Britain's beasts – and the battle to save them

UK mammals face serious threats, new study shows, but there's hope

Conservationists are losing their battle to halt the decline of some of Britain's best-loved species, according to a new report published today.

Commissioned by the People's Trust for Endangered Species and produced by experts at Oxford University's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, the study looks back at a decade in which the charity has spent more than £1m to save British mammals – with mixed results.

Certain species such as red squirrels, hedgehogs, Scottish wildcats and harvest mice have declined due to factors such as habitat loss and invasive species out-competing native ones for food. And, in the case of the red squirrel, numbers have been reduced by their disease-spreading grey competitors.

But it is not all bad news. There have been successes in increasing populations of otters, bats and water voles, which have defied the odds to survive at all.

The bigger picture shows grounds for optimism, according to the 2011 State of Britain's Mammals study: "Although many of Britain's mammals apparently declined significantly in the past 25 years, some appear to have stabilised or even increased in the last decade. Of the 25 monitored mammal species native to Britain, half are either stable (not necessarily in a good state) or increasing."

And, after years of approaches to conservation that amounted to little more than "rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic", there is hope for the future, claims the report's co-author, Professor David Macdonald.

He describes a "tectonic change" in the approach to conservation: "The country is changing the structures within which it deals with conservation. The overall framework really does seem to have changed in a way which is quite extraordinary and one hopes is going to lead to a very different sort of future.

"We've moved in the direction of things becoming interpreted at a larger scale rather than a preoccupation with the dormouse or the badger or the fox... starting to look into the ecosystem."

The past decade has seen a growth in a more scientific and evidence-based approach to conservation. "We have [a] coming-together of ideas and policy instruments that suggests that government and the wider population really think that big issues such as sustainability and biodiversity and species loss and extinction matter," he added.

Major challenges remain, not least in striking a balance between the needs of farmers and consumers for food, and making the countryside a better place for wildlife.

And Britain still does not have a national monitoring system. Only around half of mammals are monitored in sufficient detail and scale to track population changes.

Conflict with invasive species remains a serious threat to British species, according to the report, which calls for "ecological restoration" of the countryside to be a conservation priority.