May 22
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In the News: Nature health check finds UK wildlife to be in trouble

A groundbreaking study by the UK’s leading wildlife organisations has found that 60% of the species in the region are in decline.

Common seal image

The common or harbour seal has declined by nearly a third in Scottish waters as a result of pollution, disease and lack of food

Health check for UK wildlife

In the first study of its kind in the UK, scientists from 25 wildlife organisations, including the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, RSPB, Buglife and Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, joined forces to undertake a health check of nature in the UK and its Overseas Territories. The final report has revealed startling results, with a large proportion of UK species showing declines over recent decades, and more than one in ten of all the species assessed being at risk of disappearing from the UK altogether.

The ‘State of Nature’ report will be launched by UK conservation charities at the Natural History Museum in London this evening, with the help of Sir David Attenborough, who highlighted the incredible diversity found on UK shores. “Our islands have a rich diversity of habitats which support some truly amazing plants and animals,” he said. “We should all be proud of the beauty we find on our own doorstep; from bluebells carpeting woodland floors and delicately patterned fritillary butterflies, to the graceful basking shark and the majestic golden eagle soaring over the Scottish mountains.”

Golden eagle image

Illegal killing, disturbance and intensive management practices threaten the majestic golden eagle and other animals

Assessments

The State of Nature report looked at the UK’s major taxonomic groups and habitat types, from woodland and farmland to wetlands and coastal areas, in an attempt to formulate an accurate representation of the situation across the UK’s four constituent countries. Data on trends in abundance and distribution of 3,148 species were collected, but while this is an impressive feat, it represents just 5% of the estimated 59,000 or more terrestrial and freshwater species in the UK. Yet 60% of these species were found to have declined over the last 50 years, and 31% have declined strongly.

As part of the study, a new Watchlist Indicator was developed, which measures how conservation priority species are faring, based on a set of 155 of the UK’s most threatened and vulnerable species for which there is sufficient data. Worryingly, the indicator shows that overall numbers of these species have declined by 77% in the last four decades, with little sign of recovery.

Ascension frigatebird image

The Ascension frigatebird is a UKOT endemic which has benefitted from conservation action

UK Overseas Territories

The report has also embraced and highlighted the wealth of globally important wildlife found in the UK’s Overseas Territories, from the Caribbean to the Antarctic. A worrying 90 species from these areas were found to be at high risk of global extinction. The incredible array of species found within these regions, from elephant seals and penguins to parrots and iguanas, includes some 180 endemic plants, 22 endemic birds, 34 endemic reptiles and amphibians, and an impressive 685 endemic terrestrial invertebrates – 16 times the number found in the UK.

Taxonomic groups

When looking at the results of the study by taxonomic group, it becomes clear that some groups are faring far worse than others. Invertebrate groups appear to be struggling the most, with a reported 65% decline in moths.

This report reveals that the UK’s nature is in trouble – overall we are losing wildlife at an alarming rate,” said Dr Mark Eaton, a lead author on the report. “These declines are happening across all countries and UK Overseas Territories, habitats and species groups, although it is probably greatest amongst insects, such as our moths, butterflies and beetles. Other once common species like the lesser spotted woodpecker, barbastelle bat and hedgehog are vanishing before our eyes.”

Heath fritillary image

The heath fritillary is one of the UK’s rarest butterflies

Continued pressure, but increasing hope

Pressures on the UK’s wildlife, from climate change to pollution and habitat loss, continue to grow. However, with the alarming results of The State of Nature report comes a positive message, with conservationists and wildlife organisations rising to the challenge to protect, reintroduce and translocate species, and to create and restore dwindling habitats where resources allow.

Sir David has described the groundbreaking study as both a stark warning and a sign of hope, saying, “For 60 years I have travelled the world exploring the wonders of nature and sharing that wonder with the public. But as a boy my first inspiration came from discovering the UK’s own wildlife. This report shows that our species are in trouble, with many declining at a worrying rate. However, we have in this country a network of passionate conservation groups supported by millions of people who love wildlife. The experts have come together today to highlight the amazing nature we have around us and to ensure that it remains here for generations to come.”

