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Skylark 'may be extinct within 10 years'

SKYLARKS, SONG thrushes and water voles, some of the most potent symbols of the countryside, will all vanish from Britain in the next few years, the World Wide Fund for Nature claims in a report today.

So rapid has been their recent decline that their extinction can now be foreseen, the WWF says, and it is unavoidable unless drastic steps are taken to save them.

In Doomsday for Wildlife, the fund predicts a swath of extinctions across the United Kingdom. It takes the rates of decline of seven familiar British wildlife species and projects them forward - in most cases they hit zero alarmingly soon.

Skylarks, which have been catastrophically affected by changes in farming practice, will disappear in 2009 if nothing is done to reverse their deterioration, the WWF says.

Song thrushes, which 25 years ago were one of our most common birds and are now increasingly rare, will go even earlier, by 2006. And the water vole - loved as Ratty in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in The Willows, but a species now much reduced by American mink which have escaped from fur farms - will disappear earlier still, by 2003.

Other species are also on the "disappearing list". The high brown fritillary butterfly will go in five years' time, while the pipistrelle bat will be extinct by 2007, the WWF says.

The grey partridge will be gone by 2011 while another butterfly, the marsh fritillary, is on course for extinction by 2020.

The causes of many of the declines are changes in agricultural techniques, such as the move to winter crops and greater pesticide use, and the change from haymaking to silage. With silage, the grass is cut in June while species are still nesting, rather than in August, when they are finished.

The WWF says that it has used the Government's figures to plot the rates of decline, and that the moves towards extinction are expected to accelerate over the next 20 years, with the effects of climate change, growing development pressures and the continued threat of the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy.

The only way of halting the declines, it says, is to introduce as a matter of urgency added protection for the disappearing habitats that the species depend upon.

"The dramatic decline and extinction of our native species is a sad reflection of the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act and its inability to protect our natural heritage," said Carol Hatton, the planning officer for the WWF-UK. "We must have stronger legal protection before it's too late."

The WWF said it was disappointed that a new wildlife Bill was not introduced this year and is calling for wildlife legislation to be included in the 1999 Queen's Speech.

However, this will come too late for some species. The WWF is announcing today that a British bee, the short-haired bumble bee, is now extinct.

The last reported sighting was near Dungeness in Kent in the early Eighties and after two years of intensive survey work, no trace of the insect was found.

The total number of wildlife species to have become extinct in Britain this century is now 154, the WWF says.

These include flowers such as the alpine butterwort (1900) and summer lady's tresses (1954); insects such as the dainty damselfly (1953) and the Essex emerald moth (1991); and many other species, including mammals (the mouse-eared bat, 1990) birds (the Kentish plover, 1935) and fish (the burbot, some time in the Seventies).