While no one would claim that the United Kingdom is a global biodiversity hotspot, there is no denying its enormous importance from a conservation perspective, not least in terms of its symbolic value. To dwell on the UK’s relatively impoverished native fauna and flora and its lack of endemic or globally threatened species would be to miss the point.
That said, the threats to British wildlife are very real. Although around 28% of the UK’s land and 17% of its territorial waters are designated as protected areas, much of the countryside has already been altered over the centuries by agriculture, forest clearance and the spread of urbanisation.
A publication entitled State of Nature 2016 estimates that, across the UK, 56% of species declined between 1970 and 2013, while 15% out of around 8,000 species assessed were found to be extinct or threatened with extinction in Britain. The decline in abundance of many once common species (such as sparrows) is particularly marked.
In the face of these potentially depressing statistics, it might be tempting to view UK biodiversity conservation as a lost cause or a low priority, but there is ample evidence to the contrary. Myriad threats to the country’s remaining natural heritage are being tackled head on through active habitat protection, large-scale membership and pressure groups, and targeted restoration of habitats and species.
Crucially, many of the species that still survive in the UK, such as the red squirrel, otter, hedgehog, water vole, British bluebell and swallowtail butterfly, are held in great affection by the public and have achieved almost iconic status. The UK’s remaining natural habitats – which range from ancient woodland to rugged mountains and cold-water reefs – are enjoyed by millions of people and greatly valued not only as wildlife refuges but also as places for recreation, relaxation and reconnection with nature.