That wildlife is in trouble all around the globe is old news. Less well known is the fact that the UK is a country suffering among the most serious declines in plant and animal populations. Britain is now one of the most wildlife-depleted countries in the world and scientific studies have shown that more than 50% of British species have declined substantially over the past 50 years. This book identifies the ongoing increase in the human population as the primary cause of wildlife declines in the UK.
There are several proximal causes of wildlife declines in the UK, among which infrastructure expansion and intensive agriculture are demonstrably the most significant. Urban sprawl eats up landscape to satisfy the need for more housing, Demand is accelerating and some19% of all urban housing present in 2017 was built within the preceding 25 years. Inevitably there has been a concomitant increase in the transport network. To accommodate these developments nominally protected areas such as sites of special scientific interest have been damaged or destroyed. Precious habitats including chalk grassland and lowland heaths have gone under concrete, taking with them rare species such as sand lizards. An ever increasing human population underpins these damaging impacts on wildlife.
Most important in its negative consequences for wildlife has been the postwar intensification of agriculture. In a bid to provide food security for British people, farmers have ploughed up meadows, destroyed hedges and ponds, and applied enormous quantities of artificial fertilisers and pesticides. This effort has not made the UK self-sufficient in food production, an impossible dream, but has decimated wildlife in the wider countryside. Insect populations have plummeted as have farmland birds and many wild plants. Again the burgeoning human population has been the primary mover of this disaster in attempts to provide ever more food.
Other factors impacting wildlife include direct persecution, disturbance, disease and climate change at least some of which also relate to the human population size. Drawing comparisons across similar west European countries, declines of the most widely studied animal groups, birds and amphibians, correlate significantly with human population density.
50 years ago human population growth was an issue taken seriously by conservationists and politicians alike. Regrettably and for various reasons concern about this subject dwindled and now it rarely features on the agenda of wildlife conservationists, whether statutory bodies such as Natural England or major non-government organisations such as the RSPB. This situation needs to change and interest in population pressure as the primary cause of wildlife declines must be resurrected if serious, long-term recovery of UK wildlife is ever to happen.
Author: Trevor J. C. Beebee