Scientists have warned that British wildlife is at its most perilous state ever recorded in the past 40 years, after conducting the biggest nationwide analysis of biodiversity trends carried out to date.

Using tens of millions of records dating back to 1970, scientists from the University of Reading and Centre for Ecology & Hydrology found that UK native biodiversity has not only suffered an overall continuous decline, but that some species groups are under particular threat.

In some species groups fulfilling critical roles, including pollination and pest control, the number of declining species is neither offset by those native species which are increasing in occurrence, nor by the arrival of new species to Britain.

HedgehogElephant hawk mothCommon banded hoverfly
Mammals as a group show mixed trends. Some are increasing but others like the hedgehog have shown steep declines. Mammals provide pest control functions and are also very culturally important species. Photo of hedgehog by Nadine MitschunasOverall, moths are in decline, with the number of declining species outweighing increases in native species. Moths provide pollination functions and are culturally important species. Photo of elephant hawk moth by Nadine Mitschunas

Hoverflies provide important pest control and pollination functions. As a group, declining hoverfly species significantly outweigh increasing species. The Common banded hoverfly is a species showing apparent large declines since 1970. Photo by John Bridges.

Dr Tom Oliver, an ecologist at the University of Reading and formerly of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, led the research, which he described as the biggest and most comprehensive report of its kind ever assembled for any country in the world.

"By standardising records from an army of amateur biologists across the country, we have amassed an impressive array of data, giving us our most complete picture yet of the state of Britain’s wildlife," he said.

“The picture that emerges is of an increasingly fragile system, particularly in species that do vital jobs for humans. Unless efforts are made to reverse some of these declines, we face a future where we will be less confident that we can effectively grow our food.”

The researchers used millions of records from thousands of trained volunteer recorders across Britain, covering 22 broad species groups – such as bees, dragonflies, grasshoppers, ladybirds, plants and mosses. They analysed the changing fortunes of 4,424 species across the country between 1970 and 2009, grouping the species into key ecosystem functions of pollination, pest control, cultural value, decomposition and carbon sequestration.

“Conservation actions, such as wildlife-friendly farming, can help avoid the loss of biodiversity and the resulting erosion of the pollination, pest control and other benefits we derive from nature” Prof James Bullock, CEH

While all groups saw declines in native species, fewer species are in decline, also offset by large numbers of new arrivals, in the decomposition and carbon sequestration categories, meaning these ecosystem functions remain relatively stable.

However, groups providing pollination and pest control suffered greater declines that were not offset by increasing species or new arrivals. For example, the banded hoverfly Syrphus ribesii (pictured above) feeds on aphid pests and has been shown to be significantly declining in occurrence. Hoverflies are also important pollinators of crops and wildflowers.

The researchers conclude that conservation efforts should be focused on those areas for which there is strong evidence of declining fortunes.

Professor James Bullock, of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, who co-led the work, stated, “While this analysis sends us a warning, concerted conservation efforts may allow us to halt these declines.

“Conservation actions, such as wildlife-friendly farming, can help avoid the loss of biodiversity and the resulting erosion of the pollination, pest control and other benefits we derive from nature”.

The research is published in the journal Nature Communications and is open access.

Additional information

The University of Reading issued a press release for this story.

Full paper reference: Declining resilience of ecosystem functions under biodiversity loss. Tom H Oliver, Nick J B Isaac, Tom A August, Ben A Woodcock, David B Roy and James M Bullock. doi: 10.1038/ncomms10122

Staff page of Prof James Bullock, CEH

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