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Page last updated at 03:35 GMT, Monday, 30 August 2010 04:35 UK
The price of Britain's disappearing wildlife

water vole
Water voles have been protected in the UK since 2008

Food is relatively cheap and plentiful in Britain today, but will that still be the case in 50 years?

Overfishing and the decline of species on land has left some experts saying it is getting both harder and more expensive for the UK to feed itself in the long term.

That decline also opens up questions about the sort of countryside being left to future generations as nearly half of Britain's native land mammals are now considered a priority for conservation, be they hedgehogs, water voles, red squirrels or bats.

Farmland birds are also disappearing, with skylark numbers having been halved during the 1990s and continuing to drop.

One in five wild plants, the starting point for so much of our wildlife, face extinction.

Panorama: Britain's Disappearing Wildlife, BBC One
Monday 30 August at 2030 BST

This year the UK missed two international targets, set by the European Union and United Nations, that were aimed at halting the decline in our biodiversity - that intricate web of nature on which we depend so much.

Ecological meltdown

Professor Callum Roberts of York University said the Firth of Clyde, off Scotland's west coast - which is no longer considered viable for commercial fishing of white fish - is an example of how bad the situation can become.

Once a stretch of sea teeming with life, Prof Roberts said it is now approaching ecological meltdown due to overfishing.

"It shows what the end point of overfishing really looks like, we're very close to that point here - where there's nothing left that's worth catching."

seabed near Arran
The dredged seabed of the Firth of Clyde. Photo: Angus Robson

The local fishing fleet no longer concentrates on catching white fish, like cod, and some say this is leading to a recovery of stocks, but Prof Roberts said trawlers and dredgers catching shellfish mean the seabed is paying the price.

A camera sent to film the seabed off the east coast of the Isle of Arran, a popular spot for fishing boats to dredge for scallops, revealed a sandy bottom, lots of broken shells and crabs, and very little else.

It is because of areas like this that Prof Roberts thinks the UK needs a better balance in the seas between places that are off limits to fishing and places that are fished more intensively.

Jellyfish salad

Investment banker Pavan Sukhdev has been asked by the UN to look at the hard economics of declining wildlife, in particular how costs will rise if species that are readily available become hard to find.

If dwindling stocks make a restaurant's 'fish of the day' prohibitively expensive, Mr Sukhdev said restaurant-goers may have to contemplate menu choices such as plankton soup or jellyfish salad when dining out.

And it is not just the seas that are worrisome, he said, it is also the bugs and bees - the insects that pollinate crops.

Here the statistics of decline are worrying.

The UK has lost at least two of its bumblebee species, and a quarter of those left are at risk of extinction. Three quarters of butterflies are also losing numbers.

If too many of these insects disappear, crops will have to be pollinated by hand - a labour-intensive practice that despite sounding far-fetched is already under way in China.

Initial estimates put the additional cost of doing something similar in Britain at £1.5bn per year.

"Just imagine if bees sent you invoices for their pollinating services - it would make you sit up and take notice, but you don't right now, because it's free," Mr Sukhdev said of the hidden value of a robust and abundant mix of wildlife.

Where is action needed?

Farming is the single biggest influence on biodiversity on the land, and amid the push to intensify food production since World War II, the country's wildlife has suffered.

About half of the £546m that the government spent on biodiversity last year went to incentives to farmers to encourage wildlife.

And while some farms have seen results, overall the trend of the farmland bird population in the UK is still downward, with over a 50% drop since 1970.

Farmland birds such as the skylark are in decline in the UK

The incentive schemes are voluntary and inspections focus on what the farmer has signed up to do.

Natural Environment Minister Richard Benyon said the government might become more demanding of farmers in the future when it comes to expectations.

"If we're giving taxpayers' money to a farmer to do certain things, we want to make sure that there is an outcome," Mr Benyon said.

On the seas, the government recently announced 15 new marine protected areas round the UK's coast, which could restrict such things as fishing, dredging and even wind farms in a bid to protect biodiversity.

The question for those who track Britain's wildlife both in the water and on land is whether or not the downward trend can be reversed or if these new measures are too little too late?

Panorama: Britain's Disappearing Wildlife, BBC One, Monday 30 August at 2030 BST and then available in the UK on the BBC iPlayer.

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