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When we think of endangered animals, our minds often gravitate towards far-off lands and majestic creatures struggling in remote habitats. However, it may come as a surprise to discover that the United Kingdom is also home to a significant number of endangered species. Startling statistics from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reveal that up to a quarter of the UK’s native mammals are currently under threat, highlighting the urgent need for conservation efforts.
In this article, we turn our attention to the plight of these endangered animals in the UK. Despite its comparatively smaller size, this nation is grappling with the urgent challenge of preserving its rich biodiversity. From delicate ecosystems to iconic species, the battle for survival is very much present within these shores.
Threats Facing UK Wildlife
According to experts, it’s important for biodiversity to be at 90% in order to avoid an ecological meltdown. However, the UK has lost more than half of its biodiversity which is now at a terrifying 75%.
There are several reasons that species in this country are becoming more vulnerable, from intensive farming and pollution, to the ever-to-blame climate change.
Ask anyone what one of the main causes of any global problem is, and they’ll likely refer to climate change. Worryingly, this is one of the leading causes of threatened animals in the United Kingdom and is an issue for some of the country’s most well-loved species.
The problem is that climate change is having a devastating effect on the weather in the UK and all over the world. Here, we find that summers are longer and warmer, often causing periods of drought, and this has a direct impact on a plethora of species in terms of food availability and damage to their habitat as a result of things like flooding and forest fires.
Climate change is also responsible for the endangerment of many migratory bird species in the UK because the changing climate is throwing these birds out of sync. What’s more, many other avian species, such as the beloved blue tit are under threat because of a lack of food. On top of this, things like caterpillars are hatching early in line with the changing seasons, so when blue tit chicks are born, the supply is not as ample.
If global warming continues, then temperatures rising even just another 2 degrees could be detrimental to UK bird species, such as the short eared owl and the cuckoo, which are adapted to living in a very specific temperature range.
And it’s not just avian creatures that are under threat, some of the UKs marine animals are facing vulnerability because of a rise in water temperatures; the white beaked dolphin being a prime example. Moreover, the Atlantic salmon that relies on the cool waters of Scotland for breeding is under threat because, as water temperature rises, the chances of successful reproduction are significantly lowered.
It doesn’t take a nature expert to know that animals need suitable habitats in which to feed, mate and take shelter. However, with human interference, more and more wild habitats are being lost and this is causing a serious problem in the UK.
Compared to other G7 countries, the United Kingdom has lost more of its biodiversity than anywhere else, with more than half of its native species having disappeared in recent centuries. This is a result of things like urbanization, the draining of wetlands, and new roads, among other things. If this continues, one can only imagine the future damage to biodiversity that this country might see.
Changes to freshwater and wetlands are the result of redirecting the water flow and drainage, which has seriously affected the quality of water. The natterjack toad, a coastal species now rarely found in the UK, is just one of many that are affected by changes in the quality of the water.
The UK does not have many native snakes and reptile species so it’s essential to protect them. However, their heathland habitats have been cut in half as a result of urbanization, and the smooth snake is one of the worst affected. What’s more, even where habitats are not totally destroyed, urban developments mean that they are fragmented and in each area, there simply isn’t enough space for animals to thrive.
Pollution comes in many forms but regardless of the type, it’s considered to be one of the top reasons that so many wildlife species are under threat in the United Kingdom.
One of the main forms of pollution is chemicals in the water. Many of these chemicals can be attributed to agricultural runoff and in some places, the levels of phosphate are so high that the water quality is now rated as poor; West Sedgemoor is a prime example of this. The problem with this is that the phosphorus is making the area more nutrient-rich. Now, that may not seem like a problem, in fact, it could appear to be an advantage. However, we have to consider that these low-nutrient areas were sustaining rare species. Now, they’re being overrun by new species which causes competition for nutrients.
It’s not just chemicals that are a problem; plastic waste is a massive concern. In fact, according to the WWF, it’s thought that if things continue the way they are, there could be more plastic than fish in our oceans by the year 2050.
