Where has all our wildlife gone?

riotous nature on Chesil Beach, Dorset ©Miles King

What is really, truly happening to wildlife across the UK? Is wildlife disappearing, or are the reports of disappearing insects, road-verge dwelling wildflowers being mown to destruction, and swifts vanishing from our skies, merely agenda-driven doom-mongering by extreme environmentalists, hell bent on taking us all back to the Stone Age?

Some in the farming community are deeply sceptical that Nature is in trouble, let alone in trouble on their land. There are undoubtedly many farmers who care deeply about the wildlife on their land, are fiercely protective of it, proud of the way that they farm, and reject claims that their farms, which may be rich in wildlife, are in any way unusual. But the evidence, gathered across the country, over a period of many decades, by professionals and amateur naturalists alike, tells us an incontrovertible truth: while a small group of species are doing well, many are doing very badly indeed.

Butterflies associated with particular types of land (known as habitat specialists) are down by 77% since 1976, while those which live in the countryside are down by half. Farmland birds numbers continue to decline, with some species, such as the Turtle Dove down by as much as 95% over the past 50 years. Formerly common plants like Ragged Robin or Harebell are now classed as “near threatened” because they have disappeared from large parts of the UK. There is just 2% left, of the wildlife-rich grasslands that once clothed these islands with a riot of colour and fragrance – as highlighted by the charity Plantlife just last Saturday on National Meadows day. And cornfield weeds that were once regarded as the  bane of farmers’ lives, like Corncockle and Cornflower, are now extinct or surviving in the wild, in just a handful of places.

We know these things to be true, because people go out and collect data. They monitor butterflies with a well-established method called the butterfly transect. Volunteers working for the British Trust for Ornithology use a variety of approaches to measure which birds are breeding where (the Breeding Bird Census), and which birds are over-wintering in our coastal wetlands (WEBS). Volunteers from the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI), as well as other learned societies covering everything from seaweeds to millipedes, record the presence (and absence) of species – often using a standardised grid of squares created by the Ordnance Survey. This allows the distribution of species to be monitored over a long time period, showing how they are disappearing, or indeed spreading into new territory, in response to things like climate change.

Another approach to finding out what is happening to Nature is to focus effort into one small area and attempt to identify as many species as possible on one day, or over a few days. This is known as a Bioblitz and has become increasingly popular over the last few years. Bioblitzing a site enables a snapshot to be taken of the wildlife on that site. It’s great for getting everyone involved, and includes experts on different aspects of Nature on hand during the day to help people who want to come along and help.

And it’s in this context that Chris Packham will be touring the country over a 10-day period this month, starting in the north of Scotland and finishing here in Poole Harbour (on a boat.) He’ll be visiting a wide range of different sites, many, but not all, of which are nature reserves. Having gathered together a group of experts to identify species and habitats on each of the sites being visited, Chris will be able to create a snapshot assessment of the state of Nature on each site, comparing what is found this year with what had been recorded in the past.

I would fully expect new species for the site to be discovered – who knows, there may even  be species previously unknown to the UK being recorded. Equally, it would not be surprising if species and habitats which used to occur at these sites are shown to be no longer be present. Where species or habitats have disappeared from a site, it’s always worth exploring why this has happened, and hopefully there will be an assessment of the reasons why the biodiversity in a place has changed, declined, or even increased. If you’re interested in going along to a bioblitz near you, check the list of locations Chris is visiting, on his website. Many are open for the public to join in the bioblitz on the day.

It occurred to me that it might be salutary for Chris and his experts to visit some typical farmland to explore its biodiversity – or indeed lack of it. Arable farmland- where artificial fertiliser and pesticides are used regularly – is often devoid of anything other than a few species of wildlife, which is also the case with intensively managed pastures where a single species of grass is sown, fertilised and sprayed with herbicides. But then which farmer would enthusiastically invite Chris Packham and a group of wildlife experts along to their farm, to confirm that no wildlife remains there? Probably very few.

One reason behind the Bioblitz campaign is to raise funds for the conservation projects that Chris is visiting on his journey across the UK. If you would like to help Chris raise funds for these projects (and the National Autistic Society) then please do via his JustGiving page.

this column first appeared on Lush Times

About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in bioblitz, Chris Packham, farming, Lush Times and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Where has all our wildlife gone?

  1. Jane Pursey says:

    I see that most of the sites Chris Packham is visiting are wildlife sites or Nature reserves, where there will be an abundance of butterlies insects and no doubt mammels. Indeed yesterday I was down on Shapwick Heath, 5 miles from where I live and saw more types of butterflies than I have had in the garden this year. I am surrounded by fields, the field next to me has not had any pesticides or herbicides or any other ‘cides’ on it in the last 12 years when I moved here. I t has been grazed twice in that time,5 years ago and earlier this year by sheep, the wild flowers that grew this year took my breath away , I have not seen such a variety, and yet it failed to attract the butterflies and bees, in any numbers, unlike last year when just to walk through the field I had clouds of butterflies flying up around me. Even the garden, again no pesticides used, is failing to attract the insects this year. It could be a bad year for them who knows, but I do know that if I want to see any I have to go to a nature reserve. I realise that Chris can’t be everywhere, but if he picked some random farm or area, deep in a rural area he might find that things are a bit different than on a nature reserve.

  2. A bioblitz on a managed grouse moor would also be interesting, given the frequent claims made about how much biodiversity they sustain. But no grouse moor manager is going to let Packham on their moor and I guess Chris’s main point is that “reserves are not enough”. Getting embroiled in acrimonious debate about grouse moors would be a distraction from that. Still, Chris’s survey will establish some interesting comparative data to which farms and grouse moors might be compared in future.

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