From The Independent daily in Britain:
Revealed: how nation’s countryside is losing hundreds of its species
By Michael McCarthy, Environment Editor
Published: 24 June 2006
The vanishing rate is scarcely believable.
Well over 200 British insect species have become extinct in the past 50 years, while some counties are seeing a species of wildflower disappear nearly every year.
Yet the astonishing scale of decline in Britain’s insects and plants, now becoming clear to specialists, is not yet remotely appreciated by the British public or the British Government.
It is a decline that is unrelenting.
Only yesterday came news that the stunning and very rare scarlet malachite beetle pictured on our front page – a priority species for conservation action- has suffered a massive fall in numbers at its main site in Essex, and may be heading for oblivion.
For unknown reasons, in the past three years its population has shrunk by more than 75 per cent in the wildflower meadows where it lives – which are themselves gravely threatened.
Today The Independent highlights the massive plunge in numbers of British insects and plants – two sectors which between them account for more than 95 per cent of our wildlife, yet which have lagged far behind birds and mammals, the so-called “charismatic megafauna”, in public support.
While creatures such as golden eagles and red squirrels benefit from huge, instinctive public sympathy and affection, and consequent conservation action on their behalf, many people still think of insects as pests and wild plants as weeds, without recognising their importance.
In reality, they are the crucial bases of the ecosystem which allows all life to function, and in Britain, they are in trouble as never before.
An Independent investigation has pulled together evidence from the scientific literature to show the true extent of the problems confronting them.
And today we also focus on two young, relatively small wildlife groups – Buglife, the Invertebrate Conservation Trust, and Plantlife, the Wild Plant Conservation Charity, which are battling to do something about it.
For every copy of the newspaper sold today, we will donate 20p to be split equally between them.
The money raised would be swallowed up by some of our larger conservation organisations, but for Buglife and Plantlife it can make a real difference in their efforts to halt the slide to extinction of so many species.
It is now clear that much of our less-publicised and less-visible wildlife is in real crisis.
But about 20 plant species have gone extinct, and for insects the figure is astonishing – at least 200 species have gone in the past half century alone, and many more are clearly on the way out unless drastic measures are taken.
Roger Key, English Nature’s leading insect specialist, said that the British insect species which have disappeared in the past 50 years include 88 beetles, 56 butterflies and moths, 20 bees, 17 fly species, 14 bugs and hoppers and 12 wasps.
“The true figure is almost certainly higher,” Dr Key said.
“There may well be things that have gone extinct that we do not know about.”
Even more striking is the decline in abundance of invertebrate species which are not yet extinct.
“Insect decline as a whole has been phenomenal in recent years,” Dr Key said.
“Numbers have gone down all around the country.
For example, people of my generation remember that driving through the countryside at night in the summer you would encounter a ‘snowstorm’ of moths. But that moth ‘snow’ is never seen now.”
But when one looks at local rather than national extinctions, the picture is much more severe.
Many British counties have lost 50 species or more.
The naturalist and writer Peter Marren pioneered this “horizontal” look at wildflower decline by analysing county floras (plant catalogues), and the work has been taken forward by Kevin Walker of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.
His surveys show that since 1900, Northamptonshire has seen 74 plant species go extinct; Sussex 69; Essex 68; Cambridgeshire 66; Leicestershire 60, and Bedfordshire and Durham 55 each.
“The list of county extinctions means in some cases one species goes extinct every year or so on average, while in the less damaged counties the rate is closer to one species every other year, or every three years,” Mr Marren said.
“So ‘one species per county per year’ is a bit of a catch-phrase, but it’s not far out.”