There are just 48 native land mammals in Britain together with 30 marine species regularly observed in UK waters, compared with thousands of vascular plants, fungi, bryophytes and invertebrates, yet one in four of the UK’s land mammals are Threatened (Vulnerable, Endangered, Critically Endangered or Extinct), based on a recent review by the Mammal Society. The conservation of our mammals is under further threat due to the Government’s proposed review of the main legal instrument affording that protection, the Wildlife and Countryside Act.
The proposals, based on IUCN Red List status, purport to offer scientific evidence for defining protected species, but the Mammal Society has demonstrated that this is not an appropriate basis when used in isolation. Furthermore, the Red List categories have been selectively applied, allowing only species identified as Endangered or Critically Endangered at a GB level to be proposed for protection, and not all of the categories that are considered by IUCN to be Threatened. This approach would not allow threatened species such as the hedgehog to be given protection.
The Mammal Society believes that we need a complete review of our environmental legislation. We are in a climate and ecological emergency, with most species continuing to decline and a risk of ecosystem collapse. In emergency times we need stronger protection for our wildlife, not weaker. We therefore propose that mammals should be afforded the same protection as birds, where all species are protected from deliberate killing and from disturbance whilst breeding, with easily available licensing for exceptions. In the case of mammals this would, for example, allow control of rodents in buildings.
This statement sets out the Mammal Society’s position on the protection of wild mammals for conservation and welfare reasons, explains the flaws in the current legislation, and sets out our proposals for how protection should be amended going forward.
The Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) (WCA) is the primary piece of legislation protecting Britain’s wildlife, with mammal species that are specially protected species included on Schedule 5. In addition, badgers are protected under the Protection of Badgers Act (1992) and seals are afforded limited protection under the Conservation of Seals Act (1970, as amended).
Species which had been protected under the EU Habitats Directives, as European Protected Species (EPS), including all bats, cetaceans and dormice, currently retain the same level of protection under the retained EU law that came into effect on 1 January 2021, as they did under the EU derived law that was in place prior to this date, including the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 (as amended by the 2019 EU exit regulations) and the Conservation of Offshore Marie Habitats and Species Regulations 2017, as amended by the 2019 EU exit regulations.
There are two main reasons to implement species protection measures: welfare and conservation. The protection of badgers is clearly for the former reason; badgers are common and widespread and their protection relates to a history of direct persecution. Most of the species on Schedule 5 of the WCA, however, are identified as requiring conservation. However, the protection afforded by the WCA relates to the protection on individual animals from killing, injury and sale. No provisions of the WCA tackle conservation at a population or ecosystem level. It represents the most basic last line of defence in protecting species on the edge of extinction (which is valuable) but does little, on its own, to protect the conservation status of species.
The Mammal Society believes that rather than making incremental amendments to a forty year-old piece of legislation, we need new, and stronger, legislation to deal with the ecological emergency we currently face.
Currently Proposed Changes
EU exit has offered some opportunities for the review of wildlife protection which could be used to support the Government’s stated agenda including Defra’s 25 Year Environment Plan and its aims to provide “thriving plants and wildlife”. The provisions of the Habitats Directive currently remain as ‘EU-derived domestic legislation’, and the government has proposed an amendment to the Environment Bill allowing the Secretary of State to ‘re-focus the Habitats Regulations’. This appears to relate mainly to the assessment of plans and projects and does not appear to include any radical overhaul of species protection measures.
When the Environment Bill returned to Parliament in May 2021 it contained a number of proposed changes, including a clause proposed by Conservative MP Chris Grayling and backed by cross-party MPs which would designate the hedgehog as a protected species under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act.
In May 2021, the Government’s conservation advisory body, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) circulated details of their proposals for the 7th Quinquennial Review of Schedules 5 and 8 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (QQR7) to some stakeholders including the Mammal Society. There are a number of changes to the QQR7 process compared to previous QQRs, which the QQR7 information pack states have come about as a result of the review of the criteria by the QQR Review Group (which consists of JNCC and the three country nature conservation bodies and representatives of the non-governmental sector).
The changes to the criteria proposed are that
- Only species classed as Critically Endangered on a Red List should automatically be eligible to be protected under Schedule 5.
- European Protected Species will be automatically proposed for listing in Schedule 5, although it is unclear whether this refers only to Annex IV species or those listed on other Annexes.
