Nearly half of Britain’s natural biodiversity has disappeared over the centuries, with agriculture and urban sprawl triggered by the industrial and agricultural revolutions blamed as the main factors in this loss.
This is the shock of a study by researchers at London’s Natural History Museum, which has revealed that Britain is one of the worst rated nations in the world in the extent to which its ecosystems have retained their natural animals and plants.
“Britain has lost more of its natural biodiversity than almost anywhere else in Western Europe, most of all the G7 nations and more than many other nations such as China,” said Professor Andy Purvis, of the museum’s life science department. “It’s very striking – and worrying.”
The work of Purvis and his team has been announced as negotiators prepare to begin online discussions for the UN Biodiversity Conference (Cop15) this week. These talks will then be followed by an international summit on biodiversity in April in Kunming, China. Its goal will be to set firm targets that would halt the loss of wildlife and the deterioration of habitats that threaten to reach crisis levels across the planet in the near future.
To help these negotiations, the Purvis team has developed a Biodiversity Inactivity Index (BII) that assesses nations for how well their ecosystems have preserved their natural diversity of animals, plants and fungi. This index revealed that biodiversity in developing countries tends to be at a high level but often declines rapidly. In contrast, biodiversity has been stable in large parts of the developed world for the last 20 years, but has been at a low level throughout this period – with the UK shown near the bottom of this list.
“Our analyzes found that the UK was consistently in the bottom 10% of nations in terms of biodiversity intact,” said Drs. Adriana De Palma, senior researcher at the museum.
As for the cause of Britain’s dismal status in the world biodiversity league, the team points out that agricultural and industrial revolutions started in Britain.
“Basically, it triggered the mechanized destruction of nature to convert it into goods of profit,” Purvis said. “As a result, Britain has been among the most impoverished countries in the world for a long time.”
Throughout the country, forests and grasslands have been uprooted and fields with individual crops planted in their place. Over two-thirds of the UK is now used for agriculture, and 8% has been built on, leaving little room for nature — although this is not a universal picture.
The index reveals — not surprisingly — that in remote areas of northern England, Scotland and Wales, biodiversity is more intact than in areas such as The south east of England where agriculture tends to be more intense and where there are more people and more towns and cities.
The world’s total biodiversity intact is estimated at 75%, which is significantly lower than the 90% average considered a safe limit to ensure that the planet does not collapse in an ecological recession that could result in widespread hunger.
On this scale, the UK index value was 53%. Not surprisingly, this has allowed dozens of species to soar on the brink of extinction. They include the Scottish wildcat and the pine marten, the nightingale toad, the turtle dove and insects like the cicada. Even the existence of the once ubiquitous hedgehog is threatened. The decline is also not limited to animals: plant species, fungi and soil microorganisms have also suffered.
Researchers believe that improving its biodiversity assessment would be a relatively straightforward process for the UK. However, they warn that this should not be done by “offshoring” – letting developing countries take on the burden of delivering our goods and growing our food, while at the same time suffering the depletion of their own wildlife to ease the pressure on our biodiversity.
“Many people consider biodiversity to be a luxury-like lovely to have, charismatic, beautiful species. They are good for the soul, but no more than that, these people argue, ”Purvis said.
‘But biodiversity is so much more than that. It is the engine that produces everything we consume. You can think of it as a wild supermarket giving us food and other gifts without us doing anything. The fact that we have several different varieties of apples, tomatoes and other foods depends on biodiversity – and when it is reduced, we lose. ”
The Natural History Museum has opened the data for the Biodiversity Intactness Index through that Biodiversity Trends Explorer, making this data easy to find, understand, visualize, filter and download for anyone who wants to use it.