The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world with around one in six native species threatened with extinction.
A quarter of mammals and nearly half of all birds are at risk – hedgehogs, hares, bats, willow tits, turtle doves and high brown fritillary butterflies are among those living under threat.
Insects are moving north due to rising temperatures.
The ‘usual culprits’ are responsible – intensification of farming, use of pesticides and fertilisers, higher stocking densities for sheep and cattle, greater mechanisation and the loss of field margins, hedgerows, wooded areas and farm ponds.
Ammonia from intensive pig and poultry farms threatens ancient woodlands – striping trees of their protective lichens and enabling grasses to out-compete delicate woodland flowers.
Two centuries of sheep farming, particularly on upland soils, has reduced a rich natural resource to a state of desolation.
If UK cropland was used to grow plants for people rather than animals, enough food could be produced for the entire population and grazing land could be restored to native forest.
“We are among the most nature-depleted countries in the world.”
(Hayhow et al., 2016.)
The UK was described as one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world in the 2016 State of Nature report, produced by more than 50 different organisations; including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the National Trust, the Marine Conservation Society and the Natural History Museum. Of the nearly 8,000 species assessed in this report, 15 per cent were found to be extinct or threatened with extinction.
Number of Species Threatened with Extinction from Great Britain:
- 7% of urban species
- 11% of woodland species
- 12% of farmlands species
- 13% of grassland & heath species
- 13% of freshwasher and wetland species
- 15% of coastal species
(Hayhow et al., 2016.)
Three years on, the situation had not improved when the 2019 State of Nature report found that around one in six native species are threatened with extinction. They examined more than 8,400 species finding that 15 per cent (around one in six of all animals, insects, plants and fungi assessed) were still under threat of extinction but that two per cent (133 species) have gone for good.
This 2019 report, produced by 70 wildlife organisations and government conservation agencies, found that a quarter of UK mammals and nearly half of all birds assessed were at risk of extinction. It painted a bleak picture, with important species such as hedgehogs, hares and bats, many birds such as the willow tit and the turtle dove and insects such as the high brown fritillary butterfly, all living under threat (Hayhow et al., 2019).
Since 1970, the report says, 41 per cent of species assessed have decreased and 27 per cent are found in fewer places. Butterflies and moths are down 17 per cent and 25 per cent respectively and numbers of grayling butterflies have fallen by more than three quarters. Farmland birds have declined by 54 per cent and the wild cat and greater mouse-eared bat are almost extinct. Only half of UK fisheries are being fished sustainably and 57 per cent of UK waters had their seafloor habitats physically disturbed by bottom contact fishing gear between 2010 and 2015 (Hayhow et al., 2019).
The report says: “Agricultural intensification, driven by UK and European policy, has been identified as the most significant factor driving the decline in species’ populations across the UK” (Hayhow et al., 2019). Climate change, urbanisation and pollution also contribute to the loss of wildlife, but to a lesser degree.
Changes in farming practices in recent decades have led to greater food production at the expense of biodiversity. The changes that have had the greatest impact on the UK’s nature, according to the report, include the increased use of pesticides and fertilisers; increased stocking rates of sheep and cattle; greater mechanisation and increase in farm size; and loss of nature-friendly features such as field margins, hedgerows, wooded areas and farm ponds. The intensification of farming over the past 50 years has led to loss and fragmentation of semi-natural habitats as agriculture has followed a consistent trend of increasing productivity with associated negative consequences for wildlife (Hayhow et al., 2019).
These losses mirror the global annihilation of wildlife – the sixth mass extinction on Earth that is threatening the natural life-support systems that we rely on for air, water and food.
Invertebrates – heading North
2 kilometres a year
- Rate at which insects in the UK are spreading north because of climate change
50 per cent
- Proportion of plants and animals in North America whose range has shifted due to climate change
(Platts et al., 2019; Weiskopf et al., 2020.)
Climate change is driving large-scale shifts in species distribution. A study of invertebrates in the UK, including bees, butterflies, dragonflies, grasshoppers, beetles, hoverflies, spiders and wasps, found them moving north at an average rate of almost two kilometres a year (Platts et al., 2019). This is happening in other countries too. Over half of plant and animal species in temperate North America have moved their ranges, moving away from the hotter edge and expanding further into the cooler edge (Weiskopf et al., 2020).
Mammals in the UK
In a comprehensive review of the status of mammals in Britain, the population size, range, temporal trends and prospects of Britain’s 58 terrestrial mammals were assessed. The report analysed more than one-and-a-half million mammal sightings from all over Britain, many by volunteers and citizen scientists. They found that at least one in five wild mammals in Britain face a high risk of extinction within a decade and overall populations are declining (Mathews et al., 2018).
Most at risk, this review says, are the Scottish wildcat and black rat (which may already be extinct) and also in decline are hedgehogs and water voles. The number of hedgehogs in Britain is estimated to be around half a million, but this is very uncertain. What we do know for certain is that there are a lot less than there used to be! The same goes for water voles with an estimated 132,000 individuals left in Britain (Mathews et al., 2018). The report says there was only a single male greater mouse-eared bat left who was last seen living alone in a railway tunnel in West Sussex. The most numerous species was the field vole at 60 million, followed by the mole, at 41 million (Mathews et al., 2018). Easily outnumbered by the 1.1 billion chickens slaughtered for meat in the UK every year.
