Report highlights role of farming in wildlife loss

Farming has been "by far the most significant driver" in the loss of British wildlife over the past 45 years, during which time 40 per cent of species have shown "strong or moderate declines", according to a new hard-hitting report.

Butterflies: among the species to have suffered decline
Butterflies: among the species to have suffered decline

Produced by a consortium of more than 50 nature conservation and research organisations, State of Nature 2016 builds on a similar report published three years ago and draws on volunteers' monitoring of nearly 10,000 animal and plant species.

It claims to show that the UK "has lost significantly more nature over the long term than the global average" and risks losing around 1,000 species altogether, including 12 per cent of farmland species. Farmland birds have declined by 54 per cent since 1970, though the rate has slowed in recent years. Butterflies have declined by 41 per cent since 1976 but bats have seen an increase of 23 per cent since 1999, it notes.

"Agricultural intensification affected nearly half of the species we studied and it was responsible for nearly a quarter of the total impact on our wildlife," the report states. The decline in mixed farming, the use of more intensive systems, increased use of pesticides and fertilisers and the loss of marginal habitats such as ponds and hedgerows are among the ways farming has contributed to the decline, it points out. However, it highlights the positive contribution of wildlife-friendly farming through agri-environment schemes.

Climate change has had a "significant impact" too, although its effects have been "mixed", bringing winners as well as losers, the report adds. But it also gives examples of how governments, non-government organisations, businesses, communities and individuals have worked to restore nature.

In his foreword, Sir David Attenborough says: "The rallying call issued in 2013 has been met with a myriad of exciting and innovative conservation projects. Landscapes are being restored, special places defended and struggling species are being saved and brought back."

Responding to the report, NFU vice-president Guy Smith said: "It makes little sense to attribute cause and effect to 'the intensification of agriculture' in the UK in the last quarter of a century when there hasn't been any. British farmers are using less fertiliser and pesticides than ever before. Other causes such as urbanisation, climate change or increasing predator pressure need greater attention."

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