Our wildlife is in ‘crisis’ – ‘56% of UK species are in decline’ and ‘165 species are considered Critically Endangered in Great Britain’

Our wildlife is in ‘crisis’ according to a new report launched this month entitled the State of Nature, which brings together data and expertise from over 50 organisations (including BTO, RSPB, WWF, ZSL, National Trust, Woodland Trust, Butterfly Conservation et al).
Britain’s wildlife is in ‘crisis’ as ‘56% of UK species are in decline’ and ‘165 species are considered Critically Endangered in Great Britain’ – these, according to the report, are the ‘most likely’ species to go extinct and some of the hardest hit are well-known and popular, such as hedgehogs and turtle doves.

Sir David Attenborough, writing in a foreword to the report, sets the scene: ‘Escalating pressures, such as climate change and modern land management, mean that we continue to lose the precious wildlife that enriches our lives and is essential to the health and well-being of those who live in the UK. Our wonderful nature is in serious trouble and it needs our help as never before.’

The State of Nature report pools the data, expertise and local knowledge from more than 50 nature conservation and research organisations and is a beneficiary of much of the 7,500,000 volunteer hours that go into monitoring the UK’s nature every year.

‘Volunteers monitored over 9,670 species from birds to butterflies, plants to pondlife, spiders to snails,’ reports the BTO. The cutting edge overview also covers UKs seas, British Antarctic and British Indian Ocean Territories and other Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories.

What’s different about this news is that the species in decline are here in the UK – they’re not in Africa or Asia. They’re in our gardens. (Or not in our gardens as the case may eventually, and sadly, be). With regret, we’re used to reading about the grim outlook for elephants (and other wonderful beasts) and there’s little or no doubt that the illegal trade in ivory is partly responsible for their plummeting numbers; however, there are other reasons for their demise such as the loss of habitat and the way land is managed. Our native wildlife may not suffer the oppression of illegal hunting but it does share the common ground of the two most important factors that affect the state of nature here in the UK, and elsewhere overseas, these being agriculture and climate change.

Corn Field
With around 75% of the UK in the hands of intensive food production, the impact of agriculture on wildlife and the potential for its impact on species populations is there for all to see. There are wildlife-friendly farming schemes out there, to encourage the conservation of wildlife including farmland birds. However, if the 7,500,000 volunteer hours are anything to go by, it would seem that farmers need more scientific assistance, measurement and support to give them the resources to put the necessary improvements in place which are capable of achieving the giant improvements required today.

The NFU’s response to the State of Nature Report is mixed. NFU Vice President Guy Smith said: ‘As the report acknowledges, agricultural policies of the past did focus on maximising food production resulting in the intensification of farming in the years after World War II. However, since the early 1990s, in terms of inputs and in terms of numbers of livestock and area of crops grown British agriculture has not intensified – in fact, it’s the reverse.’ Mr Smith was quick to point out that there are other causes cited in the report, ‘such as urbanisation, climate change or increasing predator pressure need greater attention.’

Climate change is perplexing and the way to tackle it divides the greatest of minds.

Urbanisation – on the other hand – is much more tangible and therefore easier to grasp. We continue to unsympathetically encroach on nature until it’s forced to retreat beyond its usual acceptable limits of geography and therefore has no choice but to look elsewhere for food, shelter and a place to breed. Some may go on to thrive, others won’t.

It’s pleasing to see how many partnerships are behind the report. I sometimes feel that one or two wildlife charities – who shall remain nameless – try to own the nation’s nature. And that’s why I’m pleased that this is open source (available to all) as wildlife is ‘free living’ and our aim should be to protect its right to roam.

It can only be good that so many wildlife charities are pooling their resources as the last headline any nature lover wants to read is that ‘Nature is faring worse in the UK than in most other countries.’ In point of fact, it’s ranked 189 out of 218 countries on the ‘Biodiversity Intactness Index.’ I’m not entirely sure what that is, but I don’t think it’s good!

