Devon’s treasured environment is “in trouble”, conservationists have warned, as the country’s first-ever State of Nature report was published.
Scientists and researchers from dozens of conservation groups – including Devon Wildlife Trust – have worked together to produce a “stock take” of the nation’s fauna and flora. It shows that 10% of all the species assessed are currently threatened with extinction. More than half of the species studied have declined in recent decades.
Some 44 million breeding birds have been lost since the 1960s while insect populations have also been hard hit.
Peter Burgess, from Devon Wildlife Trust, who is attending today’s official launch of the report, said: “Once familiar species including hedgehogs, lapwings and cuckoos, are declining in extent and numbers.
“Our seas too are in a fragile state as the recent death of thousands of seabirds due to pollution has shown. For the first time in the history of the conservation movement we have a clear picture of how Britain’s special wildlife is faring. Nowhere is this information more important than in Devon, a county that supports the country’s most biodiverse parish – Braunton – and is home to two of the ten most threatened species in Europe, the marsh fritillary butterfly and the freshwater pearl mussel.”
Victoria Whitehouse, head of nature conservation at Cornwall Wildlife Trust, said there had been high-profile conservation successes, such as the return of the emblematic chough to the county’s coast.
But she added: “This report shows that we still have a long way to go, and we will have to pull out all the stops to halt the decline of our local wildlife.”
For the first time, scientists from 25 wildlife organisations have worked side-by-side to compile a State of Nature report for the UK.
It reveals that 60% of the species studied have declined over recent decades while more than one in ten of all of them are under threat of disappearing altogether.
And it paints a worrying picture in the Westcountry where, despite unspoilt countryside, moorland and coastal areas becoming the last strongholds for some species, many animals, birds, insects and plants have been lost.
“This report reveals that the UK’s nature is in trouble,” lead author Dr Mark Eaton said. “Overall we are losing wildlife at an alarming rate. These declines are happening across all countries and UK overseas territories, habitats and species groups, although it is probably greatest amongst insects, such as our moths, butterflies and beetles. Other once common species like the lesser spotted woodpecker, barbastelle bat and hedgehog are vanishing before our eyes.
“Reliable data on these species goes back just 50 years, at most, but we know that there has been a historical pattern of loss in the UK going back even further.
“Threats including sweeping habitat loss, changes to the way we manage our countryside, and the more recent impact of climate change, have had a major impact on our wildlife, and they are not going away.
“None of this work would have been possible without the army of volunteer wildlife enthusiasts who spend their spare time surveying species and recording their findings.
“Our knowledge of nature in the UK would be significantly poorer without these unsung heroes. And that knowledge is the most essential tool that conservationists have.”
The report blamed a combination of factors for the decline in wildlife in the region from climate change, with many species vulnerable to small increases, or decreases, in temperature or rainfall, to problems with non-native species such as Japanese knotweed.
It said loss of habitat had forced flora and fauna into “smaller and smaller ghettos” and prevented “less mobile species such as insects, reptiles and plants from moving through the countryside”.
“Pressure on our countryside comes from physical development and increased disturbance,” the report said.
“There are countless examples of woods, meadows and hedgerows being lost under concrete and tarmac but even our most valuable sites are under continued threat, with roads, housing and other pressures closing the noose around islands of wildlife rich habitats.”
Changes in farming practices in the region and the loss of traditional rural skills, such as haymaking, hedge laying, coppicing and charcoal production, were highlighted too.
The report added: “Traditional mixed farming has all but disappeared in the Westcountry. This small-scale, sustainable type of farming suited a wide range of species.
“With the push to increase food production and the squeeze on farm income, more emphasis was placed on productive areas. This had two effects. In these productive areas farming became more intensive, squeezing out hedgerows, flower meadows and the like and all they provided.
“Conversely, in more marginal areas, particularly where livestock was kept, land has been abandoned or under-grazed, leaving little space for those species that had come to rely on open grazed land.”
The report, published today, has been produced by a partnership of wildlife groups including Dorset-based Butterfly Conservation, the Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and Marine Biological Association, in Plymouth.
A spokesman for Butterfly Conservation, which is based at East Lulworth in Dorset, said: “Butterflies and moths in Devon, Cornwall and Somerset and the UK in general are facing long-term and worrying declines as a loss of habitat and changes in climate take their toll.
“But these declines are reversible. By using a joined-up, landscape-scale approach to conservation that engages landowners, wildlife bodies and the public we can help ensure that butterflies, moths and other wildlife are present for future generations to enjoy.”
The charity Buglife said the Westcountry supported “incredible wildlife riches” but was “not immune from the pressures that have affected our wildlife elsewhere”.
“In Somerset habitat destruction has led to the extinction of the large marsh grasshopper, and many of our bee species are struggling to survive in an increasingly degraded countryside,” a spokesman explained.
“Devon has some nationally important populations of invertebrates that are under severe threat – our freshwater pearl mussels are on the verge of extinction, and we have the last remaining English population of the narrow-headed ant.
“But there are some good news stories, Devon supports internationally important populations of the rare blue ground beetle and the county remains a national hotspot for oil beetles.
