State of Nature in the UK /England – Hampshire & Isle of Wight Response

Declines revealed in the State of Nature report paint a worrying picture for the UK and our two counties are not exempt.

Hampshire & Isle of Wight have historically been bastions of a rich and diverse wildlife, but despite the best efforts of many, we believe the worrying UK picture of declines revealed in the State of Nature report is not very different for our two counties. One of the issues is that, despite being a very well-studied area, we simply lack the long term data allowing us to see trends in wildlife.

We are also painfully aware of ‘shifting baseline syndrome’ where one generation’s understanding of what is normal is defined by its own memory rather than what things were like in previous generations. Put another way, changes we’ve seen in our lifetime may just be the tail-end of a huge and rapid (in ecological terms) decline. Publications such as the Hampshire Bird Atlas make a notable contribution to piecing-together the jigsaw, however.

Here are a few snapshots of wildlife declines we are continuing to see locally, as well as some positive stories:

·         One of our most important habitats – saltmarsh which is found around the Solent – is continuing to be lost at an alarming rate; according to experts areas around Lymington appear to be on-track with predictions made 10 years ago which estimate that by the turn of the next century there will be a 75% loss of this precious habitat unless major coastal habitat creation projects are implemented. Saltmarsh is eroding due to rising sea-levels and coastal defences yet it is home to many species of plant and is a refuge for birds as well as locking away huge amounts of carbon and providing natural coastal defences.

·         The report highlights worrying national declines of butterflies and moths. In our two counties we have data for some species which have declined in their range as well as numbers recorded such as small pearl-bordered fritillary; for others, like the grayling butterfly, the New Forest remains a stronghold despite national declines. We do not know enough about our local moth numbers but overall numbers are expected to be continuing their downward trend which is a concern not just for their own sake but for the essential part they play in the food chain with birds and bats relying on good numbers.

·         The once abundant native oyster population was healthy enough to sustain a fishery. Despite efforts to reintroduce them, however, they are now severely depleted and the fishery has been stopped, likely due to overfishing and pollution as well as diseases. Oysters are true ecosystem engineers which stabilise our coast, clean the water, and create a habitat for fish and other invertebrates.

·         Numbers of Atlantic salmon spawning in our local chalk rivers continue their long and dramatic decline and are vulnerable to the effects of climate change and pollution. These fish depend on the right conditions at sea as well as clean and strong flows in the rivers of their birth. Warming of river water and a legacy of engineering, as well as run-off from farmland and urban areas, threaten this truly iconic species locally.

·         Whilst peregrine falcons and little egrets are continuing to do well in our two counties, with nature reserves playing a fundamentally important role, nightingales and breeding waders such as redshank and curlew are perilously close to the edge. The Island remains a stronghold for nightingales but in Hampshire declines are continuing due to habitat change, development as well as ongoing pressures during migration and in their wintering grounds. Breeding curlew in Hampshire are very vulnerable, in-line with the rest of the region, but the population in the New Forest, which numbers only tens of pairs, is holding-on despite concerns over recreational pressures and the impacts of climate change.

·         National declines in hedgehog numbers are well publicised but we simply do not know how this once abundant animal is doing locally. Without a systematic survey, we can only speculate that our local population is declining too due to widespread use of pesticides impacting their food, installation of enclosed garden fencing which prevents them from moving around their territory, and road mortality.

Hedgehog

© Tom Marshall

So what do we need to do about it? We are on the cusp of a very important transition for the Environment as we seek to set our own legislative course outside of the EU. The Wildlife Trusts and other conservation bodies are calling for a robust Environment Act which includes a commitment to a crucial Nature Recovery Network and funding packages for farmers which allow the landscape to be wilder – less intensively used - and more favourable for our declining wildlife. There should be no-go zones for new development and the impacts of all development should be fully managed so that there are not only no more losses, but a reversal in wildlife declines.

We need to act in a number of different ways if we are to do this, and it won’t be popular because there are habits we have all got used to which contribute to species loss. The intensive production of cheap food was highlighted as the number one cause of wildlife declined in the previous State of Nature report – there’s a challenge for us all in our consumer habits in this area. Tracking recovery will be an inexact science because we don’t know enough about wildlife populations - it may be too late for some species and we may be pleasantly surprised by the appearance of others.

But it only takes a conversation with an older person to remind us that not so long ago, wildlife was more part of our lives and this is continuing to slip away - probably for the first time in our human existence.