February 29, 2024

Spectacular feeding frenzy of Atlantic bluefin tuna, soaring numbers of glowworms and a record-breaking breeding season for pied flycatchers are among the UK wildlife highlights of 2023.

But conservationists have warned that overall wildlife continues to decline, with one in six species is at risk of extinction – and that wildlife is being challenged in new ways by global warming, disease and other destructive human activities.

There have been several reports of “baitball” frenzy from Scotland to the Isles of Scilly, involving whales and dolphins as well as bluefin tuna. These spectacles occur when predators force fish such as mackerel to cluster together in a dense ball before whales and tuna as well as opportunistic seabirds dive in to feed on the prey.

The increase in sightings of bluefin tuna, once common in British waters, is linked to restrictions on fishing over the past 15 years, as well as warmer seas. Blue fin tuna has now been removed from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list of threatened species and limited fishing in British waters has resumed.

Dr Lissa Batey, Head of Marine Conservation at the Game Trusts, said: This fantastic fish has returned from the brink of extinction and the risk of destroying the population a second time remains high – therefore it is essential that commercial fishing quotas are set realistically and strictly enforced. When we give nature space, wildlife can recover – as simple as that. We need to act faster to protect the UK’s target of 30% of the ocean by 2030.”

On land, success stories have the highest number of glowworms – 303 glowing females White Cross Green Wood nature reserve in Oxfordshire since the survey began there in 1999, and record numbers of fox-backed frogs in Cheshire. In both cases, the rare and declining species have been boosted by targeted conservation management.

In 1975, not a single military orchid was counted Homefield Wood reserve near Marlow, managed by Berkshire, Buckinghamshire & Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust (BBOWT). This year a record 1,111 were counted and were assisted by volunteers who carefully placed protective shields around each plant to prevent deer and rabbits from devouring the rare flowers.

In another sign of the changing climate, a Southern Migratory Dragonfly has been recorded breeding in Oxfordshire for the first time – with many species of dragonflies expanding their range in Britain due to global warming.

Colin Williams, senior ecology officer at BBOWT, said: “Finding record numbers of glowworms or seeing new dragonflies is great – but it’s almost entirely down to decades of incredible work by our staff and thousands of tireless unpaid volunteers who support robust and diverse habitats create.

“The wider picture for wildlife in our three provinces is incredibly disturbing, and nature is in crisis across our region. We’re doing our best to hang on to what we still have until we can reverse those trends.”

During the winter bird watchers are cheered by watching large numbers migrate waxwingsin summer record numbers migrating variegated flycatchers have been recorded nesting in some RSPB woodlands.

Volunteers installing specially designed nest boxes and clearing the dense holly understory have helped the flycatcher, with woodland management enabling flowers such as wood anemone and sorrel to flourish, attracting more insects on which the acrobatic flycatchers feed.

At RSPB Haweswater in the Lake District, 29 singing males of the amber-listed species were counted, representing a total population of 50 to 60 pairs across the reserve, the highest number for a decade. A record 66 birds were recorded in RSPB Coombes Valley and Consall Woods in Staffordshire.

Spike Webb, RSPB keeper at Haweswater, said: “This summer we had the best numbers in 10 years. As these birds come all the way from West Africa in the spring to breed here in the Lake District, it is always a joy to see them back in the forests of Haweswater and especially when their numbers are so good.”

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But many British seabirds continue to decline. A Survey of the Isles of Scilly by the RSPB and the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust found a 20% decline in seabirds since 2015 in what is one of England’s most important colonies. Common terns disappeared as an annual breeder, with kittiwakes to follow and large declines for little black-backed gulls (58%) and red-backed gulls (40%).

Although there were signs of some birds showing immunity to bird flu – with gannets on Bass Rock, Scotland, which black instead of light blue irisesmore likely to survive the virus – large numbers of seabirds continued to die from the disease.

The starling colony at Cemlyn Nature Reserve in north Wales has halved in size since 2022 due to bird fluwith 1,200 dead stars collected there in 2023. Dorset Wildlife Trust recorded 600 dead birds on Brownsea Island during the breeding season, mainly sandwich and common terns, and black-headed gulls.

Exciting marine sightings included 156 sightings of Risso’s dolphins in Cornwall, compared to 45 last year, and more than 20 fin whales off Cornwall alone, compared to less than five sightings in 2022. A male orca is also three kilometers off the coast of Spotted off Bempton Cliffs, the first sighting off Yorkshire’s coast since 2007.

Most of Britain’s existing marine conservation zones are dismissed by conservationists as “paper parks” because they do not prevent highly destructive fishing such as trawling in the areas.

But the government created this year a scaled down list of the first highly protected marine areas (HPMAs) in English waters, with protected zones at Allonby Bay, in Cumbria; Dolphin Head, in Sussex and northeast of Farnes Deep in the North Sea.

Battey said: “This new gold standard of protection will stop all harmful activities such as trawling and enable marine wildlife to recover, benefiting fishermen and carbon-storing habitats. These special places cover less than half a percent of English seas – so this is a tiny first step towards more designations.”

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