 

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Text Author

Nov 19
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In the News: UK bird population down by 44 million since 1960s

The overall bird population in the UK has fallen by a staggering 44 million individuals since 1966, according to a new report.

Photo of male house sparrow on roof tiles

The house sparrow, a species which has declined dramatically in the UK in recent decades

The report, entitled ‘The State of the UK’s Birds 2012’, was put together by conservation organisations including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT).

It found that while some species have increased in number, the populations of some common birds have declined dramatically. There are now an estimated 166 million birds nesting in the UK, compared to 210 million in 1966.

Commenting on the report, Dr Mark Eaton, an RSPB scientist, said, “It is shocking to think we’ve lost one in five of the individual birds that we had in the 1960s.”

Worrying declines

Among the worst hit species is the house sparrow, whose population has decreased by 20 million individuals since the 1960s – an average loss of 50 sparrows every hour. Although a slight increase has been reported since 2000, the causes of the overall decline remain unclear.

Photo of turtle dove pair perched on branch

The turtle dove is another species in serious decline in the UK

Birds that rely on farmland have also fared badly. The population of farmland birds is now less than half what it was in 1970, with species such as the lapwing, cuckoo and turtle dove suffering significant declines. Scientists believe that these declines are largely due to changes in the landscape which have removed suitable feeding and nesting habitat.

Some of the UK’s marine species are also in trouble. For example, two sea ducks, the long-tailed duck and the velvet scoter, have undergone large declines across Europe and are now globally threatened.

Not all bad news

The findings did reveal some more positive results, with some species showing large population increases. For example, the wood pigeon population has doubled in size since the 1970s, now standing at around 5.4 million nesting pairs, while species such as the bittern have recovered well from previous declines, largely as a result of focused conservation efforts.

Another species doing well is the great-spotted woodpecker, which has increased by 368% since the 1970s. Unfortunately, its smaller relative, the lesser spotted woodpecker, has dramatically declined and may now number fewer than 1,500 pairs, making its population too small for scientists to monitor properly.

Photo of female great-spotted woodpecker on tree

Great-spotted woodpecker, a species which has increased in the UK

It’s like the bird populations of the UK are on a roller-coaster, and we’ve seen a lot of ups and downs,” said Grahame Madge, an RSPB spokesperson. “We have more species breeding in the UK now than any other time in history… but we’ve got 44 million fewer individual birds nesting than in the 1960s.”

He went on to add that despite the success stories, the overall findings of the report were of concern. “When you see en masse that the UK has lost such a huge number of birds, the figures themselves are quite staggering,” he said.

UK Overseas Territories

The report also looked at the state of birds in the UK’s Overseas Territories, which hold some of the world’s most vulnerable birds, including Critically Endangered species such as the St Helena plover, Tristan albatross and Gough bunting. Many of these species face a range of threats, from oil spills and fishery bycatch to human developments and volcanic eruptions.

Photo of northern rockhopper penguin pair at nest

The report also looked at species in the UK Overseas Territories, including the northern rockhopper penguin

There is also concern for the northern rockhopper penguin. Over 80% of this penguin’s population occurs on the UK Overseas Territories of Tristan da Cunha and Gough Island, but worrying population declines of over 90% have been recorded in these two locations.

Citizen science

Most of the information upon which the report was based comes from the efforts of volunteers who contribute to national monitoring schemes, such as the Breeding Bird Survey and Wetland Bird Survey.

According to Dr Tim Hill, Natural England’s Chief Scientist, “The State of the UK’s Birds report is a great example of ‘citizen science’ in action… Such schemes provide a high quality evidence base underpinning the work of government, conservation organisations and land managers in their joint efforts to conserve the natural environment and its wildlife.”

