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'The Ugly Truth'

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What impact will UK biodiversity decline have?

Live online Q&A

On Wednesday 18th September 2013 our panel of experts Dr Ian Denholm, President of the Botanical Society of the British Isles, Dr Richard Harrington, Head of the Rothamsted Insect Survey and David Rose, Head of Tree Health Diagnostic and Advisory Service (South) at Forest Research, Forestry Commission, answered your questions about the impacts of UK biodiversity decline.

Read our Storify about the event here.

If you have a question on a plant science related issue then get in contact with our plant science panel via Twitter, @senseaboutsci using #plantsci, or email us at [email protected].

21. "What can we do about the dichotomy between species important to ecosystems and the fluffy species the public care about/donate for?" (@RichardComont)

ID: "Great question. It is certainly the case that certain iconic groups (birds, mammals, some insect orders and vascular plants) do get the lion’s share of attention and resources. They also dominate recording schemes and are predominant, for example, in the statistics underpinning the recent ‘State of Nature’ report co-ordinated by the RSPB. However, the other 95% of our flora and fauna is acquiring more and more enthusiasts and so I think we can look to a future that is a little more balanced in this respect. DNA-based technology is likely to become especially important for groups that are relatively intractable using conventional taxonomic approaches."

20. "How do we convince most people (who don't understand/care) that biodiversity loss threatens them/their children?" (@wildlifebcn)

RH: "I suggest a David Attenborough programme entitled “What Biodiversity Does for Us”. It is understandable that those without ecology training may have difficulty in assessing how to strike the right balance between biodiversity conservation and human needs that diminish it. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) sets out clearly why biodiversity conservation is important for human health and wellbeing. It doesn’t all come down to issues that can be put in monetary terms, but some of them can. Summarising the MEA in popular media form could really help with this."

19. "How can we motivate more "citizen scientists" to help collect the data needed to monitor biodiversity change?" (@LouisePublicity)

"Could experts combine their knowledge with citizens to enable participatory landscape care, and slow biodiversity decline?" (@hen4)

RH: "Citizen scientists provide extraordinarily valuable data. People gather data because they understand the importance of doing so and also because it can be great fun. There is an excellent guide to citizen science published by the UK Environmental Observation Framework. Feedback on how the data are used is vital to maintaining enthusiasm and the more publicity and coordination of citizen science, the more people are likely to contribute. Thus excellent PR associated with projects is vital. Offering training (web based or in person) may help and new technologies like smartphone apps can be useful."

18. "Do any of the proposed 'greening' measures under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) potentially provide any improvement to biodiversity in UK?" (@edbarkercla)

ID: "The intention behind reforming the CAP is to move the emphasis from production per se towards environmental stewardship. Hence I would like to think the answer is a definite ‘yes’. However I’m not able to comment on how any new CAP measures will interact or displace the existing and widely-adopted environmental stewardship schemes already implemented in the UK. Interesting question! I'd need to research it further."

17. "What is the panel's perspective on the potential of the corporate responsibility agenda to tackle biodiversity decline? Businesses can engage with biodiversity through on-site restoration, engagement with NGOs, biodiversity offsetting, supply chain management and by internalising biodiversity into environmental management systems. What are the pros and cons of this approach?" (Hannah Hamilton)

RH: "Corporate responsibility has a big role to play, not only directly, but also indirectly through bringing attention to the importance of biodiversity conservation to a wider audience. This comes about through companies flagging up their 'green credentials'. The danger is that by doing a little and saying a lot about it, companies may feel that they have done what they need to do to bring the public on-side, whereas in fact the damage they are doing is far greater than the remedial action offered. Very few companies are likely to be truly altruistic in regards to biodiversity. It is more likely that they will be protecting their image and hence their customer base. The more engagement by business with biodiversity-related NGOs, the better."

16. "Is it worth trying to protect UK biodiversity from invasives since globalisation means different populations will eventually be in contact with one another?" (Pauline Vaskou)

ID: "I agree that globalisation is making it increasingly difficult to prevent the accidental introduction of non-native organisms. And of course only a very few of these organisms will eventually prove invasive. But some species genuinely having devastating effects on native species and habitats and this surely justifies attempts to suppress or eradicate them. This is far easier before such species have become widely established, highlighting the importance of surveillance."

