Despite the latest science and global policy frameworks showing the scale of the nature and climate crisis, hope remains with recent conservation work giving optimism for the future.
2023 saw the release of the latest State of Nature report which highlighted declines in many of the UK’s plants and animals, with nearly one in six of the more than ten thousand species assessed (16%) at risk of being lost from Great Britain. The latest global climate meeting, COP28 in Dubai, ultimately fell short of what is needed to deliver the scale of global action required to address the climate and biodiversity crises. However, despite these stark reminders of the scale of the nature and climate crises there are still reasons to be optimistic.
The RSPB’s chief executive, Beccy Speight said “Science such as the State of Nature report shows us just how much trouble our wildlife is in and with global agreements such as the recent COP 28 delivering mixed results, it can be easy to feel despair for the future of our planet and the nature and places that we love.
“But we do know that conservation works and we know how to restore ecosystems and save species. Scale, collaboration and the urgency of our response are what matter now. We need to move far faster as a society towards nature-friendly land and sea use, otherwise the UK’s nature and wider environment will continue to decline and degrade, with huge implications for our own way of life. It’s only through working together that we can help nature recover. Our wildlife and climate simply can’t wait.
“So, to end the year on a note of positivity, here are five conservation success stories from 2023. Five reasons to be optimistic for the future of our amazing planet.”
Beavers return to the bonnie, bonnie banks
Beavers returned to Loch Lomond after decades of hard work by scientists, policy makers and conservationists. The Beavers were moved to the national park from an area where they were causing some disruption but will now bring a huge amount of benefits to their new home. The release of the seven Beavers, two adults and their five young, in January 2023 came after years of planning. That release was followed by the further addition of two more individuals this month, to strengthen the population.
It’s hard to underestimate the positives beavers can make to a wetland such as Loch Lomond. The RSPB anticipates that the beavers, which are “nature’s engineers”, will create and enhance habitats and boost biodiversity in the nature reserve helping to address both the climate and nature emergencies.
“Beavers are ecosystem engineers in a way that humans could never replicate,” said the RSPB site manager. “Their presence in a wetland will do more to enhance it for wildlife than we could ever hope to do with any amount of man-made intervention.”
Ratty makes a welcome return to Cumbria’s riverbanks
Nationally, Water Voles are Britain’s fastest declining mammal. Over the last century they’ve gone from an estimated population of eight million to around 132,000. In that time, they have disappeared from 94% of sites where they once lived, including the Lake District.
This year, 204 Water Voles were released at Haweswater in the Lake District, taking place not long after 161 water voles were rehomed on the nearby Lowther Estate. It marked the end of the initial phase of the first re-introduction programme to take place in the National Park since they were virtually wiped out – mainly due to habitat loss, pollution and the devastation caused by the rapid spread of the Water Vole’s nemesis; the invasive, non-native American Mink. Defenceless against the mink, whole colonies were swiftly decimated. These threats had to be addressed before any animals could be reintroduced.
The successful release of the water voles is a result of a partnership project between Eden Rivers Trust, The Environment Agency and the Cumbria Connect programme. As a result of their efforts, Water Voles are now settling into their new homes on the Lowther Estate and at Haweswater, managed by the RSPB and United Utilities.
David Morris, RSPB Area Manager for Cumbria said, “We are thrilled to witness the water voles’ return to Haweswater, a testament to 12 years of dedicated landscape recovery in collaboration with our partner, United Utilities. Now, working more widely with our neighbours the Lowther Estate, we have created an environment where we can support the revival of this endangered species, establishing a population that can disperse across the wider landscape, contributing to a resilient ecosystem that benefits both nature and people.”
Seabird bonanza after island restoration
There are now more seabirds nesting on the island of Lundy in the Bristol Channel than at any time since the 1930s, after rats were removed from the island having previously arrived on Lundy as stowaways on ships over many decades.
In the summer, the island is now home to 25,000 Manx Shearwaters as well as more than 1,300 Puffins. 150 pairs of Storm Petrels, a tiny species that only arrived on the island in 2014, have also made the island home. The rats were eradicated in a partnership led by the RSPB, Natural England, the Landmark Trust and the National Trust.
Paul St Pierre, a conservation officer for the RSPB, said: “Partnership projects like this show just how much potential there is to restore species and landscapes on an incredible scale.
“If we can restore over 30,000 birds to one small island in the Bristol Channel, just imagine how much could be achieved if everyone came together to restore nature right across the UK.”
Calling Corncrakes on the increase
Corncrake numbers in Scotland have seen their first rise in five years. This year 870 calling males of these shy rare birds were recorded by the RSPB, up from 828 the previous year.
As a red listed species, this takes Scotland’s Corncrake population back to levels not seen since 2019. Whilst still significantly lower than the 2014 high of 1282 calling males, the number marks an important result in efforts to save these birds in what is hoped could be a turning point in their recovery.
Corncrakes are incredibly secretive small brown birds, and are close relatives to moorhens and coots, though they spend the winter months in Congo, migrating back to a few places across Northern Ireland and Scotland’s islands and mainland to breed. Previously found across the UK, the mechanisation of farming meant most of their breeding habitats were lost, except for the few remaining areas in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The RSPB credits the very welcome increase in numbers this year to partnership working in Corncrake areas with the local communities, through its Corncrake Calling project. This has increased the quality and the quantity of suitable Corncrake habitat and Corncrake friendly land management practices in key places for these birds, while crucially delivering benefits for farmers, crofters and landowners too.
Anne McCall, Director of RSPB Scotland said: “These results are a significant moment for efforts to save Corncrakes in Scotland and a real tribute to the enormous collective effort of farmers, crofters and local communities to help these birds.
Unusual antelope makes dramatic come back
The Saiga Antelope has moved from critically endangered to near threatened on the IUCN red list of threatened species thanks to significant conservation efforts over two decades, which have seen the remarkable recovery of Saiga populations in Kazakhstan from a perilous low in 2005 of just 39,000 to today’s estimated population of nearly 2 million. There has been a concerted effort to restore the population by the Kazakh and other governments, research organisations, national and international NGOs including the RSPB.
The Saiga antelope were once found throughout the Eurasian Steppe, the great band of grassland that stretches from Hungary in Europe, east into Asia. Today, it is found in fragmented populations in Kazakhstan, Mongolia, the Russian Federation and Uzbekistan.
Katie-jo Luxton, the RSPB’s director of conservation, said, “As a real testament to our ongoing joint efforts, the recovery of Saiga antelope in Kazakhstan shows just what is possible when partnerships like Altyn Dala (“Golden Steppe”) bring together a range of nations, organisations and authorities to work at the scale needed to tackle the nature crisis across the globe. We look forward to continuing to work together with our partners to further conserve and restore the natural grasslands, wetlands, and deserts of Kazakhstan, including addressing the ongoing challenges faced by the Saiga antelope population.”
Main image: Beaver after release at the Loch Lomond National Nature Reserve ©Beaver Trust (rspb-images.com). An adult pair of beavers and their five young offspring being translocated from an area in Tayside as part of plans to speed up the return of beavers to the Loch Lomond National Nature Reserve, which is jointly managed by RSPB Scotland, Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park Authority and NatureScot in conjunction with the Beaver Trust, January 2023