Bringing Britain's endangered wildlife back from the brink

The natterjack toad, petalworts and the sand lizard are some of Britain's most endangered species. To fight for their survival the UK's biggest conservation organisations are joining forces.

Discussing the weather is a national pastime for the Brits, and the talk among a group of volunteers gathered at Sefton Dunes to save the natterjack toad is no exception. 

Nature and Environment | 01.03.2019

It's a glorious winter day, and sunshine sparkles off the dunes, a short way from Liverpool on England's north-west coast — not a part of the world known for fine weather. 

Read more: Will Brexit be bad for biodiversity in Britain?

The team is digging out ponds to create suitable habitat for the rare toads. This time last year, the job would have meant shoveling through snow. Today, temperatures nudge north of 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit), on what has since been declared the UK's hottest winter day on record.

Nature and Environment | 08.11.2017

There are even reports of wildfires on moorlands in nearby Lancashire, and while humans might be basking in the unseasonal sunshine, it's not great for the toads.

"It couldn't be much worse really, it has been such a dry winter," says Andrew Hampson of Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (ARC), who is coordinating the 20-odd volunteers.

Volunteers dig out a pond to make Sefton Dunes on England’s northwest coast comfortable for natterjack toads

"There's rain due next week, and it would be great for us if it didn't stop for two weeks," Hampson says. The toads thrive best, he says, after a long, wet winter and a dry summer.

Collaborating for conservation

The volunteering day is part of the Gems in the Dunes project to boost numbers of the natterjack toad, as well as the nationally threatened sand lizard.

Gems in the Dunes is, in turn, part of a nationally coordinated project, Back From The Brink, which brings together seven of the UK's biggest conservation organizations to try and save 20 of England's most endangered wildlife species – and hopefully improve the fortunes of another 200.

It is the first time the likes of ARC, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), Buglife and Plantlife have collaborated so closely.

"There has been this growing effort of finding out where can the different organizations support each other," James Harding-Morris, one of Back From The Brink's national coordinators, told DW.

The initiative, he says, "is about how we could achieve more working together in terms of conservation than alone. Nothing has been attempted before on this scale."

Sefton Dunes, one of the largest undeveloped dune systems in the country, is a good example. Fiona Sunners, the Gems in the Dunes project manager, explains that as well as significant reptile and amphibian populations, it's home to rare insects such as the northern dune tiger beetle and plants like bryum mosses and petalwort.

Amphibians, mammals, plants and birds: Collaborative conservation takes into account the multitude of species in a single ecosystem

Working with specialists across different areas of conservation means they can expand their knowledge, cover more ground and better protect entire interdependent ecosystems, rather than focusing on any one species.

"Before, we would sort of do our own thing," Sunners told DW. "But now if we have an issue around petalwort we can just pick up the phone to Plantlife. And if I need to know something relating to the tiger beetle, I can speak to Buglife."

Unorthodox approaches

Certain species the project is trying to save, like the natterjack toad and sand lizard, are still common elsewhere in Europe, but increasingly rare in the UK.

Some in the top 20, such as the willow tit, have seen their populations collapse by more than 90 percent in the last 40 years. Then there are species that are being reintroduced to once-native habitats – like the pine marten in Northumberland.

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The pine marten, which had become extinct in the UK, is back

And others are exceedingly rare. "The Cornish path moss is found on two sites in Cornwall and nowhere else on earth," Harding Morris says. "The combined size of those patches is 0.61 meters squared, which is about two sheets of A4."

Back From The Brink launched in 2018 and is already yielding results. Last year, the chequered skipper butterfly was reintroduced to the county of Northamptonshire for the first time since 1948, and a project in Dorset revived one scarce plant population – with a surprising approach.

"In Dorset, we are working on this rare plant, marsh clubmoss," Trevor Dines, a botanist with Plantlife told DW. "Around 85 percent of the plant has disappeared from the area through development, including digging for coal."

Read more: How to stop an insect apocalypse

Conservation often involves stepping away from habitats and leaving nature be. But, Dines explains, some species actually benefit from disturbance – including clubmoss.

"So, we decided to drive a five-ton tractor back and forth over a colony of these plants, some 3,000," he says. There are now an estimated 12,000 specimens of the plant.

"It's not always a case of 'don't walk on the grass,'" Dines jokes.

The long view

Keeping the funds flowing for such diminutive species is a challenge. Back From The Brink has secured £7 million (€.8.1 million, $9.2 million) from the British government's National Lottery Heritage Fund to run for three years.

What happens after 2021 is an open question. Being able to show concrete results would boost the project's chances of future funding. But in conservation, they are far from a given.

Back From the Brink counts the fortunes of the chequered skipper butterfly among its success stories

The factors behind the long-term decline in insect, plant, bird and mammal numbers – habitat destruction, intensive farming and, of course, a changing climate – aren't going anywhere.

That glorious early sunshine isn't just putting pressure on the natterjack. As the climate changes, species are being forced out of their usual territory.

