Reflection in 2020: Looking Back At Conservation Efforts Over the Last Decade
Updated: Jul 9
In October 2010, at the tenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties in Nagoya, the Convention on Biological Diversity set out a Strategic Plan for Biodiversity. This included the Aichi Biodiversity Targets: five strategic goals based around tackling biodiversity loss and unsustainability, each containing a set of targets to be achieved by 2020. The governments of 170 regions have since submitted NBSAPs, promising to develop strategies for conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, and to integrate these into existing policies across sectors. We are now well into what has already been a turbulent year 2020, and despite the interruption of a global pandemic, we must now ask: how are we doing?
The full answer to this question of course requires a lot of work: meticulous analysis of primary research conducted across different levels of biodiversity, geographical regions and ecosystems over the last ten years; comparison of this data with previous findings; statistical analysis; identification of trends, and more. This is best left to the experts, and reports such as State of Nature (a multi-organisational partnership, UK-wide), State of the World’s Birds, The Living Planet Report and others do a fantastic job of this.
Large scale data analyses such as these are crucial in order for governments and organisations to assess and improve their environmental policies in line with biodiversity targets. However, sharing individual stories about wildlife and its conservation also plays a huge part in helping us to achieve such goals. Raising public awareness of the importance of biodiversity is instrumental as it shapes consumer behaviour, drives public campaigns and puts pressure on those in power to protect natural environments and make transparent, environmentally conscientious decisions. In the UK, we have seen some positive legislative changes in the last decade: protection of an additional 7.4 million hectares of land and sea in five years ; broad scale control of air pollutants as part of DEFRA’s new clean air strategy; cross compliance obligations for organisations to protect watercourses from agricultural pollution. In an upwards spiral, such improvements in health and protection of natural environments boosts success of individual conservation efforts, resulting in more positive stories which provide motivation and momentum to the movement.
In order to try and reach targets such as “improve the status of biodiversity by safeguarding ecosystems, species and genetic diversity” conservationists have implemented strategies such as the ‘Three Rs’: Reintroduction, Recovery and Rewilding. Whilst these are only a few of many important tools used in biodiversity conservation, they provide focus and publishable results which are often clear-cut successes or failures. Here in the UK, there have been some exciting and successful projects involving the Three Rs in the last decade, and we’ve put together some of the biggest stories as an inspirational reminder of what can be achieved when we give nature a helping hand.
Eurasian beavers (Castor fiber), once widespread in the UK, were driven to extinction in the 16th Century, largely as a result of hunting by humans. Renowned for chewing up trees and creating dams, beavers are in fact labelled ‘ecosystem engineers’ due to the significant effect they have on the physical landscape of their habitat. This in turn has a ripple effect into the ecosystem which can encourage local biodiversity and may even help us with protection against problems such as flooding. In Scotland, beavers have been living in the wild since 2006, and in England the first licensed beaver reintroduction project was initiated in 2015 by the Devon Wildlife Trust and others. Five years later, at the conclusion of the trial period, the results are out. The population of beavers has increased, public support has been good, new wetland habitat has been created, and positive effects have been observed on local biodiversity. Now, there are projects up and running in Kent, Wales and Cornwall, with plans for Derbyshire, Dorset, Hampshire and Sussex being hatched and taking their first steps. If these projects are successful, this could be a great conservation success story for the UK; restoring a native species and bringing with it benefits to humans and wildlife alike.
Another exciting species which has recently returned to the UK is the White-tailed Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla). Birds of prey have unfortunately been subjected to high levels of deliberate persecution in this country and across the world, and the white-tailed eagle was eradicated from Britain by such means by the early 1900s. Apex predators such as the white-tailed eagle are important members of our wild society as they maintain balance within food chains, are indicator species for ecosystem health and act as flagship species to promote conservation on a wider scale. In Scotland, a re-introduction project was initiated by the predecessor to Scottish Natural Heritage in 1975, and this has been a huge success. Last year, an exciting new project was launched by the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation and Forestry Commission England, in which six birds were translocated to the Isle of Wight in the South of England. Unfortunately, one of these died in October and another has since gone missing. The four remaining birds, however, have been travelling long distances all over the UK, reaching as far as the North York Moors over 300 miles away. Provided these animals remain out of harm’s way, it’s hoped that they will breed by 2024 and begin to create a stable population, bringing not only ecological but economic benefits to this area of the country, such as an increase in tourism.
