Shropshire wildlife in danger... and returning

PUBLISHED: 16:29 02 December 2010 | UPDATED: 17:59 20 February 2013

Shropshire wildlife in danger… and returning

Shropshire wildlife in danger… and returning

While some species native to Shropshire are dying out others are making a comeback and we must do all we can to make them welcome, says county biodiversity officer Dan Wrench

Live and let live

While some species native to Shropshire are dying out others are making a comeback and we must do all we can to make them welcome, says county biodiversity officer Dan Wrench

There can be little doubt that people will have heard of the increasing rate of species extinctions occurring globally. What might be less known is that despite the best efforts of conservationists species are still going extinct in Britain. More locally, species are also being lost in Shropshire on an ever increasing frequency. While extinctions from Britain are relatively rare, extinctions from individual counties go on all the time.

Plants and animals are increasingly being confined to protected areas of the landscape. An estimate by Plantlife1 back in 2000 suggests that the rate of loss of plant species from a county is nearly one per year. The Shropshire Botanical Society has suggested that the loss of plants in Shropshire is more like one every two years but this rate is increasing2.
While such county losses might not be national news they do illustrate the gradual eradication of wildlife that eventually leads to national and even global extinctions.They also provide evidence to illustrate how once common plants have become scarce. You might see plenty of cowslips planted along the highways but how often have you seen them brightening up their traditional location of meadows?

Another doom and gloom story is that of the loss of the ring ouzel, or mountain blackbird. The last breeding pair of this blackbird-like bird was an unsuccessful attempt in 2003. A lone male was seen looking for a mate in 2004 but no breeding birds have seen since.

But it isnt all loss. There are plenty of examples of locally extinct species returning or completely new species being found in Shropshire.
Perhaps the best known of these are the larger, more charismatic species such as the red kite. Considerable effort has been made to bring this species back from the brink of extinction in the UK.They had not bred in Shropshire since the 1870s but in 2005 a pair returned to Shropshire. They were unsuccessful in raising young but another pair did raise young the following year. In 2009, 10 nests were found with nine of these successful so it would seem red kites are back to stay. I remember seeing my first in Shropshire a few years ago on the Long Mynd, nearly causing a traffic accident as I skidded to a halt and ogled out the car window.

Another recovery, although one which is much harder to see directly, is the otter. Sometime in the middle of the last century otters were lost from Shropshire but only for a relatively short period as by the late 1960s they seemed to be back at least, a dead one found on a road suggested this. By the 1980s they were back in the River Severn and now they can be found over the majority of Shropshire and probably in the majority of water courses. I did hear that the old Thai floating restaurant by the Welsh Bridge in Shrewsbury had been feeding fish scraps to the otters for years.

While the arrival of species like red kite and otter is relatively well known there is a tide of new invertebrates arriving in the county that we barely know about. Some of these new species are detected but with so few expert entomologists locally it is difficult to know whether a species is actually a new arrival or whether it has been in the county for many years undetected. Some of the new more obvious species include the harlequin ladybird and the rosemary beetle. Both rather unwelcome but attractive pest species. Other likely new arrivals such as the scarce blue-tailed damselfly, the hornet mimic hoverfly and the keeled skimmer (dragonfly) are less likely to either cause havoc with the native wildlife or be a garden pest.

Do the new arrivals counter those lost? Sadly, in most cases, probably not. Some of the new species are also new to the UK and may compete with or spread disease to native wildlife.Think of the current notable
contests of grey squirrel vs red squirrel, signal crayfish vs the native white-clawed crayfish and water vole vs American mink.

So what can we expect for the future? Its all very uncertain but we might regain a few more of the lost species. Perhaps nightingale, perhaps even pine marten. We are likely to gain a greater range of butterfly species and dragonflies; certainly those mobile species that can quickly adapt to changing conditions. But we are also very likely to be getting more of the undesirable species like midge that spreads the Bluetongue disease of livestock or perhaps floating pennywort which, like New Zealand pigmyweed, is busy chocking up freshwater habitats throughout Britain. In the short term it is likely that the effects of new or more intensive agricultural systems will bring greater changes to wildlife than climate change. The spread of bio-fuel crops or the covering of land with solar panels for example may well bring unforeseen changes to our wildlife. Based on current trends it is likely that changes in agricultural practices will mean we will soon be mourning the loss of snipe and perhaps even lapwing and curlew.

In this year, the International Year of Biodiversity, it is sad but perhaps not unexpected to hear that the target to halt the loss of biodiversity has been missed. However we should take some heart from those species that are making a revival and those that seem to be hanging on regardless. We should provide them with the space and opportunity to move through the landscape and into large reserves or land managed with a light touch. Shropshire already does pretty well for such landscape so we should build on our strengths and celebrate those returning species like the red kite, otter, peregrine falcon, corn buttercup, and larkspur.

1. Marren, P. 2000. Where have all the flowers gone? A study of local extinctions as recorded in the county floras. Plantlife report.
2. Lockton, A., Whild, S. 2005. Rare plants of Shropshire, 3rd edition. Shropshire Botanical Society, Preston Montford, Shrewsbury.

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