27/07/2015
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Failure to protect English wildlife

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A government report released on 23 July has shown that much of England's wildlife is declining rapidly, despite a commitment by the government to protect and improve the natural environment.

The England Natural Environment Indicators were developed to track the progress of the government's strategy for valuing nature in England, protecting and improving the natural environment, and boosting the green economy. The research demonstrates that this strategy is largely failing.

Farmland birds have suffered the largest decrease, with the 19 breeding species assessed having declined by 56 per cent between 1970 and 2013. Numbers of breeding woodland birds have also fallen, by 28 per cent since 1970 to reach their lowest point in 2013. Butterfly numbers have also decreased, by 14 per cent in farmland and 48 per cent in woodland between 1990 and 2012.

Kittiwake
English Kittiwake populations are struggling (Photo: Glen Roberts)

The decline in woodland birds has several known and potential causes including a lack of management and increased deer browsing pressure, both of which result in reduced woodland diversity causing less availability of suitable nesting and foraging habitats. In addition, several woodland birds are long-distance migrants, and a decline in the extent or quality of habitats used outside the breeding season and climate change may be affecting these species.

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It's not all bad news, though, as numbers of breeding wetland birds have remained broadly stable between 1975 and 2013, while populations of wintering waterbirds have increased by 93 per cent over the same time period.

These figures can conceal localised or species declines, however. The breeding seabird index has been assessed as 'little or no overall change', but there is considerable variation between species. Surface-feeders such as Kittiwake and four tern species have fared less well than sub-surface feeders like Northern Gannet, Common Guillemot, Shag and Cormorant.

Recent declines in species such as Kittiwake is known to be linked with food shortages during the breeding season, and although is not clear what is ultimately driving this, fishing practice and climate change, or some combination of the two, are likely contributory factors.