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Wednesday, June 24, 1998 Published at 08:34 GMT 09:34 UK


England's wild birds in danger

The bittern has become one of England's rarest birds Photo: RSPB

Some of England's finest nature sites are facing gradual extinction because of the failure to reform wildlife law, according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

[ image: Snipe: no better off in protected sites <I>Photo: RSPB</I>]
Snipe: no better off in protected sites Photo: RSPB
The charity says almost half of designated nature sites - or Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) - are in a poor condition, with 70% of heathland sites in "unfavourable conservation status", and 60% of chalk grasslands in a poor state.

The effect of this has spelled disaster for some bird species.

The RSPB's Graham Wynne and Mark Thomson-Forster, from the Country Landowners' Assoc., discuss the report
Snipes, redshanks and lapwings have declined by up to 70%, and the bittern - one of England's rarest birds - has gone down from 80 males in the 1950s to only 12 in 1997.

Some SSSIs are so poorly managed that birds fare no better on these "protected" sites than off them.

'Death by a thousand cuts'

The conclusions of wildlife management in England and Wales are published in a new RSPB report called Land for Life.

It contains almost 40 detailed case histories where, it claims, official policy has failed to protect wildlife.

[ image: Lapwing: breeding numbers dropped  <I>Photo: RSPB</I>]
Lapwing: breeding numbers dropped Photo: RSPB
The RSPB says wildlife is suffering "death by a thousand cuts" and is calling for a reform of wildlife law and funding.

"Serious flaws in our wildlife laws have led to many of our finest nature sites being destroyed, damaged or neglected," said the Chief Executive of the RSPB, Graham Wynne.

"Unless wildlife law and funding policy are reformed, our natural heritage will slowly bleed to death and even more animals and plants will become rarities or disappear altogether."

The report cites neglect, mismanagement, vandalism and unsustainable farming practices as primary causes for the long-term damage to the countryside.

[ image: Somerset Levels: flooding danger <I>Photo: RSPB</I>]
Somerset Levels: flooding danger Photo: RSPB
Among the sites which have come to the attention of the RSPB are the Somerset Levels in south-west England. The lowland wet grassland, normally a haven for wading birds, is being damaged by over-use of pesticides, flooding and over-farming.

On the North Staffordshire moorlands, lapwings and curlews have declined by at least 40% in the last five years - and the rates of decline on and off the SSSIs are the same.

[ image: Black grouse: on the wane <I>Photo: RSPB</I>]
Black grouse: on the wane Photo: RSPB
Numbers of black grouse have fallen in the last 25 years on and off protected sites.

The survey shows that from a peak of 86 displaying males on SSSIs in Wales in 1992, more than one-fifth have been lost. It is a pattern that is matched in other UK uplands.

Threat to jobs

The RSPB is urging the British Government to act swiftly to meet its commitments to international environment agreements such as the EU Habitats and Species Directive and the Biodiversity Convention.

It also points out that wildlife sites attract tourists and generate income and employment for local people, often in parts of the UK where jobs are scarce.

The public at large, it says, is also enthusiastic about reforming wildlife law. In a recent opinion poll, 87% of interviewees said they were concerned about the decline in wildlife and 84% supported a call for better legal protection.

The society is mobilising its million-strong membership to lobby for further legal protection for the natural world as well as holding a wildlife summit in July for conservationists, politicians, civil servants and landowners.

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