It feels like we are always hearing about the decline of this species or the loss of that habitat. This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise.
The landmark State of Nature report published in 2013 by 25 wildlife organisations, ranging from the RSPB to Buglife, revealed that the UK was losing wildlife at a worrying rate.
The report found that 60% of the 3,000 or so animal and plant species studied had declined over the past 50 years, and that one in ten of all species assessed was under threat of disappearing completely. Habitats were equally in trouble.
By creating new woodland, we were developing corridors between existing mature and ancient woods, allowing wildlife species to move out and colonise new habitats
Then, in 2015, the biggest survey of trends in British biodiversity ever undertaken was published in the journal Nature Communications by the University of Reading and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. It warns that British wildlife is in the most perilous state recorded in the past 40 years.
These reports are, of course, alarming. Species are continually being added to red lists and becoming priorities for conservation concern, not just in the UK, but all over the world.
Yet the picture isn’t always gloomy, because with the help of conservationists and armies of dedicated volunteers, it appears nature can fight back and have its victories.
Take the Woodland Trust’s Heartwood Forest near St Albans for example. In this extraordinary and special place – an 850 acre site of former farmland in London’s green belt – wildlife is actually thriving, and that is thanks to tens of thousands of volunteers who have planted over half a million trees in the past six years.
“Heartwood is the largest continuous woodland in England and has really set the standard for future projects,” says site manager Louise Neicho. It’s an ambitious project which, it is hoped, will showcase the beneficial effects of tree planting.
Made up of native species such as oak, hornbeam, birch and willow, Heartwood contains pockets of ancient woodland – an incredibly precious and irreplaceable habitat – where the unique soil and veteran trees provide one of the country’s most important spaces for wildlife and native species.
Prior to the new planting, explains Neicho, this ancient woodland was a series of islands in a sea of intensively farmed arable land. “By creating new woodland, we were developing corridors between existing mature and ancient woods, allowing wildlife species to move out and colonise new habitats.”
Since planting began, the Woodland Trust volunteers have been carefully monitoring the wildlife, from small mammals and birds to reptiles, invertebrates and fungi. And the results have been astonishing to say the least: numbers for some species have more than doubled and the planting has even attracted new species to the woodland.
For many species, trends have been opposite to the UK norm. For example, linnet sightings increased by 250%, compared to the overall UK population which has declined by 57% in recent years. Likewise, skylarks increased by 75%, while nationally they are declining.
Pairs of breeding birds such as blackcaps, whitethroats and yellowhammers almost doubled, and the number of butterflies counted increased by 160%, from just over 1,000 to more than 3,000.
The monitoring is particularly important because the presence of short-eared owls and barn owls on site can be connected to the numbers of small mammals. Survey results showed that species such as wood mice and bank voles were getting all the food and cover they needed to survive, and indeed thrive, and therefore attract these predators.
What’s really exciting, according to Neicho, is that though Heartwood hadn’t had barn owls nesting for 10 years, it now has several pairs. And of the 10 pairs of short-eared owls known to be in Hertfordshire, half are found here.
“We’re getting an in-depth look at how the food chain works at Heartwood, and can develop a better understanding about how wildlife interacts with factors such as the climate,” she said.
As if these increasing numbers weren’t exciting enough, there are also reports of new species that have been attracted to Heartwood. Wasp spiders were seen in 2015 for the first time and the great grey shrike, a rare winter visitor to the UK , has also been spotted in the forest.
The positive impact the Heartwood Forest project has had on wildlife is already impressive, and there’s even more to come, with another 100,000 trees to be planted in the coming years. As the trees grow and mature they’ll be able to support a wider variety of species.
“Given the figures we’ve collected thus far,” says Neicho, “we’d expect wildlife numbers to continue to grow and thrive.”
Eastern Moors Partnership
And it’s not just woodland and forests where things are looking up for nature.
Since the National Trust and Royal Society for the Protection of Birds took over the management of Eastern Moors for the Peak District National Park Authority five years ago, it has become a haven for threatened species.
The moors are a diverse mix of heather moorland, acid grassland, blanket bog and woodland and are appreciated by many people and, of course, by wildlife.
According to Rachel Bennett, project manager for the Eastern Moors Partnership, it is a rich historic landscape and a special site for wildlife conservation, public enjoyment and contribution to the surrounding economy.
“Healthy habitats,” she says, “are vital to people and wildlife and the area is managed in a way that enhances both recreation and access, whilst ensuring healthy populations of amazing wildlife thrive in a sustainable upland.”
A survey of breeding birds at Eastern Moors has shown the site is bucking national trends with increases in a number of upland species
And just like Heartwood Forest, wildlife monitoring is showing some spectacularly good results.
“A survey of breeding birds at Eastern Moors has shown the site is bucking national trends with increases in a number of upland species, including whinchat, curlew and skylarks,” Bennett told BBC Earth.
In fact the number of whinchats – small, orange-crested birds that visit from Africa every summer to breed – has more than doubled since 2010 to 60 pairs. It’s equally good news for the curlew, a wading bird with a distinctive long, curved bill. These results are set against drastic national declines, with both species having recently been added to the red list of high conservation concern.
As at Heartwood, skylarks are on the up at Eastern Moors where numbers recorded in 2015 have almost tripled to 200 pairs. The moors are also becoming a hotspot for adders, red deer, short-eared owls and water voles.
The success of the birds, says Bennett, is due to a gradual reduction in overall grazing and a shift towards the use of cattle on the land. When cattle graze they eat tough grasses and other vegetation. This in turn creates a varied habitat, providing a range of potential nest sites and food sources.
What these two sites demonstrate so remarkably is that when our open spaces and reserves are sensitively managed, wildlife does well and numbers can rise even against a trend of national declines.
For the past 30 years European Union Nature Directives have provided the highest level of protection to vulnerable habitats and species. If the laws protecting our precious habitats and species are weakened, warns Bennett, future generations may be denied the opportunity to enjoy the wildlife that many of us take for granted.
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Jeremy Coles is a staff writer for BBC Earth. He is @jpcoles on Twitter.