Thanks to conservation efforts in the UK over the last decade and indeed prior to this, we have recently seen encouraging recovery in some aspects of British wildlife and ecosystem health. Freshwater habitats, for example, have historically been heavily exploited, polluted and modified by humans, causing many of them to be considered ‘dead’ by the early 20th
Century. Since then, factors such as reductions in industrial processes; stricter legislation; improvements in infrastructure investment, management and water treatment efficiency have led to gradual improvement of water quality. In 1990, environmental sectors of UK governments launched long term sampling projects to investigate the health of rivers across the UK. At the end of 2009, they had found increases in abundance of sensitive taxa and numbers of species present within families, and particular improvements in the worst affected areas e.g. urban areas and lowlands of the
South and East.
Aside from humans, one British mammal that has benefited from this improvement of our freshwater habitats is the Eurasian Otter (Lutra lutra). Around the middle of the last century, otter numbers began to decline severely in the UK, and this decline has been linked to concentrations of unpleasant chemical pollutants in rivers such as organophosphates and
Rewilding is a relatively modern concept in conservation and, although still a subject of much controversy, in the last decade it has certainly seen a considerable increase in attention across multiple industries. One particular such initiative which has received much praise and produced fascinating results is the Knepp Estate rewilding project in West Sussex. In 2010, it received Higher Level Stewardship funding by the government and has since won three awards for making positive contributions to nature and the environment. Simply by allowing nature to take its course (aside from population control of grazing animals such as deer and cattle), Knepp is now home to critically endangered species such as turtle doves and nightingales, as well as being a hot-spot for rare species such as the purple emperor butterfly. Many other rare and common species are visiting or indeed breeding at the site, and just this spring, a pair of white storks bred successfully for the first time in hundreds of years in the UK. This is clear and encouraging proof that biodiversity recovery and richness can be improved swiftly even by taking a ‘passive’ approach and leaving areas to grow as naturally as possible. Of course, we need to maintain a balance between this and important industries such as agriculture, but perhaps incorporation of these kinds of rewilding concepts into development and land management could bring widespread biodiversity benefits to the UK and indeed countries across the world.
We can see that the last decade has produced some positive results for wildlife and the environment. So does that mean we can sit back and relax? Not necessarily. Let’s take a look at our Areas and Sites of Special Scientific Interest, which are some of the most important areas for wildlife in the UK. In 2005, only 67 % of these were in favourable or recovering condition, but by 2014 this statistic increased promisingly to 86 %. By 2019, however, this dropped down to 85 %, which is only a small decrease but may be an indication that there are barriers limiting further progress.
Back to the Aichi targets mentioned at the beginning of this article, in 2019 the State of Nature report showed that the UK was on track to meet only 5 out of 20 targets, with 14 others seeing improvement but not enough to be met by the deadline, which is this year. The report also identified that there is still lots that needs to be done. Thankfully, each and every person has it in their power to make a change, no matter how big or small, that can contribute to improving the health of global biodiversity. If this is something you’re interested but aren’t sure where to start, below are listed a few ideas and resources to help you.
The “Get Involved” sections of The Wildlife Trusts and RSPB websites are excellent places to find a huge variety of things you can do to contribute – there’s something for everyone here:
Passionate about beaver reintroduction projects? So are the Beaver Trust, and they want your help:
Want to help invertebrates? Check out the websites of top organisations such as Buglife, the British Dragonfly Society, Butterfly Conservation, and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust:
Interested in rewilding and want to get involved? Charities and initiatives like Rewilding Britain, Heal Rewilding and Scotland Big Picture need your help:
This is by no means an exhaustive list and only covers UK organisations; if you’re interested in conservation in a different region there are projects available and in need of your support for almost anything you can think of. If not, why not create your own blog or group to raise awareness?
Brazier, R. et al (2020): River Otter Beaver Trial: Science and Evidence Report
Environment Agency, Northern Ireland Environment Agency, Scottish Environment Protection Agency (2010): Biological river water quality: 1990 to 2009.
Hayhow, D. et al (2019): State of Nature Report, The State of Nature partnership.
Joint Nature Conservation Committee (2018):England Otter Survey Database.
Joint Nature Conservation Committee (2019): UKBI - C1. Protected areas
People's Trust for Endangered Species (2020): Otter [Web Page]