“In fact last year we rediscovered the Mediterranean oil beetle in Devon – this beetle had been thought extinct in the UK for over 100 years.
“In Cornwall, the bog hoverfly has gone extinct from the county. But there are glimmers of hope – the black oil beetle is still a common site around the Cornish coast path in spring.”
Tony Whitehead, from the RSPB in the South West, said despite the bleak picture painted by the report, conservation efforts in the region showed what could be achieved.
“Devon is a huge and diverse county with a wide range of special places from the top of the moors down to the coast,” he said. “But like never before its wildlife is under threat. We are on the edge of losing ring ouzel as a breeding species on Dartmoor and you have to search before hearing the call of a cuckoo nowadays.
“On Bodmin Moor, for instance, we’ve seen dramatic declines in whinchat and snipe, while around our coasts kittiwake are becoming increasingly rare.
“It’s not all doom and gloom though. In Devon, with the hard work of farmers supporting conservationists, the cirl bunting has been saved from extinction in the UK.
“For the past decade conservationists have worked hard alongside farmers to help secure a future for Cornwall’s iconic chough – with much success. This just goes to prove that you can reverse declines. We just need everyone to work together to do more of it.”
Impact of loss of hedgerows and natural habitat
Conservation successes in Cornwall are far outweighed by the loss of rare and iconic species, according to today’s State of Nature report.
While the county has seen the successful reintroduction of the chough and the large blue butterfly, sharp declines have been recorded in a host of others, with some now regarded as locally extinct.
The grey partridge is now considered extinct in the county while numbers of yellowhammer declined by 76% between 1999 and 2005. Only a handful of pairs now survive on Penwith Moor.
Populations of whinchat, which have fallen by 77% since 1984 to only 17 pairs, and snipe, which has suffered an 89% fall, can now only be found on Bodmin Moor.
The pearl-bordered fritillary butterfly is now restricted to just seven sites in Cornwall while the orange upperwing moth was last recorded in 1983, one of the last UK records.
The white-spotted pinion moth, last recorded in 1988, has disappeared while the shoulder-striped clover, a moth associated with wet heathland, was last spotted in 1981.
Water voles, last recorded 15 years ago, and the threatened freshwater pearl mussel are both now thought to have been lost entirely.
Wild asparagus, which was once plentiful along Cornwall’s coast, is now considered internationally endangered.
Gary Lewis, manager of the Environmental Records Centre for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, said: “We lost 152km of Cornish hedges between 1995 and 2005, which has a knock-on impact on the species associated with them.
“In addition butterflies and moths in Cornwall and the UK in general are facing long term and worrying declines as a loss of habitat and changes in climate take their toll.
Victoria Whitehouse, head of nature conservation for Cornwall Wildlife Trust, added: “There are success stories in Cornwall with organisations working together with landowners and farmers to protect key species like the chough, perennial centaury, pygmy rush and black oil beetle, and habitats like the heaths and moors of West Penwith.
“However, this report shows that we still have a long way to go, and we will have to pull out all the stops to halt the decline of our local wildlife.
“Our current and future health and happiness is dependent on nature. We are all ultimately reliant on our natural environment for our food, clean water, flood storage, recreation and carbon capture.”
Species under severe threat of extinction
Familiar sights and sounds have disappeared from the Devon landscape as a combinations of factors has robbed the county of much-loved wildlife.
Habitats from woodland to culm grassland have been lost, along with miles of hedgerows, and with it species once considered common.
The cuckoo has declined by 80% and is now absent from much of the county’s farmland and lapwing have fallen to below 20 pairs. The ring ouzel is nearing extinction on Dartmoor, where the high brown fritillary butterfly is threatened, and is extinct on Exmoor.
Freshwater pearl mussels on the rivers Taw and Torridge – the only remaining populations in the south of England – have not produced young now for more than 40 years. Devon’s two remaining populations of white-clawed crayfish are under severe threat of extinction from invasive American signal crayfish.
The only remaining UK population of the rare cuckoo bee Nomada sexfasciata hangs on, on a short stretch of the South Devon coast. England’s last remaining population of the narrow-headed ant survives at just one site in the county.
Devon is home to 80% of England’s culm grasslands – a vital habitat for the marsh fritillary butterfly. Surveys conducted in the early 1990s showed that between 1984 and 1991, some 65% of the grassland area outside of protected areas was lost – most due to agricultural improvement.
Once widely distributed throughout the UK, the marsh fritillary has declined substantially over the last 150 years. It has died out over most of eastern England and eastern Scotland. Despite widespread distribution in the South West, with Devon home to 20% of known populations, colonies are estimated to be disappearing at more than 10% a decade.
Devon Wildlife Trust’s Peter Burgess said: “None of this work would have been possible without the army of volunteer wildlife enthusiasts who spend their spare time surveying species and recording their findings.
Our knowledge of nature in the UK would be significantly poorer without these unsung heroes, and that knowledge is the most essential tool that conservationists have.
“It is time for us to take action to save nature and we are calling on people to give their support. We can all do something for nature, whether it is volunteering on a nature reserve, surveying species, making wildlife-friendly gardens, supporting campaigns or by becoming a member of a conservation charity.”