25% of UK mammals facing extinction

By Steven Allain

The State of Nature Report 2019 has indicated that an alarming number of British species are facing extinction. The report, authored by more than 70 wildlife charities, has shown that 15% of species - almost 1,200 - are threatened with extinction in Great Britain. Worryingly, more than a quarter of all terrestrial mammal species are at risk of extinction, including the Scottish wildcat, and the greater mouse-eared bat.

Habitat loss is one of the biggest drivers of declines observed in our wildlife, along with other threats such as climate change, and agricultural intensification. Other mammals that are in decline include the European water vole, and the European hedgehog. Hedgehogs have declined by around 50% since the turn of the millennium and water voles have declined by more than 90% since 1960. The range of both species are continuing to contract despite increased conservation efforts in recent years.

It was not until the 1960s that conservation organisations really started to record population data for wildlife. Since then, the design of surveys has become more robust, and a greater volume of data has been gathered to give us an insight into the states of species. In conservation, a baseline somewhere between the 1960s and 1970s is used, depending on which group of animals or plants are being analysed.

The data can be biased to certain groups depending on their ease of collection or the amount of funding available. An example is that there are far more records and data for birds compared with amphibians. There is also a danger that this baseline is not sufficient enough, as wildlife would have already declined at this point from the 1950s, following the initial post-war agricultural intensification. In contract to this, the UK's population was significantly lower during that period. Imagine how much suitable habitat has been destroyed to build houses, schools, and hospitals since the 1960s.

It is clear that the UK's wildlife is in trouble, increased conservation efforts are not sufficient enough to help reverse declines. Some species are doing well in our modern landscapes, whereas others are barely clinging on. The solution is to move away from the single-species model and to protect landscapes - moving to a more holistic approach. Protecting landscapes helps to conserve all of the species in that environment, which is particularly important if the species are dependent on each other for survival. For example, if prey species have very specific needs and these are not being met and therefore decline, you can expect the predator species to follow, unless they can adapt to a new food source. Without further investment in the protection of our native species and their habitats, the declines are set to continue until we have a ubiquitous assemblage across the country with very little diversity.

Mammals tend to be subject to greater levels of support in conservation when compared to other groups such as amphibians and reptiles, so in some ways their plight is surprising. This could be due to a lack of public knowledge in many cases. The hazel dormouse and pine marten are two mammal species that are extremely rare, meaning members of the public are incredibly lucky if they see one. This brings about the question of whether most members of the public realise they exist in the first place? Everyone is aware of deer, foxes, and badgers. But how many members of the public would be able to identify the majority of the UK's mammal species?

One of the issues our native mammals may face is the public thought of eradicating invasive species such as mink, or grey squirrels, in order to favour our own native wildlife. People are very fond of grey squirrels despite the fact they are an invasive species that has extirpated our native red squirrels from most of their range. I would imagine that despite the fact eradication is one of the only ways to help restore red squirrels to the majority of their former range, that people would soon voice their concerns.

This is a very different matter to the now infamous culling of our native badgers. Invasive mammals pose a very different issues to most other groups of animals due to the fondness the public has for them. Britain has lost over 130 species since the 16th century and unless we take drastic and radical action, this figure is only going to increase. Now is the time to act before the final grain of sand falls on not just our endangered mammals, but our other imperilled species too.