Which animals in the UK are at risk of extinction?
When we talk of endangered animals, it is very easy to conjure up images of the majestic tiger, the mighty Asian elephant or the beautiful blue whale - endangered species that dominate nature documentaries and conservation campaigns - but we often forget the animals on our very own shores that have succumbed to the same ill-fate. The destruction of natural habitat, the introduction of alien invasive species and industrialisation have all contributed to the decline of some of Britain’s native wildlife.
The UK’s wildlife population has plummeted by an average of 60% since 1970. According to the State of Nature report by the National Biodiversity Network Trust, the UK has lost one in six animals, birds, fish and plants. It is estimated that one quarter of Britain’s mammals and nearly half of all birds are at risk of extinction. We take a look at some of those animals that could face extinction if we do not act today.
Found on cliff sides across the UK, and perhaps the most charming seabird, the puffin is one of the species most at risk of extinction as well as being one of the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Rising sea temperatures have caused the population of their main food source, the sandeels (an eel-like fish) to drop dramatically. A lack of alternative food options means the puffins need to travel much further to feed their chicks, which can lead to them dying before they’re old enough to leave the nest.
We are all familiar with friendly hedgehogs from our favourite childhood stories and road safety campaigns, but their numbers have dwindled substantially. In the 1950s, there were 50 million hedgehogs yet in 2019 there were only 1 million. The alarming decrease is mainly due to the loss of habitat and food. Mass farming has led to the cull of hedgerow and trees, and the use of pesticides has killed off their main food source of insects and vertebrates. Even the construction of roads, walls, fences and our neatly kept gardens have removed potential spaces where hedgehogs can nest.
The red squirrel
While there are no shortages of squirrels in Britain, the ones you have probably seen are the now dominant grey squirrel. The native red squirrel has sadly gone into decline, with the ratio of red squirrels to grey currently standing around 140,000 to 2.5 million. The red squirrel has lived in the UK for the last 10,000 years but has been threatened since the Victorians brought over the grey squirrel from North America in the 19th century. While the grey squirrels carries and is unaffected by the disease Parapoxvirus, it kills off its red counterpart. Grey squirrels are also more likely to eat acorns before they ripen, further reducing the food supply red squirrels have access to. The only way to preserve the red squirrel population is to keep them away from the grey ones; without conservation, red squirrels could become extinct in 10 years’ time.
Contrary to the name, hazel dormice are actually mammals that are found mainly in southern England and southern Wales. These tiny nocturnal creatures are already extinct in 17 counties in England. The cull and over-management of woodlands and hedgerows, extreme weather, and expanding human population has led to the reduction of the hazel dormice population by over 50% since 2000.
Found in the New Forest and known for their high-pitched singing, the cicada are extremely endangered, so much so, they haven’t even been seen for over two decades. The pitch they emit is so high that it is even beyond the limits of human hearing. Their population has been affected by unseasonal weather, a reduction in habitats and plants in which they lay their eggs, and farm animals that trample across their territory leaving them exposed to predators like ground beetles.
The Scottish wildcat, found in the pockets of the Highlands, might look like your average household tabby but its muscular build, dense fur coat and temperament make it very different to your neighbourhood cat. However, cross-breeding with domestic cats have dwindled the purebred wildcat numbers down to just 30, putting them on the brink of genetic extinction. Researchers from the Wildgenes Lab at Edinburgh Zoo studied the DNA of almost 300 wildcats and found that all those were part of the same hybrid gene pool as domestic animals. The key to reviving purebred Scottish numbers will be in the conservation programmes involving the 100 wildcats currently in sanctuaries across the UK.
Without serious intervention and conservation, we could see native British wildlife go into extinction in our lifetime. There are efforts underway by a number of conservation groups such as The Wildlife Trusts to ensure endangered animals numbers are revived. There are also things we can do to help protect endangered species.
To find out more about what you can do to help Britain’s species head to their website, or you can donate directly to them and other local wildlife trusts through the Toucan app.