Photo of bittern in flight

The bittern population is recovering in the UK thanks to conservation efforts

David Stroud of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) said, “This report highlights the value of undertaking a periodic ‘stock-check’ of bird numbers in the UK – information central to many aspects of conservation. Thanks to the efforts of the bird watching community, such assessments are readily available within the UK, but these data do not exist for most of our Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies. We need to strengthen efforts to establish routine survey and monitoring in these areas in the light of their global importance for many bird species.”

Read more on this story at BBC Nature News, The Guardian and the RSPB.

Read the full report at The State of the UK’s Birds 2012.

View photos and videos of birds from the UK on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Text Author

Nov 2
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In the News: More protection needed for Europe’s overseas territories

A recent IUCN report has suggested that the 30 overseas territories linked to six members of the EU could benefit from further protection.

False-plantain image

False-plantain growing in the Falkland Islands, a UK Overseas Territory

Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom are all linked to territories outside of the European continent. These territories, which occur in every ocean, are home to a unique range of biodiversity. The recent study has suggested that Europe may be able to better meet its commitment to global biodiversity by providing more protection to these overseas territories.

The 30 EU territories are located all over the globe, from the poles to the tropics, and house most of Europe’s biodiversity. For example, New Caledonia, an overseas territory of France, has as many endemic species as are present in the whole of Europe, despite being a fraction of the size. Other EU territories are located in biodiversity hotspots, including Madagascar and the Caribbean Islands.

Dominique Benzaken, co-author of the study, says: “It’s imperative that funding be realigned so that resources are proportionate to the significance of Europe’s overseas territories biodiversity.”

New Caledonia blossom bat image

New Caledonia blossom bat

Recommendations for conservation

As well as proposing recommendations on how to protect and manage the territories, the report has called for an increase in collaboration between all countries involved. Most overseas territories now have some form of policy in place to support conservation, although coordination is needed between policy makers at the local and national level. Other important conservation measures include the designation of protected areas, implementation of species recovery plans and management of invasive species.

Hans Friederich of IUCN says: “There’s been significant progress in some areas thanks to targeted conservation measures such as protected areas. Yet large tracks of key global biodiversity could still be at risk and thus jeopardize the well-being of the local communities.”

St Helena gumwood image

St Helena gumwood growing on the UK Overseas Territory of St Helena

UK Overseas Territories

The 14 UK Overseas Territories are host to an amazing array of species, including 20 endemic species of bird, such as the Ascension frigatebird, and around 500 endemic invertebrate species. The island of St Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean is particularly noted for its plant biodiversity, which includes the magnificent St Helena gumwood and the St Helena boxwood. The management of conservation activities in the UK Overseas Territories is currently supported by the Overseas Territories Environment Programme (OTEP).

Read the full IUCN report – Future Directions for Biodiversity Action in Europe overseas: Outcomes of the Review of the Implementation of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Learn more about the UK Overseas Territories with our quiz.

View images and videos of species from the UK Overseas Territories.

Becky Moran, ARKive Species Text Author

Jul 19
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In the News: Blue iguana on road to recovery

Ten years ago the Cayman Island blue iguana numbered just two dozen individuals, but thanks to concerted conservation efforts this rare lizard is on the road to a remarkable recovery.

Photo of Cayman Island blue iguana resting on rock

Last ditch attempt to save the species 

Weighing in at over 11 kilograms and measuring over 1.5 metres in length, the Cayman Island blue iguana is by far the largest native animal on Grand Cayman, the only place in which it occurs. 

Predation was never a concern for this impressive lizard until cats and dogs were introduced to the island. Together with habitat destruction and collisions with cars, this has slowly pushed the species ever closer to extinction. 

In 2002, conservationists began a last ditch attempt to save the iguana. With help from local and international conservation partners, including the Wildlife Conservation Society and Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, the Blue Iguana Recovery Program has bred and released more than 500 blue iguanas back into the wild, increasing its population by twenty times.

