A recent ‘State of Nature’ report, assembled by a coalition of over 50 environmental organizations, has identified some grim realities when it comes to the status of wildlife in the United Kingdom. The report found that among 8,000 species assessed, one in ten are at risk of extinction, and attributes this state of affairs to a policy driven intensification of agriculture in the UK. Since the Second World War, agricultural policy has focused on maximizing food production in ways that have disrupted the balance between agriculture and wildlife. For example, the move towards sowing crops in autumn instead of spring, while a boon for farmers, has had a negative impact on a number of bird species. The loss of hedgerows and the increasing use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers have also impacted wildlife.
According to Mark Eaton, the lead author of the paper, “A lot of these things we can’t go back on. Autumn-sowing is much better for farmers, so we can’t expect them to change tack. But we need to find a way within these new systems – finding the tweaks that will let nature back in.”
The report has quantified the impact of these policies, and the results are rather bleak. 56 percent of farmland bird species were found to be at risk for extinction. Butterfly species have been reduced by 57 percent since 1990. 12 percent of all farmland species are considered threatened. In terms of the Biodiversity Intactness Index, the UK was ranked 189 out of 218, meaning that biodiversity in the UK is faring worse than in most countries. 165 species are considered critically endangered in the UK.
The report also linked efficiency driven farming to EU subsidies, with The National Trust, a prominent charity involved in the report, asserting that Brexit is an opportunity to reform a broken system, and prioritize the well-being of the environment when it comes to distributing public money.
For their part, the National Farmers Union claimed that the report ignored progress by farmers in the past 25 years when it comes to coexistence with wildlife. Vice president of the Farmers Union, Guy Smith, said: “However, since the early 1990s, in terms of inputs and in terms of numbers of livestock and area of crops grown British agriculture has not intensified – in fact it’s the reverse. Therefore, it makes little sense to attribute cause and effect to ‘the intensification of agriculture’ in the UK in the last quarter of a century when there hasn’t been any. Other causes acknowledged in the report, such as urbanization, climate change or increasing predator pressure need greater attention.”
The authors also examined species found in non-farmland environments, including freshwater and marine habitats, finding that three quarters of marine invertebrate species, such as plankton, are declining in number. The report did note “many inspiring examples of conservation action,” including projects seeking to restore and reintroduce wildlife in the UK.