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Intensive agriculture 'drives decline of over half of UK species'

Butterflies pictured mating in London. Credit: PA Wire

More than half of UK species have suffered declines in recent years partly as a result of intensive agriculture, a new report has warned.

The "overwhelming negative" impact of agriculture on nature has contributed to the declines, and 15% of species are at risk of vanishing from British shores, according to the second State of Nature report.

Climate change, loss of habitat, and urban sprawl are also having an adverse impact on the loss of species, researchers found.

The study, which collates knowledge from 53 wildlife organisations, shows that 56% of almost 4,000 land and freshwater species studied suffered declines in numbers or areas where they are found between 1970 and 2013.

More than half (53%) of species experienced falls between 2002 and 2013, with little evidence to suggest the rate of loss is slowing down.

An assessment of 8,000 species shows that 1,199 species are at risk of disappearing from Britain, the report said.

Intensive agriculture has been blamed for decline of UK species in the second State of Nature report. Credit: PA Wire

Other factors affecting the declines of species include:

  • A loss of mixed farms
  • Changes to sowing patterns
  • A switch from hay to silage in pastures
  • Increased use of pesticides and fertilisers
  • A loss of habitat such as hedgerows and ponds

The report said government farming policies had led to dramatic changes in farming practices, almost doubling wheat and milk yields since the 1970s, but disrupting food sources and habitats that species rely on.

The loss of ponds have adversely affected great crested newts, and increased herbicides have caused a significant decline in corn marigolds.

Meanwhile, 97% of wildflower meadows have been lost since the Second World War.

Naturalist and TV presenter Sir David Attenborough said: "The natural world is in serious trouble and it needs our help as never before.

"The rallying call issued after the State of Nature report in 2013 has promoted exciting and innovative conservation projects.

Sir David Attenborough called for action to tackle the decline of species in Britain. Credit: PA Wire

"Landscapes are being restored, special places defended, struggling species being saved and brought back. But we need to build significantly on this progress if we are to provide a bright future for nature and for people."

Sir David added: "The future of nature is under threat and we must work together - governments, conservationists, businesses and individuals - to help it."

Guy Smith, vice-president of the National Farmers' Union (NFU), argued that agriculture had not become more intense since the 1990s, and questioned the suggestion it was responsible for the declines in the last quarter of a century.

He said: "The NFU believes the sustainable intensification of agriculture will be an important tool with which farmers will help to make a significant contribution to the challenge of both domestic and global food security."

A spokeswoman for the Environment Department (Defra) said: "Our natural environment is cleaner and healthier than at any time since the industrial revolution.

"Woodland cover in England is at its highest level since the 14th century, we have improved water quality in 9,000 miles of rivers since 2010 and in the last five years almost 19,000 miles of hedgerow have been planted."