Photo of Cayman Island blue iguana feeding

Remarkable success 

Blue iguanas are raised in captivity until two years old, when they are big enough to keep feral cats at bay. Once they hit two, the blue iguanas are released and monitored in the Salina Reserve on Grand Cayman. 

The programme has been such a success that conservationists have also started releasing blue iguanas into a new protected area, the Colliers Wilderness Reserve. This month, the programme confirmed the first breeding blue iguanas in the reserve. The goal is now to hit a population of 1,000 blue iguanas and, given recent success, this may be achieved fairly quickly.

Close up of a male Cayman Island blue iguana

For the past several years, we’ve succeeded in adding hundreds of animals to the wild population, all of which receive a health screening before release,” said Dr Paul Calle, Director of Zoological Health for WCS’s Bronx Zoo. 

Fred Burton, Director of the Blue Iguana Recovery Program, said: “We expect to reach our goal of 1,000 iguanas in managed protected areas in the wild in a few years. After that, we will monitor the iguanas to make sure they are reproducing in the numbers needed to maintain the wild population. If we get positive results, we will have succeeded.” 

View more images of the Cayman Island blue iguana on ARKive

Read the WCS press release – Grand Cayman blue iguana: Back from the brink of extinction.

Alex Royan, ARKive Species Text Author

Apr 7
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In the News: Skua population in the Falklands declines by almost half in five years

A subspecies of the southern skua (Catharacta antarctica) has undergone a massive population crash in the Falklands, declining by almost 50% over the past five years according to a new study.

Photo of southern skua attack in flight

The Falklands skua is considered a subspecies of the southern skua, or brown skua, Catharacta antarctica.

Mysterious decline

Also known as the Falkland skua, the ultimate cause of this subspecies’ decline on New Island, in the west of the Falkland Islands, is unknown. However, it seems to be linked with chronic low breeding success in recent years.

New Island houses the largest known colony of the Falkland skua, a large, gull-like, ground-nesting seabird.

Two surveys of the skuas nesting on New Island were conducted in 2004 and 2009 by Dr Paulo Catry of the Museum of Natural History in Lisbon, Portugal, along with colleagues from Portugal and the UK. The results are published in the journal Polar Biology.

“Although brown skuas have been the subject of many studies, virtually nothing has been done on the Falklands subspecies,” says Dr Catry.

Low breeding success

The surveys revealed that overall, the number of Falkland skua territories on New Island reduced by 47.5% in the five years between the two surveys.

The decline on New Island has raised some serious concerns. Dr Catry emphasises that “Long-lived seabirds like skuas usually change their numbers slowly and this situation cannot be considered as ‘normal’.”

Photo of southern skua chick and egg

Skuas nesting on New Island currently appear to be raising far fewer chicks per year.

Skuas are ground-nesting birds which generally have a high breeding success, with each pair raising a chick a year on average. However, the researchers found that pairs of the Falkland skua on New Island have a far lower success rate, producing as few as 0.28 chicks on average each year.

Even more surprising is that other seabirds nesting on the same island have not shown similar declines over the same period.

Exploring possible options

It is currently unclear as to whether the decline in reproductive success of the Falkland skua has been accompanied by a rise in the number of deaths of adult skuas.

Dr Catry and his team are exploring several possible explanations for the dramatic decline of this southern skua subspecies.

One possibility is that the Falkland skua is being outcompeted by the striated caracara (Phalcoboenus australis), as both species appear to feed on the same prey.

Photo of straited caracara

The increasing striated caracara population on New Island may be competing with the Falkland skua for food and resources.

More concerning is the prospect that the recent declines in skua populations may be linked to wider problems in the marine environment.

“Falkland skuas are top predators of marine ecosystems. They will take fish, squid, crustaceans, and they are also important predators of other seabirds,” says Dr Catry. “If something is not well with them, it may mean that something is not well with the rich Patagonian shelf ecosystem.”

Read the paper published in the journal Polar Biology.

View 14 great images of the southern skua on ARKive.

Helen Roddis, ARKive Species Text Author

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