Thursday, August 30, 2007

ENV: Britain's Endangered

Hundreds more British species are placed on 'at risk' register
IAN JOHNSTON, The Scotsman

They were once common sights of the countryside. But animals such as the hedgehog, house sparrows and starlings have joined a new list of hundreds of creatures and plants in danger or in need of protection.

The number of species on the official UK Biodiversity Action Plan has doubled since the first attempt to map the problem ten years ago.

In 1997, 577 species needed help, but in a new list to be published today the figure has risen to 1,149. The number of species on the list that are found in Scotland more than doubled from 226 to 532.

Experts said the loss of plants and animals - along with the habitats they live in - was continuing as part of the widespread "unravelling of life on this planet".

However, they said part of the reason for the rise was that scientists now know more about what is happening to our wildlife, which enables steps to be taken to preserve it.

But life in Britain for at least one species has come to an end. The large copper butterfly, which was on the 1997 list, is now extinct in the UK, with an attempt to reintroduce it having failed and no plans to try again. Professor Colin Galbraith, director of policy and advice at Scottish Natural Heritage, said he was concerned that some species were faring badly.

"What's worrying is that once-common species, like the skylark and corn bunting, are probably declining now," he said.

"The best example is the common sparrow, which was very common on farmland.

"The work farmers and foresters are doing is critical for the future. It's about working with landowners to make sure they are managing the countryside in a way that allows them to make a living and in which biodiversity can improve."

Climate change puts Scotland's wildlife under extra pressure and he said there was a need to "create a system of land-use where species can adapt and move as climate change happens".

He added: "It is a key time for a lot of species on the list."

Some 123 species have been taken off the list since 1997, and Prof Galbraith said the system of identifying those at risk and coming up with a plan to save them was working.

"We have to be clear what action we can take. Where we do target action, we can do quite a lot. The capercaillie has been the target of a lot of action and has done quite well," he said.

The new plan will be used to decide which species and habitats should be targeted for conservation work in a bid to halt the loss of biodiversity in the UK by 2010.

The revised list sees the garden tiger moth and the grass snake joining previously prioritised creatures such as the otter, bottlenosed dolphin, red squirrel and black grouse.

Pine martens, wildcats, mountain hares, common toads, adders and brown long-eared bats have all been added to the list.

In the UK's seas, two seahorse species are classified as under threat, along with several types of shark, including the porbeagle, as well as the Atlantic salmon.

Sedges, helleborine and marsh orchids and two threatened species of dandelion are among plants included. The yellow mayfly and the St Kilda wren have also been added.

Grahame Madge, of the RSPB, said while some species had been added to the list because of improved research methods, others had suffered declines in recent years.

"The number of species needing help is increasingly rapidly. We have seen a doubling of the list of birds to a point where more than one in five UK species are deemed in need of some conservation help," he said.

"The house sparrow and the starling have declined by more than half in the past 25 years.

"We knew a lot about these species ten, 20, 30 years ago, so the inclusion of those species on the list shows these are real changes happening."

Birds newly added to the action plan list which have declined by more than 50 per cent in the past 25 years include the European white-fronted goose, lapwing, Arctic skua, herring gull, cuckoo, lesser spotted woodpecker, tree pipit and yellow wagtail. Other at-risk birds such as black grouse, capercaillie, grey partridge, turtle dove, red-backed shrike, tree sparrow and corn bunting have remained on the list.

Perhaps surprisingly, the golden eagle is not mentioned despite there only being about 440 pairs in Scotland and the threat from poisoning by gamekeepers and other forms of persecution. This is because its numbers have remained relatively stable recently.

Dr Deborah Long, of Plantlife Scotland, said scientists now knew "an awful lot more" than previously.

"I am aware people are panicking about the length of it, but that is because we have gone through the process and those are the facts," she said.

"But we still have a long way to go. We are still not winning the battle against the loss of biodiversity. We are continuing to lose species and we are continuing to lose habitats and those are very definitely linked."

There were also 65 habitats listed, up from 49 previously.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said the plan should provide hope for some UK endangered species.

"Inclusion on the list is not necessarily a bad thing, because it means action will be taken to address declines," she said.

And Fred Edwards, of Scottish Environmental Link, welcomed the fact that the UK was "getting to grips" with the issue.

"In a sense this is a measure of the success of the process that scientific knowledge is building up all the time," he said.

But he stressed the need for serious action, saying: "Biodiversity isn't some nice, effete, middle-class interest. It is about the unravelling of life on this planet and at the end of the day, that's a very important political issue."
Conservation work yields results as strategy safeguards rare breeds

CONSERVATION work on a number of species - including the pipistrelle bat, ladybird spider and cirl bunting - has proved particularly successful over the last decade.

The pipistrelle bat population has stabilised to such an extent that it is one of 123 species removed from the Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) list.

Many of those species, such as the Killarney fern and the prickly sedge, have been removed after further survey work has found previously unknown populations.

Some of the biggest conservation successes have been with species so rare that more needs to be done to safeguard their future.

Populations of the ladybird spider and lady's slipper orchid, for example, are now at their highest levels for half a century.

However, the lady's slipper orchid is still only found in one location in the UK.

Eleven species of bird placed on the old list because their populations were falling rapidly have now stabilised or improved their numbers, but the species are still considered at risk because they have not yet recovered to a sustainable population.

Dr Mark Avery, conservation director at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, said: "Over the last 12 years, the Biodiversity Action Plan system has helped everyone focus attention on priority species."

Dr Avery highlighted several cases where conservation work had been particularly successful, in part because of the creation of the action plan. He added: "To its credit, we have seen dramatic increases in key species, such as the bittern, stone-curlew, corncrake, nightjar, cirl bunting and woodlark."

Other rare species of birds, such as the red-necked phalarope - which is found in small numbers on the Western Isles - song thrush, linnet, bullfinch and reed bunting have also been doing well. However, better research is one of the main reasons for species being removed from the BAP list.

Dr Deborah Long, of Plantlife Scotland, said a plant called young helleborine had been removed from the list because it was no longer considered a separate species.

However it may eventually turn into one.

"Genetic research has shown that it isn't a species yet, but it is in the process of evolving into a new species," Dr Long said.

And she added: "A couple of species have come off [the list] because the only threat to them is climate change.

"What that means is the mechanism for saving those species is decreasing carbon emissions."

Other progress reported by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs included increased amount of specific, valuable habitats.

These included areas of lowland heath along with more lowland beech and yew woodland.

Farmers have also been increasingly leaving margins around fields of cereal crops, creating valuable wildlife corridors.

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