Farming policies and practises have been primarily blamed for the continued decline of 56% of wildlife species in the UK. The 2016 State of Nature Report (SoN), which has just been published, brings together data gathered by over fifty nature and research organisations, as well as the observations of thousands of volunteer members of the public. It states that “policy-driven agricultural change was by far the most significant driver of declines”, but that “conservation projects can turn around the fortunes of wildlife”. The 2016 report follows on the work of the ground-breaking SoN Report of 2013. Climate Change is the second biggest factor, according to the report.
The idea of the SoN report is to assess, as comprehensively and accurately as possible, the status of wildlife across habitats and taxonomies in the UK, Northern Ireland and British overseas territories. The results of the report are a reasonable indicator of the direction in which wildlife is headed and will help authorities and conservation groups to formulate action plans to save vulnerable species. The report found that 15% of species in the UK are either already extinct or facing extinction. For farmland species, this figure is 12%, with farmland birds having declined by 54% since 1970.
Intensification and change in practises from Spring to Autumn sowing has had a severe impact on some species, while habitat loss from land improvement works and field expansion is to blame for others. Pond and wetland drainage has affected certain species like newts and frogs, but others have benefited from the changes. The loss of traditional meadows has had a huge impact on meadow species, but the report found that farms with careful environmental stewardship witnessed increases in wildlife across the board.
No report of this scope has been attempted for Ireland, but the trend is thought to be similar, with many species of wildlife in decline. For example the curlew has plummeted from 5000 breeding pairs in 1995 to 200 today.
The report outlined the 10 most influential factors affecting nature as follows:
1 Intensive management of agricultural land
Increased winter survival of some species that eat autumn-sown crops.
Abandonment of mixed farming systems.
Switch from spring to autumn sowing, reducing food and habitat for many species.
Intensification of grazing regimes.
Increased use of pesticides and fertilisers.
Loss of marginal habitats, such as ponds and hedgerows.
2 Climate change
Northward expansion of species (often with loss in southern parts of their ranges).
Increased winter survival of some species due to milder temperatures.
Loss of coastal habitat due to sea level rise.
Increases in sea temperatures adversely affecting marine food webs.
Changes in seasonal weather patterns, such as winter storms and wetter springs.
3 Low-intensity management of agricultural land
Introduction of wildlife-friendly farming through agri-environment schemes.
Abandonment and reduced grazing, leading to the loss of some habitats.
4 Increasing management of other habitats
Conservation management, often by reinstating traditional methods.
Increased grazing pressure.
5 Hydrological change
Drainage of wetlands, upland bogs, fens and lowland wet grasslands.
Over-abstraction of water.
Loss of green space, including parks, allotments and gardens.
Loss of habitats, including lowland heathland, to development.
Loss of wildlife-rich brownfield sites.
7 Habitat creation
Creation of new wetlands through conservation work and as a by-product of mineral extraction.
Planting of new broadleaved and mixed woodland.
8 Increasing plantation forest area
Increased habitat area for species using coniferous plantations and woodland edges.
Loss of the habitat that plantations replace, particularly lowland heaths and upland habitats.
9 Decreasing forest management
Cessation of traditional management practices, such as coppicing, leading to the loss of varied age structure and open habitats within woodland.
10 Decreasing management of other habitats
Abandonment of traditional management, including grazing, burning and cutting, which is crucial for the maintenance of habitats such as heathland and grassland.”