UK seabirds are among the worst affected but even at lower levels of the food chain, plankton are consuming microplastics which has a knock-on effect on everything above it in the chain.
Intensive Farming Practices
Humans need farming to produce food. However, the practices that are now being employed are anything but beneficial for nature and wildlife. In the UK, more than two-thirds of the land is occupied by agriculture, but things like pesticide use and the removal of trees and hedgerows between fields are incredibly detrimental to animals as it removes much of their habitat, which affects both bird and insect species.
One study showed that by harvesting crops in autumn, most of the seed availability over winter is eradicated which has had a serious impact on skylarks. Other avian species affected by this are the gray partridge and the common sparrow.
For amphibians, it is now thought that agriculture poses the greatest risk to their survival, as well as things like invasive non-native species, which I’ll talk more about in the following section. Not only this, but it’s thought that farmland bird species have declined by as much as 56% in the last 50 years alone and that is a direct result of a change in farming practices.
With such large amounts of farmland in the UK, the impact is very real. There are now more than 800 megafarms in the country, many of which are home to tens of thousands of chickens. The runoff from the chicken waste contains high levels of phosphorus which is infecting waterways and ruining the equilibrium of the soil, having an impact on wildlife as I discussed earlier on.
In the UK, there are programs in place to support farmers to ensure their agricultural practices are not harmful to wildlife. This could take some work but studies have shown that improved agricultural practices could actually be beneficial to wildlife which in turn benefits farming; it’s a win for both sides!
But perhaps the most concerning thing about intensive agricultural practices is the effect it has on the UK’s pollinator species. Bees alone pollinate as much as 75% of all human crops; without them, we would be significantly impacted, but it’s thought that bees and butterflies are most at risk. After research, it was noted that there were up to 70% fewer bees and butterflies in areas where there were a lot of crops compared to natural areas.
Invasive Non-Native Species
It’s estimated that the United Kingdom is home to around 70,000 native species and combined, these create a thriving ecosystem. However, when new species are introduced, this can wreak havoc and is one of the leading causes of the decline of many UK creatures.
There are now more than 2000 non-native species that have been introduced to the UK, such as the American mink. These species outcompete native animals for resources and threaten their very survival.
The American gray squirrel poses a risk to the native red squirrels in the UK since it passes on diseases, and the list goes on. The red swamp crayfish poses a threat to many native UK species, including the European crayfish. Not only do they transmit disease, but they’re also forcing our native crayfish to compete for resources.
Even plants are a problem with many people using buddleia bushes in their gardens from China. These bushes have become so common that they’re now popping up along railways and around buildings, threatening native species.
What’s even more concerning is that it’s thought that humans are introducing new non-native species to the UK at a rate of around 10 per year.
Animals at Risk of Extinction in the United Kingdom
Regrettably, the United Kingdom’s diverse fauna is facing an alarming threat, with a number of species standing precariously on the edge of extinction. In this section, we bring attention to these vulnerable animals, shedding light on the grave predicament they face.
1. Scottish Wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris)
The Scottish wildcat is a beautiful native feline species found in wooded habitats in northwest Scotland. However, it was once abundant across most of the UK, but populations gradually started to decrease from the south upwards from the 16th century.
Surprisingly, one of the main threats to these wildcats is interbreeding with domesticated cats. In fact, according to DNA testing, there are no remaining purebred wildcats out there so, in effect, they’re technically extinct. However, since there are purebred specimens in captivity, efforts are successfully underway to repopulate the wild, with the first batch being released in the summer of 2023.
Considered to be the most threatened mammal in Scotland, other threats to the species include disease, road accidents, and a fragmented habitat.
2. Great Crested Newt (Triturus cristatus)
The number of great crested newts in the UK has fallen by up to 40% and this is despite their protected status. It’s been difficult to obtain data on these creatures, but the general consensus is that their pond habitats are being spoiled because of pollution which affects the water quality. Much of this is a result of poor land management.
