Pine marten (Dreamstime)
Interview Words : Graeme Green | 14 September

Dr Mark Eaton: “We neglect nature at our peril.”

More than 1 in 10 UK wildlife species are threatened with extinction, and overall numbers are declining, according to the State of Nature 2016 UK report, out today. We talk to Dr Mark Eaton, conservation scientist and lead author of the report, about what needs to be done.


More than one in ten UK species is threatened with extinction, according to the State of Nature 2016 UK report. What’s happening?

There’s a whole lot of different measures of how wildlife is doing, and they’re all going down. 13 per cent of species are threatened with extinction, 2 per cent have gone extinct since 1970. We know that since 1970, the actual total numbers of wildlife are down by 16 per cent and the majority of species - 56 per cent - are declining. The figures are all pointing the same way.

 

Red Admiral butterfly (Dreamstime)

Is the problem being seen across all different types of wildlife?

Yes, it’s across all of the UK and there’s a huge range of species included in this report. There are the usual ones we count, like birds and butterflies, but also things like centipedes, ladybirds, plants… Most things you can think of, it’s in the report. We’ve got a good wide spread of our wildlife.

 

All wildlife is obviously important, but are there any key species at risk that it’s vital we don’t lose?

The most frightening thing to me is what’s happening with invertebrates, so insects, many of which are doing worse. It’s a lot of creatures that a lot of people don’t know about and some people might not even like, creepy crawlies, but those are the things that are really important in terms of what they do for us, such as bees and what they do in terms of pollinating, or the things that allow dead plants to decay, called detritivores. These creatures are part of our cycles and environment. Declines in those sort of things are really worrying, because they’re things we depend on for what they call ‘eco-system services’ - things that we need.

 

Bee pollinating flower (Dreamstime)

Are there any of the most popular British species also at risk?

Yes. Lots of quite familiar birds, like turtle doves, nightingales, sparrows and starlings… Things that people care about. Also, things like puffins. People don’t necessarily see puffins all the time but they know what they look like and they have a great love for them. Puffins are actually threatened with global extinction. Lots of butterfly species are going down, too.

 

What about mammals?

On the whole, there’s been some good news on mammals, with things like pine martens recovering. Bats have been doing better in recent years, though they’re still down from where they used to be. We also have otters coming back. Door mice have seen declines, though, so there’s mixed news.

 

Puffin on clifftop (RSPB)

What is the main cause of the decline in wildlife?

It’s mostly about we manage our land and, in particular, how we manage our farmland. Changes to farming, with it becoming more efficient and becoming more productive in producing food, has had a substantial impact on the wildlife on farmland. It’s not so much loss of habitat, but how we’re managing our farmland, the use of pesticides, the agricultural techniques, a whole range of efficiencies in farming that are leaving less space. It’s about how we’re managing the farmland we already have.

 

Is climate change a factor?

Climate change is an issue. It’s having a significant impact on our wildlife, both good and bad. We’re seeing some species increase and some decline. Longterm, we expect climate change to be one of the biggest threats to nature globally. But at the moment in the UK we’re seeing a mixed bag of effects. We’re seeing some new species come up from Europe because it’s getting warmer in the UK, as well as some species being squeezed out because they don’t like the warmer weather.

 

Otter swimming in river (RSPB)

Are there problems across lots of different habitats too?

It’s across everything, including urban areas, farmland, woodland, heathland… We’ve looked at marine areas and the seas as well. There are pressures everywhere, whether that’s losing green space in our urban areas, changing management of our woodlands, impact of climate on our seas is quite notable. Wherever we look, there are pressures on our nature.

 

What do you want the UK government to do?

The crucial thing at the moment is the opportunity and the risks presented by Brexit. We want the UK government to retain the legislative protection of biodiversity that we got from Europe. Particularly, we’d like them to take the opportunity presented by having to define our own replacement for the common agricultural policy, to change the focus so that farming continues get the support from policies, but to look for more public benefits from that, rather than just food. We’d like to see a greater requirement for wildlife-friendly farming, to go along with the support that we give the farmers.

Dove on barbed wire (Dreamstime)


What could farmers do?

A lot of farmers are going great stuff for wildlife, and there’s perhaps a lot more that would like to do more, but perhaps the financial support isn’t there. We’re working with farmers, but really they need that financial safety net to enable them to do more on wildlife. The policy needs to be there to enable them to do more on wildlife.

 

Why do you think it’s so important to protect the UK’s nature?

We think there’s a moral imperative to look after nature. But also there’s a self-interest argument. The benefits and joy that wildlife gives to people is one thing, but the services it does in terms of giving us clean water and clear air, pollinating our crops and so forth are vital. We neglect nature at our peril. The report clearly shows there’s a problem, but it also shows lots of ways that nature can be helped. We just need to do more of it. It’s a case of stepping up our efforts.

 

Dr Mark Eaton (RSPB)


What can people reading this do if they want to get involved?

There’s a whole range of things. There’s a lot of great work being done by partners in the report, that we’d like the public to engage with, whether it’s supporting our campaigning work, whether it’s looking in their own patches and backgardens and looking at how to garden in a more wildlife-friendly way, whether it’s volunteering in conservation work, or even getting involved in the counting. There have been thousands of people involved in the data collection for reports like this, so we encourage people to get involved in that.

There’s an awful lot of information online with the report, with a range of ways, working with the 50+ partners, about how people can help. That can make an enormous difference.

 

For more on the report and to find out ways to get involved with UK conservation projects and charities, see www.rspb.org.uk and www.rspb.org.uk/son.


Main image: pine marten (Dreamstime).