DR: "An interesting point. In essence, why bother if in another few decades all floral and faunal zones will be cross-invaded. There is good evidence that attempts to restrict invasive species and diseases have been successful where the measures have been feasible and rigorously applied. It would be naive to believe that a 100% system could be implemented but when you view the catastrophic damage that introductions of invasive animals (grey squirrel), plants (Japanese knotweed) and diseases (Dutch Elm Disease) have caused, I think it is right that we should try."

15. "Should there be a British national gene bank for the conservation of the biodiversity of agricultural crops?" (@AgroBioDiverse)

ID: "I’m not sure that there needs to be a national one. There are international initiatives such as ECPGR (European Cooperative Programme for Plant Genetic Resources) and others with a focus on specific crop types such as potatoes. I’m sure that UK scientists are participating in a lot of these programmes."

14. "Who should set the standards globally for measuring biodiversity? And does the panel think this would only work if it is given legal status?" (Martin Pearce)

RH: "There is now an independent intergovernmental platform on biodiversity and ecosystems. Its remit is to assess the state of the planet’s biodiversity, ecosystems and the essential services they provide to society. Not sure that it is practicable to legislate in relation to monitoring biodiversity, but legislation exists to conserve aspects of it."

13. "Many native tree species are hardly used. For example, why don't we plant a few conifers for diversification?" (@JohnWeirFC)

DR: "Two native conifers, Scots pine and yew, are widely planted though yew less so in woodlands. Many ancient woodland sites are required to be planted with appropriate native species or returned to native species (the Plantations on former Ancient Woodland Sites or PAWS sites). Non-native conifers still have a place in largely timber production forests. Non-native species can also still have a surprisingly good level of biodiversity, though not as high as it would be if native species were used."

12. "Will biodiversity decline lead to higher food prices through reliance on pesticides and artificial fertilisers?" (@RuralLeader)

RH: "Yes, I believe that to be the case. The services provided by biodiversity can be valued in monetary terms. Natural pest control is one such service and its decline means increased reliance on pesticides which in turn leads to increased risk of resistance to those pesticides, which in turn leads to the need to develop more pesticides. A good old fashioned arms race. I'm not so sure about fertilisers in this regard."

11. "Do we need to explore 'share and spare' land use for food production to save #biodiversity?" (@blackgull)

ID: "In the UK, with very limited land at our disposal, I suggest we have to exploit the ‘share’ concept, which requires farming to be done in an as environmentally-sensitive way as possible. It's a big topic but the various agri-environment schemes provide a large number of options relevant to different regions and farming systems. There is still scope for a lot more research to identify the most effective approaches to promoting biodiversity on farmland, and to an extent it will always involve compromises because measures targeted at one group of organisms may not favour others."

10. "Will a rolled out badger cull come in time to reverse the decline of land dwelling fauna?" (@LordWelby)

ID: "The implication here is that current badger densities are having adverse effects on other terrestrial organisms. I'm not sure that we have the data to support or refute this. The work I'm aware of to evaluate the likely outcomes of badger culls hasn't considered the consequences for biodiversity in general."

9. "What trees should we be planting instead of ash?" (@royal_forestry)

DR: "Details of suitable native broadleaves that can be considered for planting instead of ash can be found on the Forestry Commission website at Species that could be used (depending on the site type) include hornbeam, small-leaved lime, beech, field maple and aspen but a full list can be found on the website. Forestry Commission local woodland officers can also advise woodland owners on replacement."

8. "Will biodiversity decline have consequences for Britain's agricultural sector? And if so, why?"

ID: "Yes, biodiversity decline has potentially very important consequences for Britain’s agriculture. Think of the ecosystem services that agriculture depends on. For example, the availability of pollinators for many of our crops, and the role of predators and parasitoids in suppressing pest organisms that would otherwise be even more difficult to control."

RH: "For sure. Biodiversity provides several so-called 'ecosystem services' to humans including pollination, pest control and soil condition. Loss of biodiversity undoubtedly affects all of these services. On the other hand, some biodiversity is increasing. Sadly this often includes pests!"

7. "Any creative ideas about how we raise the profile of 'un-sexy' #soil management which is vital to all #biodiversity?" (@blackgull)

ID: "Is it ‘un-sexy’? I think there is a broad awareness of the importance of soil management in influencing biodiversity. Of course the organisms that live below ground are much less conspicuous and often much more difficult to identify. They need a few media champions!"

