British Biodiversity in Peril

In the run up to both COP 26 and COP 15 many newspapers recently reported the shocking fact that Britain has lost almost half (47%) of its biodiversity since the industrial revolution. For naturalists and conservationists working in the UK this will,however, come as absolutely no surprise whatsoever.

Research by Prof Andy Purvis from the Natural History Museum in London showed that Britain is one of the most nature-depleted nations in the world, well below the global average of 75%. With the publication of the Biodiversity Intactness Index (BII) we can now clearly see in the data what naturalists have been warning about for decades from their field observations – Britain’s biodiversity is in peril.

What’s the deal with biodiversity anyway?

‘…Biodiveristy provides us with the food we eat, from the micro-organisms that enrich the soil where we grow our crops, to the pollinators who give us fruit and nuts… [and] many of our medicines originate from plants and fungi…’.

Sir Richard Attenborough

This beautiful animation (below) narrated by Sir David Attenborough and produced by The Royal Society explains the importance of biodiversity, both to us and the world at large.

When 67% of the UK is used for agriculture and a further 8% is built on that leaves a paltry and dwindling 25% for nature. According to official statistics from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (2018), forest, open land and water constitute 21% of all land use in England.

‘As Presidents of COP26, the UK has put nature at the heart of the agenda, and we very much welcome this important study which highlights the crucial connections between climate and biodiversity and the urgent need to protect nature’.

Lord Zac Goldsmith, UK Government Minister for Pacific & the Environment

Damningly though, researchers from the RSPB have found that although 28% of UK land is reported by the UK government to be protected, only 11.4% of land area actually falls within protected areas designated primarily for nature conservation. And because of the poor condition of some of these areas, as little as 4.9% of UK land area may in reality be effectively protected for nature.

How do we effectively address this issue in Britain?

‘Governments possess the power – economic, political and legal – to address the planetary emergency, and there may still be time, but they must act now.’

Prof Andy Purvis, Natural History Museum

The British Ecological Society produced a report in May this year (2021) that called for a nature-based approach to tackling both climate change and biodiversity loss in conjunction with other climate and conservation actions. A brief summary of their specific policy recommendations provide examples of opportunities across a range of habitats through:

  • Restoring degraded peatlands and end burning on blanket bogs
  • Increasing native woodland and woodland connectivity in the right places
  • Establishing more saltmarshes
  • Protecting and re-establishing hedegrows in arable landscapes
  • Increasing agroforestry in arable landscapes
  • Increasing urban green spaces with a focus on native species

Unfortunately, any and all action to prevent further biodiversity loss is costly. A recent report from the Green Finance Institute claims that the UK governement faces as much as a £97 billion funding gap for its current commitments to nature-based actions over the next 10 years.

Regardless of the financial costs of mitigating and remedying biodiversity loss, we should never lose sight of the costs of inaction – not just economic, though these are significant. But also the legacy of a pillaged, spoiled and empty landscape; a depauperate and diminished native biota; and ultimately, an impoverished and increasingly precarious society.

Author: Gino Brignoli

PhD student with the London NERC DTP. Previously ant genomics and evolution Research Assistant at Queen Mary University of London. With a keen interest in ecology and entomology, I have volunteered with the Lepidoptera department and Soil Biodiversity Group at the Natural History Museum, and on the Thorn to Orchid and Water for Wildlife projects with London Wildlife Trust.

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