- Species that are classed as Endangered can be proposed for consideration, but those that are in a lower category, including those classed as Vulnerable or Near Threatened (or are data deficient) are no longer eligible.
Mammal Society’s Position on the Proposed Changes in QQR7
The Mammal Society has significant concerns about this approach, not least of which is that by the time a species becomes critically endangered, it may be too late for effective conservation.
From our communication with JNCC, we understand that JNCC’s rationale for this proposal is to base inclusion on standard conservation data for each species, and to provide greater consistency across taxonomic groups. This approach would indeed result in protection for a much greater number of plants and invertebrates. However, we have significant reservations about placing such reliance on Red List status, and do not consider it to be the best approach for mammal conservation through legislative protection.
Red Lists are designed to highlight species at imminent risk of extinction requiring immediate conservation action. They do not provide a comprehensive assessment against which to define the need for protected status and give no indication of any existing risk of direct persecution. Species considered to be threatened according to the Red List process need positive intervention to secure their future; simply limiting negative interventions, as per the provisions of the WCA, is not enough.
Our specific concerns are set out below.
Red Lists are not designed for this purpose. The Red List classification process assesses species against five standardised criteria (referred to as A-E) which are used to evaluate if a species belongs in an IUCN Red List threatened category (critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable). These criteria assess the rates of recent change, population size, distribution and fragmentation. The IUCN explicitly states that Red Lists are not designed to detect longer-term more gradual changes, which can be of equally serious conservation concern. Nor do Red Lists account for shifting baselines. Instead they are designed to detect recent trends. The Mammal Society does not consider that recent successes in conservation programmes should be used as a justification for removal or withholding of protected status until there is robust evidence to show the population is stable at an appropriate level across its natural range.
For example, polecat numbers are currently recovering across Britain resulting in its Red List status of “Least Concern” based on recent trends. However, compared with historical levels, its populations remain small, and its recovery is in large part due to the protection from persecution offered by the Wildlife and Countryside Act. If protection were to be tied to Red List status, the polecat would be removed from Schedule 5 and it is likely that its positive population trends would be reversed.
Not all species at imminent risk are being considered for protection. IUCN considers species as ‘Threatened’ (i.e. at risk of imminent extinction) if they are in any of the Vulnerable, Endangered or Critically Endangered categories. The further category of ‘Near Threatened’ lists those that are likely to become threatened in the near future and which should be kept under urgent review. We know of no precedent for splitting the ‘Threatened’ category in the way currently proposed by JNCC. It appears that the decision is a pragmatic rather than scientific one, and while we broadly agree with greater protection for wildlife, regardless of its taxonomic group, there are particular issues with the approach being taken here.
For example, in Britain, hedgehogs (‘Vulnerable’) have been steadily declining over several decades. This rate of decline, if sustained, will lead to their extinction, even if they do not become extinct as rapidly as species such as the greater mouse-eared bat or wildcat (Critically Endangered) which have very small distributions and very few individuals. The hedgehog could not be protected by the WCA if the currently-proposed approach is adopted. This would seem in contravention of the 25 Year Environment Plan’s aim of “Taking action to recover threatened iconic or economically-important species”.
The proposals do nothing to help the wider biodiversity crisis. Red Lists focus on extinction risks and not on the biological role played by species in ecosystems. They tend to highlight flagship species for conservation, which is important. However, in addressing the biodiversity crisis, Government needs to attend to the wider issues of biodiversity, not just charismatic species on the brink of extinction. The declines of abundant species can more readily lead to, or be indicators of, ecological collapse, whereas the demise of the last few specimens of a species may have little further consequence for the ecosystem. Thus, while we would still support conservation efforts to save such rare species, we consider it important that wider correlates of biodiversity are also considered.
For example, otters have recovered in recent decades from their devastating population collapse in the last century. They are relatively abundant and are now classified as of ‘Least Concern’ at a GB level because of some expansions in range in the last decade. However, they are good bio-indicators of water quality and there are some concerns that they may be declining again as water quality is poor in many parts of the country. Any reduction in their level of protection would be, at best, premature.
No data does not mean no danger. Baseline data on many species are lacking. The current approach proposed by JNCC does not account for species classified as Data Deficient. This is an important omission as global experience indicates that these little-studied species often turn out to be among the species at greatest risk.
For example, wild boar is classified as data deficient and hence would not be eligible for protection, but is likely to be more at risk than many other proposed protected species from the types of action prohibited under the WCA.
