Turning the tide – protecting our endangered species

Endangered species are species considered to be at great risk of becoming extinct in the wild. More than a quarter of the species on the planet (28%) are considered endangered according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

We are currently facing a significant rate of species extinction, leading many scientists to suggest we are seeing the beginning of a sixth mass extinction event. There are only five known mass extinction events that have occurred throughout geological history, the last being the most famous, which killed 75% of the dinosaur species. Protecting the world’s endangered species from extinction must be done to avoid this outcome. Some well-known examples of endangered species from across the world include the giant panda, the white rhinoceros and the Bornean orangutan.  You’ve probably seen these species featured in advertisements for conservation organisations operating globally, but did you know there are several  that need protection in Eryri?

Species biodiversity is an important part of the natural environment and also provides lots of benefits to humankind beyond sustaining the natural world in which we live. The unique properties held by individual species has provided us with a myriad of services (called ecosystem services) including food, materials, dyes, skincare and even lifesaving medicine. Much medicine is derived from plant life including aspirin, morphine and chemotherapy drugs which are unable to be artificially synthesised and so rely directly on crops of the plants in which they occur to treat cancer patients. It is clear to see then, how losing these species would be a great loss for mankind. Knowing that there are so many species on the brink of extinction with potentially undiscovered properties that could have similarly significant effects further illustrates the need for their protection.

Snowdon rainbow beetle

This beetle boasts a striking appearance, with its iridescent exoskeleton striped in green, blue and red with reflections of gold. The last confirmed sighting of this beautiful bug was in June last year, from our very own Cai Bishop-Guest!  You can read about his rare find in his article, here. This bewitching beetle once had a wider spread in Eryri, including a population in Cwm Idwal, but they have not been seen there since the 1980s and are now only found on Yr Wyddfa itself. Even here, their distribution has reduced as they are now confined to higher altitudes than previously. The reasons behind this are not fully understood, however a significant contributor their original decline was overcollection during the Victorian era due to their beautiful, distinctive carapaces. Nowadays, it is thought that climate change, which is affecting the local environment of Yr Wyddfa, may be shrinking their liveable habitat. Changing climate has also led to warmer winters: Great news for goats, with more kids surviving difficult winter seasons, but these young goats will go on to graze slopes unreachable by sheep, where the Snowdon rainbow beetles reside.

Picture: Cai Bishop-Guest

Pine marten

Pine martens are Britain’s largest tree-dwelling mammal. These nocturnal woodland creatures are chestnut-brown in colour with a yellow bib and long bushy tail. While given the conservation status of “least concern” in Scotland, these marvellous mustelids are considered to be critically endangered in England and Wales. In fact, they were driven to the edge of extinction south of the Scottish border, as were hunted for sport, their fur and were persecuted by Victorian gamekeepers. Misinformation and negative views held by the Victorians has unfortunately followed this mammal, with many believing that because they are predators they will have a negative impact on their habitat. It is important to note that predators are vital parts of food chains, controlling populations of other animals and maintaining the delicate balance required to sustain a healthy and biodiverse environment. Pine martens in fact provide many benefits to their environment. A strong pine marten population is known to help boost numbers of another endangered species in the UK: The red squirrel. They do this by reversing the spread of invasive grey squirrels.

Pine marten. Picture: Mark Hamblin

But things are looking up for these misunderstood mammals! An increase in forest cover in England and Wales over the last century has meant restoration of their habitat. As a result of this and translocation initiatives that began in 2015, pine marten numbers have been boosted, and successful breeding is being recorded each year. In 2019, some were spotted in Eryri in the Celtic rainforests of Dolmelynllyn, having been attracted to the area by the National Trust using jam and egg s. A close eye must still be kept on these magnificent and elusive creatures to ensure their future and the continuation of the benefits they provide

Snowdonia Hawkweed

Looking at this plant, you would be forgiven for thinking it is no more interesting than any other dandelion, but this is actually one of the rarest plants in the world. This is an endemic species to Eryri, meaning it is found nowhere else on the planet. Its need for protection is therefore of paramount importance to the species’ survival in the wild. It was believed to have gone extinct in the 1950s, as a result of overgrazing. However, three individuals were discovered in Cwm Idwal Nature Reserve in 2002. These have been protected in situ by removing sheep from the area, allowing this exceptional species to double its numbers, to a still precarious six individuals, in the same location. It has also been brought to the National Botanic Garden of Wales for insurance. In the 2021 Netflix Sherlock Holmes series The Irregulars, this plant was used to bring a man back from the dead. While this superpower is of course fictional, its own story of revival from near extinction is remarkable and work must be done (and is underway) to ensure it continues.

Snowdonia hawkweed. Picture: Robbie Blackhall – Miles

So, what is being done to help?

Protected species legislation exists on an international and national level providing these rare and delicate species with a level of legal security from disturbance by humans. In the UK, it is illegal to harm or collect individuals, or disturb shelters of protected species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations. There are many charities and organizations operating globally, nationally and locally that work to assist in the protection and conservation of wildlife including endangered species, including us, Cymdeithas Eryri Snowdonia Society!

There are also several layers of protections in order to conserve the habitats of these threatened and endangered species, including: Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), Special Protected Areas (SPAs) and Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).  Of course, protected areas include national parks (such as Eryri National Park) which aim to conserve and protect the natural environment and habitat of species therein, with special emphasis on endangered and threatened species. Globally, as of 2021, 16.64% of land and inland water ecosystems and 7.74% of coastal waters and the ocean fall in some form of protected area.

An international target has been agreed to allocate 30% of the world’s surface to protected areas by 2030, an initiative called “30 by 30”, however we may not currently be on track to achieve this. Despite UK government claims that it is on track to meet their 30 by 30 targets, a freedom of information request revealed that the department responsible for this claim could provide no evidence to support this.  Effective management of protected areas has helped to bolster populations of endangered species, when the threats known to be affecting these species are understood. This can be seen from the tentative signs of recovery by the Snowdonia hawkweed mentioned above, after controlling the grazing activities that threatened them.

There are several initiatives underway in Eryri to protect and maintain species populations and conserve their habitats. Tlysau Mynydd Eryri, led by Plantlife’s Vascular Plants Officer, Robbie Blackhall-Miles, is working to protect and revive populations of 12 endangered species in Eryri, including the Snowdon rainbow beetle and Snowdonia hawkweed mentioned above. These arctic alpine species are unique relics of our glacial history and are living reminders of a past landscape otherwise confined to the physical markings decorating our surroundings in Eryri. We are one of the organisations on the delivery group for this project and are very excited to help in this initiative.

There is much to be done to protect the endangered species across Eryri, the UK and globally, from extinction. Whether the projections of a mass extinction event come to fruition depends on the actions taken now. So, what can you do? You can help by learning about the endangered species in your area and the threats affecting them, plant native species in your garden, learn about invasive species. Much of the endangered species and habitats are threatened by a common factor, climate change. Therefore, another way that you can help is to be mindful of your carbon footprint and support sustainable policies. We have seen from the recovery of red squirrel populations, the remarkable impact that can come from collective action. If we all do our part and make conscious efforts to protect our most vulnerable species, it might not be too late to turn the tables and save the diverse range of species supported by our natural environment so that they can be there for future generations.

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