In 2020, the Red List for British Mammals was produced by the Mammal Society on behalf of Natural England, Natural Resources Wales, Scottish Natural Heritage (NatureScot) and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. Following the same IUCN Red List criteria, it revealed that 11 of the 47 mammals native to Britain are on the brink of extinction, while a further five species are classified as near threatened (Mammal Society, 2020).
Ancient woodland in the UK depleted
Much of the environmental degradation seen globally has resulted from agricultural expansion and intensification, particularly at the expense of woodland (Foley et al., 2011). There has been a small increase in the amount of woodland cover in the UK over the past few decades, but the trend for ancient woods and wildlife found there, is in steep decline (Reid et al., 2021).
Ancient woods are areas of woodland that have persisted since 1600 in England and Wales, and 1750 in Scotland (when maps started to be used). They may include semi‐natural woodland that has been planted with non-native conifers, but which retain features of their original habitat such as ground, herb and shrub layer communities and unploughed, unimproved soil (Swallow et al., 2020).
They are unique and complex communities of delicate fungi, rare mosses and special flowering plants that only thrive in ancient woodland. They are the richest and most complex terrestrial habitat in the UK – home to more threatened species than any other. Certain ecological indicator species show that a site has been wooded for a long time. These include, for example, lichens, bluebells, wild garlic and hart’s tongue ferns (Woodland Trust, 2020).
Once vast, ancient woodlands now cover just 2.4 per cent of the UK land area. Around half of what remains has been cut down and replanted with non-native conifers and even more is under threat from development, overgrazing and air pollution. In their 2021 report, State of the UK’s Woods and Trees, the Woodland Trust says that the climate crisis is changing the timing of seasonal events, with trees coming into leaf earlier. This means birds, such as the blue tit, are struggling to adjust their breeding times to feed on caterpillars.
Just 7% of Britain’s native woodlands are currently in good ecological condition
(Reid et al., 2021.)
The Woodland Trust says: “Over 1,225 ancient woods across the UK are under threat from development while during the last 21 years at least 981 have been permanently lost or damaged.”
The main threats, they say, include the growing number of road and rail infrastructure projects (such as HS2), local authorities and developers chopping down trees for new developments and an increase in the amount of intensive ammonia-releasing farming activities such as pig and poultry farms, which can affect ancient woodland over a wide range (Woodland Trust, 2020).
Ammonia (NH3) is a form of nitrogen air pollution affecting woods. The UK has made improvements in air quality since the 1970s, however, emissions of ammonia continue to increase. Agriculture accounts for 88 per cent of ammonia emissions in the UK, with most coming from livestock manure – particularly cattle and expanding poultry and pig industries. Nitrogen air pollution from agriculture strips trees of their layer of protective lichens and causes a fertiliser effect where grasses out-compete more delicate woodland flowers. This disrupts woodland ecosystems in ways we are only just beginning to understand (Reid et al., 2021).
“Agriculture accounts for 88% of ammonia emissions in the UK, with most emissions from livestock manures, particularly cattle and expanding poultry and pig industries”
(Reid et al., 2021.)
Research shows that restoring broad-leaved woodland onto agricultural land increases biodiversity, especially earthworm species, as well as increasing the amount of carbon stored in the soil. The restoration of lost woodland ecosystems represents an opportunity to counter the negative ecological impacts of agricultural expansion and woodland fragmentation and restore biodiversity, ecosystem functions and services (Ashwood et al., 2019).
The impacts of sheep farming
Sheep grazing on the hillsides and uplands in the Highlands of Scotland; Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons in Wales; and the Pennines and Dartmoor in England are often portrayed as being a ‘natural’ part of the landscape but they are not: they are an introduced species that has put native wildlife at risk. Sheep farming is responsible for a wide range of harm to wildlife across different ecosystems. Grazing sheep trample vegetation and burrows, degrade habitats and compete for food as nutritious plants are selectively reduced or removed. Sheep graze using their front teeth to ‘cut’ plants creating a uniform height often just above ground level, thus undermining the land’s ability to support diverse ecosystems. The ecologist, Frank Fraser Darling, used the term “wet desert” to describe how “two centuries of extractive sheep farming in the Highland hills have reduced a rich natural resource to a state of desolation” (Darling, 1955).
In hidden corners, ancient trees coated in moss cling on, supporting a range of plant and animal life – relics of an earlier time when these open landscapes were dominated by temperate rainforests. Wistman’s Wood on Dartmoor is an ancient upland oak forest where the twisted moss-covered trees may be up to 400 years old but few reach higher than 15 foot. They are protected by huge granite boulders covered by lichens and moss and where soil has accumulated, patches of acid grassland grow with heath bedstraw, tormentil and sorrel. In places protected from livestock, grazing-sensitive plants such as wood sorrel, bilberry, wood rush and bramble grow. The wood supports over 100 species of lichen including the incredibly rare Horsehair lichen (Bryoria smithii) which is thought to now be extinct in Scotland and Wales and is found at only two remaining sites on Dartmoor clinging to the bark of trees in ancient upland oak woods (Dartmoor National Park Authority, 2017).
