reveals noticeable gaps in some data, particularly for invertebrates, fungi and marine species, Dr Fiona Burns, a lead author of the report, hopes future editions will involve more experts.

Corn cleavers, a threatened UK species The charity Plantlife contributed data on the UK's flora, including rare corn cleavers

"By including those people and including their expertise, even though we've not got as much information about fungi or other groups, we can promote the importance of these groups in UK flora and fauna," she said.

"[The knowledge gaps] highlight that there are big biases in what we study, what we monitor. If we want to get an idea of the health of the eco-systems and our biodiversity we need to redress that balance."

In the past, threatened animals and plants considered "priority species" have been included on government Biodiversity Action Plans to formalise and target conservation actions to halt and reverse declines.

The State of Nature report outlines a new "watchlist indicator" which charts how populations of these species have fared in the last 50 years and the overall trend is a 77% decline, despite successes for some including bitterns and adonis blue butterflies.

A further 6,225 UK species have been assessed according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List criteria, 12% of which are considered under threat of extinction. The highest number of threatened species are found within the flowering plants but bees, flies, moths and butterflies each have more than 200 listed.

Conservationists say that a definitive list of the UK's most endangered species is hard to provide because of the difficulties involved in comparing such different species - each with particular needs and issues.

But as an overview of the problems, Dr Burns highlights species from 10 of the UK's diverse groups.

Turtle doves have declined by 93% since 1970 and their plight is echoed by many other farmland birds. Agri-environment schemes to restore seed-rich habitats have been introduced to try to halt declines.

Hedgehogs have declined by around a third since the millennium. Intensive agriculture and urban development have fragmented habitats and gardeners are now being encouraged to make space for the mammals.

The small tortoiseshell butterfly, a once-common species found in gardens, has declined in abundance by 77% in the last ten years. Recent cold, wet summers and a lack of habitat are thought to be to blame.

Despite intensive conservation efforts natterjack toad numbers have changed little since 1990, with less than 50 breeding populations in mainland Britain.

Losses of European eel have been so great that it is considered at extremely high risk of extinction globally. Conservation projects, such as the one in the River Thames, aim to reverse the damage done by pollution, over-fishing and habitat loss.

Both the early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) and the tormentil mining bee (Andrena tarsata) have shown strong declines in range since 1970. Both have suffered from a loss of wildflowers, the latter dependent on heathland which is recognised as a nationally vulnerable habitat.

The population size of the V-moth is estimated to be less than 1% of what it was in the 1960s due to habitat loss and degradation. The moths' caterpillars feed on currant and gooseberry leaves, leading to speculation that our move away from growing our own fruit could be contributing to the crash.

Corn cleavers, a flower found in arable fields, has undergone one of the most dramatic declines of any plant species and now only survives at the Rothamsted research station.

Common or harbour seals have declined by 31% in Scottish waters since 1996. The reasons for the drop in numbers are described as "mysterious" because their close cousins grey seals have not been affected in the same way.

There is only a single bastard gumwood tree left in the whole world located on the island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean: a UK Overseas Territory. Efforts are currently being made to cultivate seedlings in order to restore the population.

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