More than half of UK species have suffered declines in recent years and 15 per cent are at risk of vanishing, a report has warned.
Intensive agriculture’s “overwhelmingly negative” impact on nature has helped drive the declines, while climate change, loss of habitat and urban sprawl are also having an effect, the second State of Nature report said.
The study, which pools knowledge from 53 wildlife organisations, shows that 56 per cent of almost 4000 studied land and freshwater species suffered declines in numbers or areas where they are found between 1970 and 2013.
There is little evidence to suggest the rate of loss is slowing down and som 1,200 species are at risk of disappearing from the UK, the report said.
Farming is key to what is happening, with more intensive agriculture affecting nearly half of the species studied and responsible for nearly a quarter of the total impact on wildlife.
A loss of mixed farms, changes to sowing patterns, a switch from hay to silage in pastures, increased use of pesticides and fertilisers and a loss of habitat such as hedgerows and ponds have taken their toll.
The report said government farming policies had led to dramatic changes in farming practices, almost doubling wheat and milk yields since the 1970s, but often at the expense of nature by disrupting the food sources and habitats species rely on.
While wood pigeons have prospered from a switch to autumn sowing which has provided more reliable winter food, the loss of ponds has hit great crested newts and increased herbicides have caused a huge decline in corn marigolds.
“Where there were once flowers at our feet there is now a factory floor, little more than green concrete,” said Trevor Dines, of Plantlife.
The report comes as the debate over the future of subsidies for farming after Brexit intensifies, with calls for future payments to focus on protecting wildlife in the countryside.
National Farmers’ Union vice president Guy Smith argued that agriculture had not become more intense since the 1990s and questioned the suggestion it was responsible for the declines in the last quarter of a century.
Other factors such as climate change and urbanisation needed greater attention, he said.
Threat of global warming
Climate change is also increasingly affecting UK nature although the impacts are mixed, the report said, with some species spreading north or surviving better in warmer winters, but others hit by loss of coastal habitat, increased sea temperature and wilder weather.
In the long term, global warming poses one of the greatest threats to nature around the world, the report warned.
Wildlife is also being hit by urban development on heathland and loss of town green areas and brownfield sites, changes to the way land and forests are managed, the draining of upland bogs and lowland fens and over-abstraction of water.
“The natural world is in serious trouble and it needs our help as never before,” said naturalist and TV presenter David Attenborough. “The future of nature is under threat and we must work together, governments, conservationists, businesses and individuals, to help it.”
The good news is that the creation of new wetland by conservation schemes and the planting of new woodland, as well as wildlife-friendly farming schemes, are providing habitats for struggling species.
Reintroductions of species such as the pine marten and large blue butterflies are also helping, but more needs to be done, the report said.
It follows on from the first State of Nature study in 2013, which sounded the alarm for the UK’s wildlife.
“The rallying call issued after the State of Nature report in 2013 has promoted exciting and innovative conservation projects,” Attenborough said. “But we need to build significantly on this progress if we are to provide a bright future for nature and for people.”
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