Blog post by Mark Eaton, Principal Conservation Scientist, RSPB Centre of Conservation Science.

The State of Nature reports

Since 2012, scientists from the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science have played a key role in assessing the state of our wildlife in the UK, its Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories.

Working with a partnership of over 50 organisations involved in the monitoring, research and conservation of nature in the UK, we have published two State of Nature reports, the first in 2013, and the second in 2016.

Bringing together the huge breadth and depth of knowledge - and hard data - on the UK’s wildlife across this partnership has enabled us to develop new metrics reporting upon the status of the UK’s native species.

We believe that such metrics are critical to communicating the state of the country’s biodiversity, and measuring our success in saving it, including progress towards formal targets.

David Attenborough reading the The State of Nature report 2016 at the launch event. Image by rspb-images.com

Sir David Attenborough helped launch the State of Nature report 2016, and also provided the foreword.

Presented in attractive reports, showcasing some of the UK’s spectacular wildlife, and the conservation efforts being made to save this wildlife, the State of Nature reports have highlighted the huge changes in the UK’s wildlife in recent decades, with the declines in very many species outweighing the increases in others.

Both State of Nature reports compiled a hitherto unparalleled amount of data on changes in the status of our native species.

In the 2016 report these included:

  • categorical measures of change in either abundance or occupancy for 3,816 freshwater and terrestrial species (of which 56% had declining trends in the long term)
  • annual trends in abundance or occupancy for 2,501 species (which had declined by 16% over the long term, on average), and
  • assessments of extinction risk for 7,966 species (13% of which are considered threatened with extinction). 

Whilst impressive, if you consider that the UK holds well in excess of 50,000 terrestrial and freshwater species it becomes clear we still only have adequate data for a small proportion of our species, and thus there is considerable potential for bias. Are the species for which we do have measures of change suitably representative of the much greater proportion for which we do not? Do the results from State of Nature reports give a robust measure of how our nature has fared?

Checking our methods

A new paper “An assessment of the state of nature in the United Kingdom: A review of findings, methods and impact”  (open access until 23 August) led by my colleague Fiona Burns and published in the journal Ecological Indicators today, summarises the science behind the State of Nature, in particular describing the measures of species change that underpinned the 2016 report.

In the paper we conclude that there were biases in the taxonomic representativeness of our State of Nature headline metrics, although we were able to include data from a broad sweep of the UK’s wildlife.

 Dark-green fritillary. Image by Alison Searle (rspb-images.com)

For example, the categorical change measure included data from 57% of the UK’s vertebrate species, 32% of plants, 6% of invertebrates and just 1% of fungi.

This is a consequence of the high level of attention that taxonomic groups such as birds and bats get from the monitoring and recording communities, with thousands of skilled volunteers contributing to monitoring schemes, whereas fewer observers record other species groups, which are perhaps unfairly regarded as less glamorous.

One approach to counter this bias, tested in the new paper, is to employ weighting to reduce the influence of ‘over-recorded’ groups. However, such weighting made little difference to the end result (at most changing the estimate of decreasing species from 56% to 58%).

The taxonomic level at which such weighting is done at can be important – when the contribution of species trends were weighted at the level of kingdom (animals, plants, fungi) our measure became less negative (-13% instead of -16%), but when we weighted at the level of phylum (Arthropoda, Chordata, Tracheophyta, Peteridophyta, Bryophyta, Marchantiophyta, Lichens) it became more negative (-25%).

Fungal growth on pine tree. Image by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

We conclude that despite the uneven taxonomic representation in the State of Nature metrics, they function well and give a robust account of change in the UK’s wildlife. The rapid change in the status of many species reported by State of Nature 2016, with the balance tipped towards greater numbers of species declining, and an average declining trend, is genuine.

On the other hand, in the marine realm, our attempts to measure change in the 2016 report were based on data for far fewer species, so we should be very cautious about drawing wider conclusions from the State of Nature metrics for marine nature.

And we are as yet unable to produce any quantitative measures of the state of nature in the UK’s Overseas Territories, which host a huge diversity of wildlife, much of it found nowhere else in the world (a 2014 report estimated the UKOT’s may hold over 3,000 endemic species).

It was important to look at the impact of State of Nature reports, and we found that the results reached a broad audience and, perhaps more importantly, were heard at a high level; the two State of Nature reports have mentioned 12 times in UK Parliament debates, six times in the Scottish Parliament, and 12 in the Welsh Assembly.

Looking forward

In the meantime, the State of Nature partnership has been busy hatching plans for the next report, which we intend to publish in the second half of 2019.

Bittern. Image by Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)

2020 is the year in which national governments around the world are due to report on their efforts to meet the global ‘Aichi’ targets set by the Convention on Biological Diversity are assessed, and a new State of Nature report, published just ahead of 2020, will serve as a timely independent assessment of progress in the UK.

We are beginning to work with scientists from across the State of Nature partnership on refining and improving the science behind the report, producing revised metrics of species status. In addition, we aim to present more data on the major pressures that are driving change in our wildlife, and on the impact of the conservation work trying to turn declines around.

Plans for the report’s content, format, presentation and publication are currently being discussed across the partnership, and we will begin to gather data this autumn before heading full steam ahead into report preparation early next year.

Watch this space!

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