RH: "Yes, soils tend to be the butt of jokes re their unsexiness! Whilst soil is vital to above-ground biodiversity, the biodiversity of the soil itself it quite extraordinary, and little understood. Only a tiny fraction of the organisms in soils have been identified and named (it may be 1% or even less). Selling soil management on the basis that, without it, we may be destroying organisms that we never even knew existed and which may be valuable to us is one possibility. It’s a jungle down there!"

6."What is being done to stop new plants and more diseases arriving from abroad and threatening our native species?" (@royal_forestry)

ID: "There is a strong legislative framework based around plant health aimed at preventing the inadvertent introduction of new and potentially invasive organisms. However, most of the non-native plants that are proving most invasive in the UK originate from gardens (including garden ponds in the case of aquatics). There are some guidelines as to what people should and shouldn’t be cultivating. Diseases are also covered by quarantine but this can’t prevent spores or pathogens arriving by ‘natural’ means."

DR: "With regard to trees there are plant health inspectors at all ports of entry (airports and docks) as well as at delivery sites where unopened containers are delivered. Some tree imports are banned either by species, consigning country or both. The government regularly review these arrangements and can amend them where necessary - as in the response to the recent appearance of Chalara ash dieback. Also there is a list of likely new diseases that could arrive in order to be prepared for such an eventuality."

5. "How do we ensure a more diverse genetic provenance for our trees, as well as a diversity of species?" (@royal_forestry)

DR: "There has always been selection of trees for particular attributes (timber quality, form etc) but this has always been done by traditional selection processes rather than using genetics. Even where analysis of genes is used we still ensure that there are opportunities for continued out crossing. In fact genetic fingerprinting has been used to locate the remaining native black poplars, an endangered species in the UK."

4. "Are you optimistic about the future biodiversity of the UK? Could we restore what we've lost?" (@maxjgold)

ID: "I’m optimistic that we can arrest many of the declines given the momentum and public support for conservation. In some cases, reintroduction schemes are proving successful but they are costly and can only be done sparingly. However, it obviously isn’t feasible to reverse all the decades of intensification and industrialisation that has led to such a widespread transformation of the UK countryside."

DR: "As far as trees are concerned I feel we are still in a strong position with our native species. Even where we have used non-British provenances of native trees we have not eliminated our own native gene pool. Indeed, many recent Government-funded planting schemes have stipulated that native trees from British seed sources must be used."

3. "When European settlers first arrived in the New World it led to a decline in the human population already living there due to their inability to cope with alien diseases. Are we not watching the similar effect happening around us in terms of biodiversity?" (Robin Edwards)

RH: "There is no doubt that invasive alien species and the diseases they bring with them pose a threat to our native biodiversity. Harlequin ladybird and imported bees are examples."

2. "Will climate change be the biggest cause of biodiversity decline in the UK, or are other factors more important?" (@FreyaERoberts)

RH: "It depends on the timescale. If it's over decades to centuries, then maybe. Right now changes in land use are more critical. Invasive species can also have major impacts on our native fauna and flora. There are many additional drivers of change in biodiversity and often it is quite difficult to pinpoint the most important in relation to particular species or particular locations."

1. "Biodiversity is in decline in the UK: true or false?" (@Swigzy)

"Before we address biodiversity decline, shouldn't we establish if it is actually happening in the UK first?" (Theodore Allnutt)

DR: "There are numerous biodiversity projects set up by Forest Research and other research organisations looking at different types of woodland throughout the country. Some have been running for a number of years so they will have data on changes in biodiversity over time."

ID: "To assess biodiversity decline we need quantitative data on exactly what changes are occurring. The most recent and comprehensive report is 'State of Nature' coordinated by RSPB, using information provided by 25 natural history and conservation organisations. Around 60% of the species assessed have declined over the last 50 years, for a variety of reasons. However, there are also success stories with other species responding positively to conservation measures and increasing in abundance. The report can be accessed and downloaded via the RSPB website."

RH: "As well as anecdotal evidence, there is real evidence from long-term datasets. For insects these include data from traps operated by the Rothamsted Insect Survey for 50 years, and Butterfly Conservation’s UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme. Overall biodiversity is declining, but there are winners and losers. Sadly the winners are often pests. Knowledge on biodiversity change is summarised in the book 'Silent Summer' (2010) and in the RSPB-led report 'State of Nature' (2013)."



Our Q&As answer the questions people put, which may mean that some parts of a subject are covered well and others not. If there is an issue that you think is not tackled, you are welcome to send a follow up question to our plant science panel