State of Nature 2023: No let-up in the devastating decline of Britain’s wildlife

The results are in, and they make grim reading. The latest State of Nature report shows that much of the wildlife in the UK and its Overseas territories is in serious trouble. In Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) 1,500 species are now at risk of being lost completely. In Northern Ireland, 281 face a similar fate if we don’t take action. But there is reason for hope. We’ve never had a better understanding of the state of nature and what is needed to fix it.

The State of Nature report is the most up-to-date and accurate picture we have of how nature is doing in the UK and its Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies. It brings together information from more than 60 research and conservation organisations collected by thousands of skilled volunteers.

1 in 6 species at risk of extinction in Great Britain
The report’s findings show that one in six (16%) of the over ten thousand species studied in Great Britain are at risk of becoming extinct. That’s almost 1,500 species which could disappear. In Northern Ireland, 281 species could be lost.

A closer look at Great Britain shows that the figure is much higher for some types of wildlife. We could lose:

  • 43% of birds
  • 31% of amphibians and reptiles
  • 28% of fungi and lichens
  • 26% of land mammals
  • This includes much loved species such as Turtle Dove, Water Vole and European Eel.

Beccy Speight, the RSPB’s chief executive, said: “The UK’s wildlife is better studied than in any other country in the world and what the data tells us should make us sit up and listen. What is clear is that progress to protect our species and habitats has not been sufficient and yet we know we urgently need to restore nature to tackle the climate crisis and build resilience.

“We know that conservation works and how to restore ecosystems and save species. We need to move far faster as a society towards nature-friendly land and sea use, otherwise the UK’s nature and wider environment will continue to decline and degrade, with huge implications for our own way of life. It’s only through working together that we can help nature recover.”

Fewer flowers and hoverflies
Many plants are vanishing from places where they were previously found, including more than half (54%) of flowering plants, such as Heather and Harebell.

Invertebrate species are found, on average, in 13% fewer places now than in 1970. There have been stronger declines in some insect groups with important roles, such as pollinators like bees and hoverflies.

Degraded habitats
Today, only one in seven (14%) of the UK’s important habitats for wildlife were found to be in good condition, with only 7% of our woodland and only 25% of peatlands making the grade. The way we fish means large areas of the seafloor around the UK are not in good condition.

The reasons behind nature’s decline
The report found the changes in the way we manage our land for farming, and climate change were the biggest causes of wildlife decline on our land, rivers and lakes. At sea, and around our coasts, it was as a result of unsustainable fishing, climate change and marine development.

The State of Nature report focuses on recent changes in biodiversity but we’ve been shaping our landscapes and wildlife for thousands of years. The UK’s nature has been depleted by centuries of habitat loss, development and persecution well before our data gathering began in 1970. The report shows evidence that the UK now has less than half of its biodiversity remaining because of human activity.

Reasons for hope
Some things are improving. There are now more sustainably managed woodlands (44%), and sustainably harvested fish stocks (50%) than there were 20 years ago. But there’s still a long way to go.

The support for nature-friendly farming has also increased, as has the number of farmland schemes which are designed to benefit the environment. But at the moment the best available information suggests that nature-friendly farming needs to take place at a much wider scale to halt the decline in farmland wildlife.

Soil Association Head of Farming Policy Gareth Morgan said: “It is deeply concerning to see this detailed report on the state of nature in the UK but sadly it does not come as a huge shock. Farmland makes up 70% of Britain and we can’t fix the decline in nature without a transformation in food and farming. Many farmers are working with nature and many more are keen to do. But we remain too dependent on over-intensive, chemical-reliant methods such as industrial livestock systems fed on imported soy. The evidence shows some success for recovery in small protected areas but we cannot ignore what happens in the rest of our countryside where we need a renewed focus on producing good food in harmony with nature.

“Farmers want to be part of the solution and Westminster’s new Sustainable Farming Incentives are a first, important step forward. But this report is yet more evidence that progress is too slow. All UK governments must act now to help farmers switch to resilient, climate and wildlife sensitive methods across their entire farms. With 50% more wildlife on organic farms, agroecological farmers are proving that a better way is possible and practical. Nature and farming can thrive together. But we are running out of time. We must accelerate the pace of change before it’s too late for the wildlife we both love and depend on for our survival.”

The report also includes examples of how wildlife conservation projects can make a huge difference, such as the creation of the Marine Protected Area in Lyme Bay, southern England. Here many species have increased since trawling was banned in 2008. Ongoing restoration projects, such as for peatland and seagrass beds, are helping to stem declines while also helping us mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change.

Despite these wins, the report shows that time is running out if we’re going to see nature recover in the UK and its Overseas Territories. The report says the scale and ambition of our efforts need to be ramped up and delivered on a much bigger scale, with nature’s recovery firmly cemented into the laws and policies which shape how we manage our land and seas. We have never had a better understanding of the State of Nature and what is needed to fix it.