A widespread range doesn’t mean a species is doing well. Where data are available for a species on only one of the Red List criteria, they may be classified on that basis. Many species are classed as Least Concern because the only information available for them is their distribution. If this has not changed catastrophically, then there are no grounds for placing them in a threatened category even if they cannot be assessed against other criteria because no data are available.
For example, the distribution of harvest mice has not undergone a rapid change in recent years, however, their population size estimate is scored as extremely unreliable and their future prospects are very poor. The Mammal Society is currently beginning a national survey of harvest mice and it appears that they are suffering significant population declines. However, until this survey is complete, this species is currently classified as Near Threatened on the basis of its distribution, and thus would not be eligible for protection under the current proposals in QQR7.
Mammals don’t respect political boundaries. There are between-country differences in Red List status that are not currently acknowledged. At the very least, this is likely to lead to inconsistency and confusion in the protections offered in different countries (for example, something could be a section 47 priority species in Wales and yet have no protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act if it happens to be less than ‘Endangered’ at GB level). Species do not respect political boundaries, and the need to protect a species should be based on its status across its natural range.
For example, the Pine Marten is Critically Endangered in Wales and England, but would not qualify for protection at a GB level due largely to its status in Scotland. The loss of protection for this species might cause it to become extinct in England or Wales, when its natural range would encompass most of GB.
There are just 48 native land mammals in Britain together with 30 marine species regularly observed in UK waters, compared with thousands of vascular plants, fungi, bryophytes and invertebrates, yet one in four of the UK’s land mammals are Threatened (Vulnerable, Endangered, Critically Endangered or Extinct). It is notable that a high proportion of the species in other taxonomic groups considered to be ‘Endangered’ or ‘Critically Endangered’ at GB level, qualify under criteria relating to a very restricted distribution (Criterion D). This category rarely applies to mammals because of their greater mobility. Therefore, despite the desire for taxonomic comparability, there is an inherent bias in the Red List methodology.
The Statutory Nature Conservation Organisations recently commissioned the Mammal Society to undertake a strategic Review of the Population and Conservation Status of British Mammals. This included long-term assessments of trends and future prospects. In other areas of strategic planning, the Statutory Nature Conservation Organisations are moving towards assessments of Favourable Conservation Status (FCS) as a means of providing transparent, evidence-based, decision-making. FCS assessments include Red List status but this is only one element to be used alongside others. We strongly recommend that JNCC adopt the FCS approach, rather than one based solely on Red List status for the QQR7.
The Red List can be used with some confidence as a way to identify new species that urgently warrant protection. However, it should not be the only approach, and it is potentially extremely misleading to use it as a screening tool to identify which species should have their legislative protection removed. We therefore propose that a broader assessment of FCS should be taken, with latitude to include species that are currently are in FCS but which are likely to decline should their legal protections be removed.
We are in a climate and biodiversity emergency, and urgent conservation action is required to reverse the trend of biodiversity loss in Britain. Threats to British Mammals include direct persecution, and loss of habitat through development and through the way we manage the countryside. These issues can be tackled via a range of legislative and policy measures. We agree with the recent Law Commission on wildlife law recommendation that other criteria, such as a species role in ecosystems, be considered in affording a species protection. Overall we consider that more protection for mammals is urgently required, not less, as would appear to be the outcome of current Government proposals. As a nation we need to look forward to a future with thriving mammal populations as part of a broader strategy to achieve our climate and biodiversity goals.
A comprehensive review of the legislation and policy protecting British mammals is required to deliver favourable conservation status of our native mammals and other flora and fauna. This may involve use of approaches proposed in the forthcoming Environment Bill such as Species Recovery Strategies, but may include new primary legislation.
In the current ecological emergency we cannot wait for such legislation to be enacted before taking decisive action. We therefore propose that the existing legislation that we have in place be amended to protect all mammal species. This would be equivalent to the protection afforded to birds, preventing their deliberate or reckless killing, but with general licences for dealing with pest species. Whilst there will undoubtedly be some backlash against protecting even relatively common species, it is clear that most members of the public cannot distinguish between many mammal species. By making the default approach one of protecting all mammals, rather than making protection the exception, we have a better chance of protecting threatened species.
The Mammal Society would welcome the opportunity to work constructively with government on shaping future policy and legislation to deliver mammal conservation in line with the 25 Year Environment Plan.
Mammal Society 12.07.2021
Featured image of red squirrel by Jason Parry Wilson.