By Simon H King
PS. Start helping nature by feeding the wild birds today.
Maxwell Knight and The Frightened Face of Nature

M’s (Maxwell Knight) Spectre: The Frightened Face of Nature

M’s (Maxwell Knight) Spectre: The Frightened Face of Nature

Copyright: See acknowledgements

During the 1960’s Maxwell Knight “M” was working on a manuscript entitled The Frightened Face of Nature, snatching brief moments to record his thoughts on how man had treated nature so unfairly for the first fifty years of the twentieth century. The manuscript documented Knight’s greatest fears that, time was running out for nature and that its greatest threat was man’s destructive revolution and the reverse of evolution.

The manuscript was kept under lock and key and it remained a secret until 2015 when the (hitherto unpublished) manuscript was discovered inside M’s personal filing cabinet, which had been bequeathed to a family friend. The manuscript will be updated and released as a book to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Maxwell Knight’s death in 1968 and it is hoped that it will shine a spotlight on the unacceptable way man treats nature.

Maxwell Knight's filing cabinet
Maxwell Knight’s filing cabinet

Why this book matters more after fifty years:

This was a man who had helped defeat the Nazis and their fifth column British sympathisers, sniffed out a Communist rat in MI5 and to any herpetologist who was alive in the 1950s or 1960s the name of Maxwell Knight needs no introduction, but for all others: he was founder member of The British Herpetological Society, he was a well-known BBC broadcaster and writer who appeared in and hosted Nature Parliament, Country Questions and Naturalist. He had a special penchant for reptiles and amphibians. Many of today’s leading naturalists owe much to the influence of Maxwell Knight and the sound and practical advice which he so skilfully conveyed.

Copyright: See acknowledgements

Copyright: Simon H King

Previous books and articles on Maxwell Knight have focused on another, undeniably more headline grabbing, side of his life and character; revealing that Knight played a vital role in MI5 in the Second World War and was also one of Ian Fleming’s inspirations for James Bond’s unflappable “M”, so skilfully played initially by the great Bernard Lee.

Something (or someone) stopped him, however, from driving his manuscript to be published… Was it the negative attention Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring received? Were Knight’s publishers afraid to publish – or did they just feel these were the rantings of an “amateur” naturalist?

Whatever the reason was behind “M” not publishing The Frightened Face of Nature it was written for such a time as this; when there are more and more of us ready to stare down the barrel of the truth that, we are literally frightening the life out of nature.

Today, many of his fears have sadly become our reality:

In just forty years between 1970 and 2010 the global Living Planet Index (LPI), which measures more than 10,000 vertebrate populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish, has declined by 52 per cent. The World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) and Zoological Society of London’s (ZSL) LPI report state that “Habitat loss and degradation, and exploitation through hunting and fishing (intentionally for food or sport, or accidentally, for example as by-catch) are the primary causes of decline.”

Maxwell Knight’s hope was that the progress “at any cost” approach would change – and that, industrialised nations would stop playing the short-term nature unfriendly game of habitat destruction so often carried out in the name of progress. 

Did you know Maxwell Knight? 

We are planning a book about Maxwell Knight, with particular reference to his contributions to natural history in the late 1940s and 1950s until his death in 1968.

In the early 1960s Maxwell Knight began to think about a new, for him rather different, book. He was becoming aware of the marked environmental and social changes that had taken place in Britain and overseas since 1900 (the year of his birth) and felt that there was a need to draw these to the attention of the public. 

We would like to hear from people who might have known Maxwell Knight (MK) or been influenced by him and wonder if you would be willing to contact us – using the form below – and confirm that you are willing, in due course, to give us more details. We will then contact you again later this year or early in 2017.

Thank you in advance

Your information will not appear on this blog (or in the book) without your approval.

Living Planet Index – courtesy of WWF/ZSL/GFN

In reproducing portraits of the late Major Maxwell Knight, we pay tribute to his family, not only for giving us the pictures but also for their encouragement and hospitality in years gone by…

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