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.

What have I learned during my PhD?

Instead of attending an in-person seminar this year, PhD students in our department at UCL were recently asked to produce a video in response to a question set by the Post-graduate Tutors.

This is my video responding to the question: “What have I learned (so far) during my PhD?”.

The Hills are (still) alive

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The view from Wesu rock.
Subsistence farming, firewood collection, hunting and the spread of exotic tree plantations pose significant threats to the remaining forest fragments.

I’ve spent the last couple of months in the Taita Hills in SE Kenya where I am studying the impacts of anthropogenic habitat degradation on bird functional diversity and composition. Specifically, I’m working in a sky island complex of massifs topped with remnant montane forests that form the northernmost extent of the Eastern Arc Mountains. The forest fragments on these hills are designated as Key Biodiversity Areas (KBA) and Important Bird Areas (IBA) because of high levels of endemism and biodiversity. This area is ideal for this research as it shows very high levels of historical habitat fragmentation and different degrees of degradation through various human land-uses.  

Never_meet_07
Sunrise over the Taita Hills with one of the most intact forest fragments, Mbololo, in the distance. 

I am starting with characterising the bird communities of the different forest fragments and the surrounding agricultural matrix by identifying bird species via point counts & AudioMoth sound recordings. This data will be combined with an existing traits database so that we can determine what functional roles are present (and to what extent) in each habitat.

Never_meet_04
A Silvery-cheeked Hornbill, Bycanistes brevis, perched in the upper canopy of Chawia forest. These omnivorous birds are known to be effective long-distance seed dispersers.

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The Taita Thrush, Turdus helleri, is endemic to the region and critically endangered.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another approach that we’re using to try to understand how effective birds are at controlling pest insects is by using plasticine model “caterpillars”. The attack marks that are left behind help us to identify the levels of predation relative to habitat quality.  

This lays the foundation for my next field season when we will be capturing birds to collect faecal samples which will be analysed using DNA metabarcoding. This will provide us with information on how birds’ diets are influenced by habitat quality and also allow us to quantify the ecosystem functions that birds perform – like controlling herbivorous insect pests and seed dispersal. 

TWE.jpg
A Taita White-Eye, Zosterops silvanus, another Taita endemic that is classified as endangered.

 

 

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