The UK, like most other countries worldwide, has experienced a significant loss of biodiversity. The trends in nature presented here cover, at most, 50 years, but these follow on from major changes to the UK’s nature over previous centuries. As a result, the UK is now one of the most nature-depleted countries on Earth.

“The main causes of these declines are clear, as are many ways in which we can reduce impacts and help struggling species. The evidence from the last 50 years shows that on land and in freshwater, significant and ongoing changes in the way we manage our land for agriculture, and the effects of climate change, are having the biggest impacts on our wildlife. At sea, and around our coasts, the main pressures on nature are unsustainable fishing, climate change and marine development.

“More broadly there has been growing recognition of the value of nature, including its role in tackling climate change, and the need for its conservation among the public and policymakers alike.

“With each report our monitoring of change improves and we have never had a better understanding of the state of nature. Yet, despite progress in ecosystem restoration, conserving species, and moving towards nature-friendly land and sea use, the UK’s nature and wider environment continues, overall, to decline and degrade. The UK has set ambitious targets to address nature loss through the Global Biodiversity Framework, and although our knowledge of how to do this is excellent, the size of the response and investment remains far from what is needed given the scale and pace of the crisis.

“We have never had a better understanding of the State of Nature and what is needed to fix it.

“Terrestrial and freshwater
“The abundance of 753 terrestrial and freshwater species has on average fallen by 19% across the UK since 1970. Within this average figure, 290 species have declined in abundance (38%) and 205 species have increased (27%).

“The UK distributions of 4,979 invertebrate species have on average decreased by 13% since 1970. Stronger declines were seen in some insect groups which provide key ecosystem functions such as pollination (average 18% decrease in species’ distributions) and pest control (34% decrease). By contrast, insect groups providing freshwater nutrient cycling initially declined before recovering to above the 1970 value (average 64% increase in species’ distributions).

“Since 1970, the distributions of 54% of flowering plant species and 59% of bryophytes (mosses and liverworts) have decreased across Great Britain. By comparison, only 15% and 26% of flowering plants and bryophytes, respectively, have increased. In Northern Ireland, since 1970, 42% of flowering plant species and 62% of bryophytes have decreased in distribution, compared to 43% and 34%, respectively, that have increased.

“10,008 species were assessed using Red List criteria. 2% (151 species) are extinct in Great Britain and a further 16% (almost 1,500 species) are now threatened with extinction here. In Northern Ireland, 281 (12%) of 2,508 species assessed are threatened with extinction from the island of Ireland.

“The abundance of 13 species of seabird has fallen by an average of 24% since 1986. The situation is worse in Scotland, where the abundance of 11 seabird species has fallen by an average of 49% since 1986. These results pre-date the potentially major impact of the ongoing outbreak of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza.

“Varied picture for other marine life. We know less about changes in species’ abundance and distribution in UK seas. Well-monitored species of demersal fish (those living on or near the seafloor, 105 species) showed an average increase in abundance during the 1990s and early 2000s but have since declined. Whales and dolphins (three species) have shown little change in average abundance since the early 1990s. Grey Seal abundance has increased as they recover from historical hunting pressure. Harbour Seals are in decline in parts of north-east Scotland and south-east England, but are stable or increasing in other regions.

“UK Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies.
“94% of the species unique to the UK and its territories are found on the Overseas Territories. Across the Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies, 11% of 6,557 species assessed are threatened with global extinction.”

The Soil Association has responded to the report saying that it is deeply concerned. The State of Nature report reveals worrying declines in wildlife species across the UK – and urges government to recognise farming as a key solution.

Soil Association says it is calling on government to:

  • Double investment in nature-friendly farming across the UK with increased farm support and education about organic and agroecological farming.
  • Double agroforestry and on-farm woodland cover by 2050 to boost British fruit and nut production and meet our tree planting targets.
  • Set ambitious reduction targets for pesticide and nitrogen fertiliser use – alongside support for farmers to shift to alternative practices.
  • Double British fruit and vegetable production using agroecological methods.
  • Double organic farmland, and support all farmers to adopt agroecological practices that don’t rely on overuse of fossil-fuel derived chemical fertilisers, pesticides or antibiotics.
  • Ensure at least half of food in schools and hospitals is British, local, and sustainable, including organic.
  • Invest in farmer-led research into sustainable practices to help farmers have confidence to adopt these at scale on their farms.
  • Prioritise nature alongside net zero – biodiversity needs to be given equal weight with carbon capture when establishing green credentials, and we must measure the outcomes to ensure policies and practices are having the intended effects.

Read the State of Nature 2023

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