Tom Lancaster, Senior Land Use Policy Officer, gives us this guest post on the new IUCN Red List. It, sadly, doesn't make good reading...

Grim news always seems to come with grim weather, and the pitiless rain yesterday was somehow a fitting prelude to the news that both the puffin and the turtle dove has been added to the IUCN Red List of species facing the risk of global extinction.

Turtle dove. Image by Andy Hay (

Joining the turtle dove is the lapwing – the charismatic ‘peewit’ that is so beloved by farmers and conservationists alike. For birds that were once so ubiquitous in the English countryside, the re-classification of these two species as Vulnerable and Near Threatened respectively should be a wake up call for all of us.

Also released this morning were the most recent statistics for wild birds in England and the UK. These two species are both identified as farmland specialists on the Government’s Farmland Bird Indicator (FBI), which this year shows a 2% increase overall.

Over the years we have got used to a fair bit of argy bargy about these statistics, so it’s nice to be able to welcome a slight increase. Unfortunately there is pretty big BUT...

The but is this: unless we see another increase next year and the year after and the year after that, this will just be a blip and not a new, upwards trend (the hard line on the graph). And it’s the long term trends which will be the decider in avoiding extinctions of species, either nationally or locally.

To bring this to life a bit more, it’s perhaps useful to think of the FBI as a large ship heading in the wrong direction. Without torturing the metaphor too much, if we’re to turn it around, we don’t just need one small turn of the wheel, but successive turns. So to reverse this downward trend, one years increase is not enough – we need instead to build on this increase with another next year, and the year after that before we make a dent in hard line below.

Population trends of farmland birds in the UK: Source: RSPB, BTO, JNCC, Defra.

Population trends of farmland birds in the UK: Source: RSPB, BTO, JNCC, Defra.

That these farmland bird declines have now reached the point were these once common species are now being classified as at risk of extinction is a damning indictment of all of us.

If we hold collective responsibility for this situation though – Government, farmers and conservationists alike – it follows that we should have collective ownership of the solution.

Central to the future prospects of these species will be the currently under-funded agri-environment schemes that have become so important to terrestrial conservation in the UK.

The launch of the new schemes in the UK has been challenging, but the role that these, and of Natural England who are key to deliver it, have played in saving species such as the cirl bunting, corncrake and stone-curlew should provide us with hope that they can help again in reversing the fortunes of these two icons of the British countryside.

In ecology, the concept of a ‘ghost species’ is the idea that, although individuals or relict populations may remain, the extinction of a species is inevitable. It is one that I find sad beyond words.

In UK conservation, we’re used to applying this idea to species like the northern white rhino – species that are somehow exotic, and found on faraway continents.

The fact that I could discuss this idea in the same breath as the turtle dove fills me with dread. But the knowledge that we have the capacity to act and the solutions at our disposal should inspire hope.

The IUCN release must act as a clarion call for Government, farmers and conservationists to step up, and ensure that these species have a secure future.