You may have missed it, but Defra recently published the latest annual update of the UK’s official biodiversity indicators. In the first of a three-part blog series, Mark Eaton, Principal Conservation Scientist, explains what they are...

The latest update includes a number of indicators intended to measure how our wildlife is faring, including those which report changes in our wild bird populations.

These bird indicators aren’t in fact new – the Wild Bird Indicators in this publication were published separately, back in November 2017. But this latest Defra publication contains updates of a much broader suite of measures, the majority being shared for the first time. There’s a lot of detail – the indicator report runs to 60 pages – with far more in supporting documentation online.

So to make life a little simpler, here’s a brief overview, with a personal take.

Yellowhammer. Image by Tom Marshall (

These indicators are produced to rigorous standards, by statisticians at Defra and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), assisted by many other scientists within government, research institutions, and non-governmental organisations - including ourselves at the RSPB.

We trust these indicators – the government aren’t cooking the books – but it doesn’t mean they tell the whole story as to what is happening to the UK’s nature.

Pool frog. Image by Ben Andrew (

What are these indicators for?

They are intended to form a basis for the UK’s reporting on progress towards meeting international commitments, most notably the goals and targets (known as 'Aichi targets’) enshrined within the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

The CBD’s Strategic Plan for Biodiversity has five broad goals, each with a number of Aichi targets nested below it, and the UK Biodiversity Indicators are intended to report against these. However, how suitable the UK indicators are for this purpose depends largely on the availability of relevant data, so as such, none of the indicators are ‘perfect’ – they may suffer from data gaps or other imperfections, or may be only tangentially relevant to the Aichi target in question.

Notably, this year’s indicators updates will underpin the UK’s 6th report on how – and whether – we are making progress towards meeting those targets – this report is due to be submitted to the CBD by the end of 2018.

Swallowtail butterfly. Image by Fabian Harrison (

Indicator types: Pressure-State-Response

Loosely, these biodiversity indicators can be grouped into three types, fitting a well-known format of reporting on biodiversity issues known as ‘Pressure-State-Response’.

  • Pressure’ indicators measure those (largely anthropogenic) pressures acting upon nature, causing change, usually for the poorer. They include, for example, indicators on air and water pollution (B5a and B5b), and invasive species (B6).
  • State’ indicators measure the basic state of our nature – how our species, habitats and other natural ‘resources’ are faring over time, as a result of the pressures acting upon them. They include an indicator on trends in the UK’s species of highest conservation priority (C4), the aforementioned wild bird indicators (C5), and others for insects (butterflies, C6) and mammals (bats, C8). There are other ‘State’ indicators which Defra label as ‘Benefit’ indicators as they concern aspects of our biodiversity regarded as providing a particular ecosystem service i.e. a tangible benefit for humans, such as the status of pollinating insects (D1c).
  • And, finally, ‘Response’ indicators measure what we, humans, are doing in order to address the pressures and the consequential declining state of nature. These include the likes of the area under environmental management schemes (B1), and expenditure on UK and International biodiversity (E2).

Come back tomorrow for part two of the blog series, explaining what this year's indicators show.