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Species in Great Britain at Risk of Extinction

Updated: May 30

Manhaaza Ashfaq explores the risks of one-sixth of species facing extinction in Great Britain.

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Preserving biodiversity is a global concern, and where one-sixth of its species is now at risk of extinction, Great Britain is of no exception. This loss of biodiversity is largely attributed to human activities which directly and indirectly affect ecosystems, emphasising the need to understand the severity of endangered species statistics and implement measures to protect these ecosystems.


Statistics on Species Extinction


The State of Nature 2023 Report revealed that 16% of species in Great Britain are currently endangered, while 2% have already become extinct. According to the report: 18% of species in Wales; 13% in England; 12% in Northern Ireland, and 11% in Scotland are threatened by extinction. These statistics are alarming as they highlight that extinction— affecting a wide range of species—could occur sooner than anticipated.

 

The presence of invertebrates, across various locations, has decreased by 13% since 1970. The highest percentage at 13.9% in Northern Ireland, with England having the highest percentage of endangered vertebrates. Additionally, 54% of flowering plant species and 59% of bryophytes (mosses and liverworts) are found in fewer locations due to decline. The current highest proportion of endangered plants is found in Scotland, accounting for 14.6%.

 

Since 1986, the population sizes of 13 species of seabirds have significantly reduced by 24%, and in Scotland 11 species have experienced a staggering 49% reduction. Wales sees 18% of reptiles and amphibians and 33% of mammals under threat, whilst in Great Britain, 30.8% of amphibians and reptiles and 26.2% of terrestrial mammals also face extinction threats.


Did you know? 16% of species in Great Britain are at risk of extinction. 

                                                


Drivers of Extinction


Understanding the factors that contribute to species extinction is vital in designing effective conservation strategies.

 

A primary contributor to these shifts is climate change, which not only directly impacts natural processes but also exacerbates other factors. Over the past decade, land temperatures have risen by 0.5°C; summers have become 15% wetter; sea temperatures have increased by 0.1°C, and there has been a notable rise in sea levels. The disruption of established ecosystems makes species vulnerable to extinction and affects both food availability and reproductive patterns.


Another significant factor is agricultural management. This includes policies aimed at intensifying agrarian practices to meet growing food demands, resulting in the use of chemicals such as pesticides and fertilizers. Given that a large portion of land in the UK is dedicated to farming, this explains the heightened risk of extinction in the region.


Significant causes in the decline of marine life are overfishing and unsustainable fishing practices. These can often lead to bycatch—the unintentional capture of non-targeted species—and the damage of marine habitats.


Human behaviour is undeniably the primary driver of animal extinction in Great Britain, as our lifestyles have ever-growing detrimental effects on ecosystems. According to Helena Horton, Environment reporter for The Guardian, “we historically hunted a lot of animals to extinction and have destroyed their habitats over centuries.” However, in addition to directly hunting species, humans also indirectly contribute to habitat destruction and species loss. While the negative impact of human behaviour may not be immediate, the effects are evident over a long period of time, as seen with climate change.


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Responses and Strategies


The former Secretary of State for Environment, Thérèse Coffey, outlined a comprehensive Environmental Improvement Plan in a 2023 BBC article, aiming to 'create and restore at least 500,000 hectares [...] of new wildlife habitats.' The government also emphasised investments such as a £25 million Species Survival Fund and £750 million allocated for woodland and peatland restoration.

 

However, these proposed ideas may not be sufficient in protecting and improving biodiversity. A holistic approach is necessary for promoting environmental diversification in farming, which includes sustainable solutions and heightened environmental awareness among farmers and consumers. Some responses to the extinction of British species already showcase these principles.

 

Implementing strategies like mixed grazing, organic farming, and agroforestry reduces the pressure on natural habitats as the diversity of plant and animal life prevents intrusion. Further methods for diversifying habitats involve 'varying mowing regimes, planting or seeding with native tree and shrub species, or occasional soil disturbance.' Avoiding the use of synthetic chemicals and pesticides helps produce microhabitats to support wildlife and create healthier ecosystems while offering varied fruit sources can populate a wider range of species.


The Fisheries Act (2020) proposes strategies to ensure fish populations continue to thrive amidst human pressures: ‘Adopting a conservative quota system based on Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY)’ to set fishing limits would allow fish populations to thrive naturally, preventing overfishing, and reducing the risk of extinction. Lessening the pressure on habitats by reducing the number of fishing vessels, while adopting sustainable fishing practices decreases the chances of bycatch and overfishing, and the prohibition of harmful fishing techniques in regions aimed at conserving marine ecosystems protects these habitats.


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Climate change is a major contributor to species extinction in Great Britain, therefore, addressing the root causes of climate change can significantly help in species conservation. In a 2022 article, the NRDC suggests several ways in which humans can reduce their carbon footprint and mitigate climate change: minimising fuel consumption and substituting fossil fuels with renewable energy sources; promoting sustainable public transportation by expanding transport access, and encouraging 'zero-emission' modes like walking, biking, and transitioning to electric-powered vehicles.


Improved forestry practices and sustainable agriculture: considering trees, plants, and soils reduce CO2 emissions by storing large amounts of carbon, it is crucial to preserve them without relying on chemical fertilizers. Additionally, ending or limiting deforestation is vital since trees cannot replenish fast enough after being cut down. This not only leads to long-term ecosystem destruction but also releases substantial CO2 emissions.


Given the wide range of endangered species across Great Britain, these methods may not immediately reduce extinction risks for all species; however, by remaining dedicated to these strategies and contributing to the development of additional measures to tackle the extinction crisis, we can gradually diminish the risks.


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“We need to move far faster as a society towards nature-friendly land and sea use. Otherwise, the UK’s nature and wider environment will continue to decline and degrade, with huge implications for our own way of life.” – Beccy Speight, Chief executive of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPS)

 

Conclusion


In summary, the concerning rates of extinction in Great Britain highlight the urgent need to address immediate threats to ecosystems and implement long-term solutions that individuals can integrate into their daily lives. Human activity has a significant impact on biodiversity, and by increasing awareness and applying pro-environmental policies, we can reduce the threats to our wildlife and natural habitats.

 

 

Researcher: Phoebe Agnew-Bass | Editor: Alison Poole | Online Editor: Elena Silvestri

 

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