In 2020, a study from the University of Liverpool showed how sheep grazing negatively affects the diversity of plant species of upland areas of British countryside. Their study found that if grazing stopped, some areas could take up to 60 years to recover (Marrs et al., 2020). The authors said: “The ‘white woolly maggots’ have eaten at least part of the heart out of the highlands/uplands, and it will take some time for recovery.”
In 2020, the UK sheep and lamb population was 32.7 million (DEFRA, 2021). A large proportion of these can be found in upland and hill areas, some of which are designated Less Favoured Areas (LFAs) and include semi-natural ‘rough grazing’ and grassland. The European Union introduced the LFA system in 1975 to support farming where conditions are difficult. In England, 41 per cent of breeding sheep are found on LFAs; in Wales 63 per cent of cattle and sheep holdings are in LFAs; in Northern Ireland 80 per cent of sheep are in LFAs; and 91 per cent of breeding sheep in Scotland are in LFAs.
A 2019 Harvard study showed that there is simply no need to make food from grassland. Half (48 per cent) of all land in the UK is used for animal agriculture, either for pasture or animal feed crop production. However, by value, UK farming provides less than half of the food eaten in the UK. This study found that that if all current UK cropland was used to grow crops for human consumption instead of using it for animal feed, we could produce more than enough protein and calories for the entire UK population. This would mean that all UK grazing land (around 84,000 square kilometres) could be released from animal agriculture and restored to native forest; equal to offsetting nine years’ worth of total current UK emissions (Harwatt and Hayek, 2019). We could stop wasting precious space and killing wildlife in the process.
Many farmers face financial challenges and uncertainty as the government support they rely so heavily on is to be phased out over the coming years. The Basic Payment Scheme, the biggest of the rural grants, pays farmers for the amount of land they own, regardless of its impact on the environment. In 2020-2021, the Basic Payment accounted for more than half of the average farm income at around £28,400 (DEFRA, 2022). For many farmers, the financial help they receive from government grants and subsidies far exceeds the amount they make from farming. Farmers who graze livestock make the biggest losses, illustrating the case for ending unsustainable, uneconomic livestock farming and repurposing grazing land to protect wildlife and meet our climate goals.
The UK’s Basic Payment Scheme is to be replaced with three new Environmental Land Management schemes (ELMs): The Sustainable Farming Incentive, The Local Nature Recovery scheme and The Landscape Recovery scheme. Farmers will be able to apply for grants to improve the environment, encouraging them to rewild their land. This, it is hoped, will lead to large areas of land being managed to conserve species, provide habitats for wildlife and restore health to rivers and streams. Details on how the schemes will work are still lacking and it remains to be seen how effective it will be in achieving the Government’s targets; such as the protection of 30 per cent of UK land by 2030 and net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
A glimmer of hope
The Government’s 2020 Environment Bill will, they claim, help to manage the impact of human activity on the environment, creating a more sustainable and resilient economy and enhancing well-being and quality of life. It will, they say, engage and empower citizens, local government and businesses to deliver environmental outcomes and create a positive legacy for future generations. The Bill introduces a mandatory requirement for biodiversity net gain in the planning system to ensure that new developments enhance biodiversity and create new green spaces for local communities to enjoy.
The Government talk about environmental harm and making polluters pay, about protecting urban trees through a consultation scheme, making producers more responsible for packaging and introducing a deposit return scheme for drinks containers (DEFRA, 2020). Nowhere on their policy statement do they mention animal agriculture and the need to reduce our intake of animal foods! Given the central role animal agriculture plays in driving the loss of wildlife, this incredible oversight or omission inspires little, if any, confidence in the Government’s commitment to protecting biodiversity in the UK and wider afield.
A new interim non-departmental public body, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) was established in November 2021 as an independent, domestic watchdog set up to “protect and improve the environment by holding government and public authorities to account”. It remains to be seen if this body has any will or ability to effect meaningful change.
Attempts at setting targets to tackle nature loss in the UK and further afield have so far failed because environmental protection has been insufficient, restoration has been inadequate and the implementation and enforcement of legislation has been lacking. In 2019, Karmenu Vella, European Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries in the European Commission, delivered a powerful speech in which he said: “We are not on track to reach our targets. The pressures are enormous, and they continue to grow. The problem, quite simply, is the way that we live. The way we produce, the way we consume, the way that we trade. What will it take to change? When will we stop giving to the environment with one hand, and taking away with the other?” (European Commission, 2019).
Biodiversity loss is directly related to the expansion of animal agriculture and the associated deforestation, overgrazing, pollution and degradation of land. In addition, livestock production also leads to substantial emissions of nitrogen in various forms (ammonia and nitrates), which in turn lead to losses of both land and aquatic (including marine) biodiversity. The only way to ensure you are not contributing to the problem is to go vegan.
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