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

A A A

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.

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
people
Life & Style
The new low cost smartphone of Motorola, 'Motorola Moto G', is displayed in Sao Paulo, Brazil on November 13, 2013. The smartphone, with dimensions 65.9mm W x 129.9mm H x 6.0 - 11.6mm D is equipped with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 with quad-core 1,2 GHz CPU, a 4.5-inch display and Android Operating System 4.3 and a suggested price of $ 179 USD.
techData assessing smartphones has revealed tens of millions of phones are at risk of being harvested
Arts & Entertainment
Jessica Pare as Megan Draper and Jon Hamm as the troubled, melancholy Don Draper
tvAnd six other questions we hope Mad Men series seven will answer
Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film
News
David Beckham is planning to build a stadium in Miami’s port for a new football team he will own
news... in his fight for a football stadium in Miami's port area
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

NGO and Community Development in Cambodia

Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: There are many small development projects in ...

Graphic Design, Social Media and PR or Permaculture Internships in South Africa

Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: Work in Cape Town, South Africa for an NGO co...

Teach music or performing arts abroad

Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: Schools in developing countries struggle with...

Sports coaching volunteer jobs

Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: Kaya Responsible Travel offer a variety of sp...

Day In a Page

Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
The pain of IVF

The pain of IVF

As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal
Supersize art

Is big better? Britain's latest super-sized art

The Kelpies are the latest addition to a growing army of giant sculptures. But naysayers are asking what a pair of gigantic horse heads tells us about Falkirk?
James Dean: Back on the big screen

James Dean: Back on the big screen

As 'Rebel without a Cause' is re-released, Geoffrey Macnab reveals how its star perfected his moody act
Catch-22: How the cult classic was adapted for the stage

How a cult classic was adapted for the stage

More than half a century after it was published 'Catch-22' will make its British stage debut next week
10 best activity books for children

10 best activity books for children

Keep little ones busy this bank holiday with one of these creative, educational and fun books
Arsenal 3 West Ham United 1: Five things we learnt from the battle between the London sides

Five things we learnt from Arsenal's win over West Ham

Arsenal still in driving seat for Champions League spot and Carroll can make late charge into England’s World Cup squad
Copa del Rey final: Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right

Pete Jenson on the Copa del Rey final

Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right
Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

With the tennis circus now rolling on to the slowest surface, Paul Newman highlights who'll be making the headlines – and why
Exclusive: NHS faces financial disaster in 2015 as politicians urged to find radical solution

NHS faces financial disaster in 2015

Politicians urged to find radical solution
Ukraine crisis: How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?

Ukraine crisis

How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

A history of the First World War in 100 moments
Fires could turn Amazon rainforest into a desert as human activity and climate change threaten ‘lungs of the world’, says study

New threat to the Amazon rainforest:

Fires that scorch the ‘lungs of the Earth’
Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City: And the winner of this season’s Premier League title will be...

Who’s in box seat now? The winner of the title will be ...

Who is in best shape to take the Premier League prize?