"Most species are on the move because of climate change, as some parts of their geographic ranges become climatically less suitable than they used to be," Chris Thomas, an evolutionary biologist with the University of York, told DW.

Read more: Species on the move

That also implies a more nuanced approach to conservation.

"We need to have a change in perspectives," Thomas says. "We should be perfectly happy when new species arrive… but not weep uncontrollably when a previous occupant of a particular nature reserve, for example, disappears – provided that the species as a whole is not endangered."

Still, at the end of a long day's work, the volunteers at Sefton Dunes are hoping that come the breeding season, the natterjack toads will find the new, smoothly contoured ponds attractive enough to keep the local population going.

But in case anyone's expecting instant results, Hampson strikes a cautionary note.

"In terms of natterjack toads, about eight to 10 years is really the time needed to assess how a population is changing," Hampson says. "For a healthy population you need a mix of sizes really, if they are all roughly the same size that could just indicate one good year of breeding. It does take time."

Human activity threatens thousands of species with extinction: Red List

Hope for mountain gorillas

Let's start with the good news. According to the latest Red List update, the number of mountain gorillas has significantly increased. The IUCN has said the number of animals has risen from about 680 a decade ago to more than 1,000 now. Intensive conservation action such as removal of snares has contributed to the rebound of the mountain gorilla, which inhabits the Congo region's jungles.

Human activity threatens thousands of species with extinction: Red List

Whales get a reprieve

Fin whales are now considered vulnerable rather than the more worrisome label of endangered. Their number has roughly doubled since the 1970s, to around 100,000 individuals, according to the IUCN. The situation of gray whales has also been upgraded — from critically endangered to endangered. Bans on commercial whaling have made a real impact on conservation.

Human activity threatens thousands of species with extinction: Red List

Dampened euphoria

Yet the IUCN also issued warnings about the consequences of overfishing. For example, 13 percent of grouper species worldwide and 9 percent of the approximately 450 fish species in Lake Malawi in eastern Africa are threatened with extinction. "Depleting fish stocks are a serious concern for food security, particularly for coastal communities in developing countries," the IUCN said.

Human activity threatens thousands of species with extinction: Red List

Flying fox being over-culled

In a previous Red List update, the Mauritian flying fox — an important pollinator — moved from vulnerable to endangered. The bat population fell by a whopping 50 percent from 2015 to 2016 due largely to government-implemented culling sparked by alleged damage to fruit crops. The megabat species also faces threats from deforestation, illegal hunting and an increase in cyclone activity.

Human activity threatens thousands of species with extinction: Red List

Invasive species threaten Australian wildlife

Invasive species are threatening a number of unique Australian reptiles. This grassland earless dragon has shifted from vulnerable to endangered. It often falls prey to feral cats, as well as changes to the intensity and frequency of bushfires. Like most native Australian wildlife, the reptile is adapted to environmental conditions that existed before European settlement.

Human activity threatens thousands of species with extinction: Red List

A precious species

Taking its name from "The Lord of the Rings" character Smeagol — aka Gollum — the precious stream toad is also on the list of species threatened with extinction. It is listed as vulnerable, largely as a result of expanding tourist resorts and complexes in its Genting Highlands habitat in Malaysia.

Human activity threatens thousands of species with extinction: Red List

Junk food parrots

The population of keas, New Zealand's Bird of the Year 2017, is declining rapidly, mostly due to tourists who keep feeding the curious parrots junk food. As a result, the birds get used to trying novel food and end up eating poison bait meant to control pests such as rats, stoats, or possums, which destroy up to 60 percent of the birds' nests each year. You can see the connection, can't you?

Human activity threatens thousands of species with extinction: Red List

No sand eel, no kittiwake

Black-legged kittiwakes rely on certain key prey, like sand eels. But a lack of eels to eat means breeding colonies in the North Atlantic and Pacific are struggling to feed their chicks. Globally, the species is thought to have declined by around 40 percent since the 1970s. The main cause is overfishing and alterations in the ocean due to climate change.

Human activity threatens thousands of species with extinction: Red List

Fewer snowy owls than assumed

The snowy owl is vulnerable, with recent population estimates much lower than previously thought. Climate change has hit the iconic Arctic bird hard, as it has increased snowmelt and reduced the availability of rodent prey. A quarter of bird species reassessed in the Red List, including the snowy owl, have become more endangered.

Human activity threatens thousands of species with extinction: Red List

Reebok namesake in danger

Five species of African antelopes — of which four were previously assessed as least concern — have been declining drastically as a result of poaching, habitat degradation and competition with domestic livestock. One of these is the gray rhebok, for which the Reebok sports brand is named.

Human activity threatens thousands of species with extinction: Red List

World's largest antelope in trouble

The world's largest antelope, the giant eland — previously assessed as least concern — is also vulnerable. Its estimated global population is between 12,000 and 14,000 at most, with fewer than 10,000 mature animals. This species is declining due to poaching for bushmeat, human encroachment into protected areas and expansion of agriculture and livestock grazing.