Nature in the United Kingdom is in decline. Populations of priority species have decreased by more than 60% since the 1970s, and there is no evidence of a reversal in this trend. UK landscapes are under more pressure than ever to deliver housing, infrastructure and food. Several species, including once common animals such as the European hedgehog, are in danger of disappearing forever. We need to ensure that policy and conservation methods protect the best of the biodiversity that we have left within the UK. But we also need to restore the habitats, species and biodiversity that we have lost in recent years. Climate change is the next big threat to our species and habitats, and we are currently in a poor position to mitigate its impact.
While the current UK nature report focuses on wildlife species that are present now, we have already lost many of the animals needed to ensure healthy ecosystem function and associated ecological processes. The Industrial Revolution caused significant changes to the UK environment, and resulted in much of the reduced biodiversity that we see today. Many trophic or keystone species (those that have a disproportionally high effect on ecosystem function) were lost due to hunting and/or reduced habitat availability. This reduction in habitat availability was not just due to an intensification in agriculture, but also increases in infrastructure, land management and housing.
The loss of keystone species in the UK has meant that many of our habitats and ecological processes have either been lost, or are now artificially managed by people. Species such as beavers, pine martens, grazing animals (such as wild cattle and wild horses), and carnivores including lynx and wolves, are all missing from our countryside. These species are important – they change the way that habitats function, and their beneficial impact cascades downward, improving opportunities for a diverse range of other species.
The not so Scottish wildcat
One example of an animal on the brink of disappearing from the UK forever is the Scottish wildcat. With a population now restricted to a few places in Scotland, it is under threat from hybridisation and habitat loss. But this beautiful feline was once far more widely distributed across the UK.
Records of species collected under the Vermin Act give us insight into species distributions in England and Wales (Silent Fields, Roger Lovegrove 2007). These show that wildcats were once widespread across England and Wales, including parts of southeast of England, Wiltshire and Cornwall. We have lost this iconic species - which was once not exclusively Scottish at all - from the majority of the UK.
UK wildcat distribution map generated from data included within Silent Fields (Roger Lovegrove, 2007)
Other keystone species, including pine martens, were once widely distributed across England and Wales. A number of current projects are working to restore populations of this species in Wales, and also the Forest of Dean, in order to reduce grey squirrel abundance and restore woodland biodiversity.
UK pine marten distribution map generated from data included within Silent Fields (Roger Lovegrove, 2007)
Recovering our trophic species
We now have an opportunity to restore trophic species in the UK through changes in environmental policy associated with Brexit. While many of these species, such as the wildcat and pine marten, are iconic, all are vital to ensure that ecosystems function healthily and effectively.
In order to reintroduce these species, we need a national strategy that not only protects the best habitats that we have (through existing nature conservation and site designations systems), but which also recovers other habitats to make more space for nature. This could include improving our roadside verges, increasing woodland planting habitats and connectivity, and improving our agricultural land and landholdings to maximise their biodiversity value.
We need to develop appropriate management systems for these areas, so that we can provide enough habitat for the restoration of our trophic species. By focusing on the return of such species, we can aid the recovery of wild nature and enable the transformation of struggling habitats into thriving ones.