British wildlife in steep decline as man-made activities take their toll

  • @mjpmccarthy

Several of Britain's best-known animal species, ranging from the hedgehog to the harbour seal, are now suffering declines that require serious conservation action, according to a comprehensive report on the status of British mammals.

The report, from the Mammals Trust UK, which is funded by the People's Trust for Endangered Species, identifies an assortment of factors including climate change, the spread of infectious diseases, agricultural and forestry practices, and not least, human activity, as combining to place ever increasing pressure on already fragile wildlife populations.

The result is that declines are accelerating in animals once considered common, such as the hedgehog, as well as those which are already scarce or localised, such as the Scottish wildcat.

An indication of the stress on British mammal populations came earlier this year when nine new species were added to Britain's wildlife conservation blueprint, the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. The hedgehog, the mountain hare, the pine marten, the polecat, the Scottish wildcat, the harvest mouse, the noctule and brown long-eared bats, and the harbour seal (formerly the common seal), were added to the list of British mammals already requiring conservation action, such as the red squirrel and the water vole.

The lengthening list of environmental problems is increasingly hitting mammals, say the report's authors, David Macdonald and Dawn Burnham from the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at the University of Oxford. "The roll call of environmental topicality seems more strident in 2007 than ever before, and wild mammals are touched by every topic on the list," they say.

"How are agri-environment schemes to deliver food, biodiversity and rural livelihoods, how is society to balance its respect for individuals and humaneness with its desire to use, manage and develop, how is this nation to provide its evermore urban citizens with contact with nature that is increasingly recognised as important for their well-being and health?

"The glimpse of a small furry creature may seem a trivial thing, but it is increasingly the hallmark of quality of life issues."

They also point out that mammal populations are likely to have been hit extremely hard by the floods last summer. "Innumerable small bodies floated on the many square kilometers of water that immersed the fields around our homes," they say, speculating that this may represent the future, if the record-breaking rainfall was a sign of approaching global warming.

"The sight of rabbits clustered on diminishing islands, wood mice shivering in the upper branches of hedgerows, and a roe deer splashing waist deep across a field all give a sense of meaning to concepts like mitigation and adaptation in the face of climate change, not to mention the planning implications for those three million new house that the Prime Minister hopes to see swiftly built hopefully all with an eye to sustainability, green spaces and urban nature."

The report throws up some surprising statistics, such as the annual number of road traffic accidents resulting from collisions with deer estimated at more than 74,000, with the south-east of England the worst affected, encompassing hot spots in wooded areas such as Ashdown Forest, the New Forest and Thetford Forest.

The report includes some good news, including the continuing recovery of the otter, which crashed in numbers in the latter half of the 20th century because of pollution, in particular from organochlorine pesticides. But its main focus is on the decline of a growing number of British wild animals, rare and familiar.

Animals at risk

* The decline of the hedgehog is among the most worrying. Between 2001 and 2005 surveys by Mammals Trust UK suggested a decline of 20 per cent in numbers, but in some place this was as high as 50 per cent. Research has suggested that increasing urbanisation and "tidier" gardens are pushing out hedgehogs out from the places where most of us live. Findings so far have not supported the growing belief that hedgehog decline is linked to the steady rise in badger populations badgers are the hedgehog's only natural enemy apart from man but this area is "worthy of further exploration," says the report.

* The recent fall in numbers of the harbour seal appears to be equally steep. Counts by the Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) at the University of St Andrews showed that the majority of large colonies around Britain, with the exception of western Scotland, are declining. SMRU detected a 40 per cent decline in Orkney and Shetland over the past five years, suggesting that harbour seals experienced, as yet unexplained, increased mortality or very low replenishment . Illegal culling by fishermen who see the seals as competitors may be "a serious issue", says the report. The UK supports 40 per cent of the world's population of harbour and grey seals, with an estimate of between 50,000 and 60,000 harbour seals and between 97,000 and 159,000 greys.

* A warning light is showing for the mountain hare, one of Britain's two hare species the hare of the uplands being different from its lowland cousin, the brown hare, in that it changes the colour of its coat to pure white in winter. It is found mainly in Scotland, but there are isolated populations in the Peak District and the Isle of Man. Although not enough work has been done to give an accurate statistical picture, there is a perceived decline in the animal's numbers, which is "likely to continue with increased impacts of climate change on fragile upland habitats", says the report.

* Interbreeding is a threat to the Scottish wildcat, says the report, noting that this and persecution may have reduced the remaining population to just 400 individuals in northern parts of Scotland. However, hope for the future comes from new research which has found a genetic marker which candistinguish between pure Scottish wildcats and cross-bred feral cats. This should be an invaluable tool with which to assess the current wild-living cat population in Scotland and determine accurately how many "pure" Scottish wildcats persist.