Today’s blog is by Mark Eaton, Principal Conservation Scientist.

Today saw the annual update of the UK’s Biodiversity Indicators, published by Defra and available here. These are valuable metrics – a total of 42 measures, grouped as 24 indicators in all – which report on the state of the UK’s biodiversity, on the factors which are driving change in this biodiversity, and on the action that is being taken to help it.

Many of these indicators were embedded in last year’s State of Nature 2019 report, and some of the most important are generated from the wildlife monitoring that the RSPB and many other State of Nature partner organisations are involved in, and the efforts of thousands of volunteers who contribute to monitoring programmes.

As highlighted by the State of Nature 2019, hedgehogs have undergone massive long-term declines, but show positive signs in low-density urban habitats (c) Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)

The value of long-term indicators

As is the case with many long-term indicators, the addition of another year’s-worth of data doesn’t change the story that they tell, and that’s the case with this new release. But this doesn’t mean we should ignore them as ‘telling the same old story’, when that story is so vital. And, unfortunately, when that story is about the ongoing loss of the UK’s precious wildlife, about how the pressures on our wildlife continue to grow, and how the response to save it remains inadequate.

These are what lie at the heart of the RSPB’s recent report on the UK’s progress towards the Convention on Biological Diversity’s 2020 ‘Aichi’ targets, which found that of the 20 Aichi targets set for 2020 the UK may have only succeeded in meeting three.

Species trends

Of the 24 indicators, the ones that draw my eye first are the ‘proof is in the pudding’ ones – those that report on trends in the UK’s species and so provide an ultimate examination of whether our collective conservation efforts are successful. The most well-known of these are those for wild birds (C5, page 34), which the RSPB produces in collaboration with the BTO – those in today’s report are actually the same ones as published previously, in November 2019.

Yellowhammers have declined 58% since 1970 (c) Jack Farrar (rspb-images.com)

They show the by now familiar pattern of dramatic loss in farmland birds, with populations having declined by 55% on average since 1970; it is important to note that although the greatest losses occurred in the period of rapid change in farmland management methods in the 1970s and 80s, in recent years the trend has continued to decline steadily, with a fall of 6% in the last five years.

Similarly, the woodland bird indicator, down by 29% since 1970, has fallen by 8% in the last five years. Biodiversity loss in the UK is sometimes portrayed as something which happened in the past, but which has now been stabilised: as these measures show, this is simply not the case. We should, however, celebrate the increase in the ‘mammals of the wider countryside (bats)’ indicator (C8, page 42) which has risen by 45% since 1999: the increases shown by a range of bat species are believed to be a recovery from major population declines in the 20th century.

Measures for other taxa also show loss; in the case of butterflies (‘Insects of the wider countryside’, C6) habitat specialists have fallen by an average of 59% since 1976, and species of the wider countryside by 20%. Finally, the indicators on the status of priority species (C4), which RSPB scientists have been heavily involved in developing alongside our partners at the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, show that even the species identified by the UK’s governments as the highest priorities for conservation efforts have continued to decline.

Heath fritillary, one of the habitat specialist species which has seen a decline since 1976 (c) Charles J Shape (Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 4.0)

On average, priority species for which we have measures of abundance have declined by 64% since 1970 (and by 7% in just the last five years), and those for which we have measures of distribution have fallen by 28%.  That is a sad state of affairs.

Further context

Elsewhere, amongst the myriad of different indicators are those that provide context for the continuing loss of biodiversity. There is good news – the time contributed by volunteers to biodiversity conservation has increased (A2), more fisheries are managed sustainably (B2) (although considerable further progress is required) and there is welcome news concerning pollution levels (B5) although, again, much progress remains to be made.

But against this we have to weigh up failures, or stuttering progress, such as in the area woodland managed sustainably, which has ceased to expand at a time when we desperately need this help to fight the biodiversity crisis in the UK.

Perhaps most damningly, the report reveals that public sector investment in biodiversity conservation has fallen by 33% in the last five years. I make no apologies for repeating a shocking fact that I’ve used before: that there are premier league football teams with higher budgets than the combined spend of the UK and devolved governments on biodiversity in the UK.   

As the UK government develops its bold plans for nature recovery in the Environment Bill and pledges to do more for nature on the global stage, these cold statistics are a remainder that there is a lot more work to do.  We need to turn rhetoric into actions on the ground.

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