While it is concerning that these animals are under threat, there are some efforts in place that are looking hopeful. Redrow housing has teamed up with ARC to ensure suitable habitats for the great crested newt. Success is slow but in the first year, the population more than tripled at one location in Wales.
3. Narrow-Headed Ant (Formica exsecta)
The narrow-headed ant is a type of wood ant, now considered endangered in the UK. The main cause of this species’ decline is habitat loss which has caused such devastation that these ants are now only found in Devon and Scotland.
However, conservationists in the Cairngorms National Park are planning to breed these ants in captivity before releasing them into the wild to boost populations. It’s essential that this keystone species does not face extinction since they maintain the balance by spreading seeds and eating destructive caterpillars.
Down in Devon, efforts are being made to carefully redistribute narrow-headed ant nests to improve their spread. So far, things are looking promising.
4. Scottish Crossbill (Loxia scotica)
There is only one bird endemic to the UK and that is the stunning Scottish crossbill. Unfortunately, this species is now at risk because of climate change. This isn’t the first bird species in Scotland that has been affected by rising temperatures, but it’s also the 11% increase in rain that could be affecting this species.
In 2008, the species was listed as vulnerable, but less than a decade later, in 2017, this status changed to being at high risk of extinction. The good news is that there are healthy populations in some of Scotland’s most protected nature sites, but the distribution of these birds is still nowhere near good enough.
5. Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata)
The spotted flycatcher is a migratory species that breeds in the UK and across most of Europe, as far east as Siberia. Unfortunately, these are highly predated birds, and studies have shown that as many as one-third of nests in England were under threat by predators.
With a red conservation status in the United Kingdom, these birds are at risk of extinction, and in a short, 45-year period, populations have declined by as much as 89%! It’s currently unclear as to the main threat for the spotted flycatcher, but it’s thought that it could be a decline in insects which it relies on for food. What’s more, there’s evidence to show that the survival rate of fledglings has also declined in recent years.
6. Water Vole (Arvicola amphibius)
The water vole is native to most of Europe and in the UK is often found along riverbanks and around streams or ponds. This species enjoys a lot of vegetation cover where it can remain safe from predators. However, with the introduction of the American mink, water voles are now heavily under predation.
So much so that populations are thought to have declined by as much as 95% since 1960. However, the good news is that the government has now put a protection order in place.
Another reason that the water vole faces extinction is irresponsible farming practices which are ruining the animal’s natural habitat. Although, in Somerset, conservationists are making efforts to restore riparian habitats and release newly bred voles to the area’s waterways.
7. Capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus)
Sometimes called the cock-of-the-woods, these heavyset grouse birds are found across various parts of northern Europe. However, in recent years populations have started to decline. Generally across Europe, the species is listed as Least Concern by the IUCN Red List and isn’t expected to fall into dangerous territory for at least another three generations.
However, in Scotland where these birds were only reintroduced in the late 1800s, the capercaillie is one of the most threatened species, and conservationists worry that the end is imminent. With an incredibly tight range and only a few hundred individuals left in the wild, it’s a matter of life or death; and what is to blame? It’s habitat loss that has caused the habitat of these birds to not only be incredibly small but also seriously fragmented.
Not only this, but the number of capercaillie predators is on the rise, so conservationists are looking at ways of saving these birds without putting their predators at risk.
8. Hazel Dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius)
The last recorded sighting of the hazel dormouse was in Victorian England but these tiny woodland mammals are now being reintroduced. In fact, just recently, a huge milestone was reached after the 1000th hazel dormouse was let out into the wild and another 15 breeding pairs are soon to follow.
There are several threats to this species, and it’s thought that the populations have more than halved since the mid-90s. Things like predation are problematic, but many of the threats are a result of human behavior, including deforestation and poor forest management as well as climate change.
9. Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris)
I’ve spoken to people in the past that don’t believe red squirrels are native to the UK because they’re very rarely seen, especially compared to gray squirrel sightings. But actually, the red squirrel is the only native squirrel species in the UK and its gray cousin was introduced from America. In fact, this non-native species is one of the reasons red squirrels are under threat as they compete for resources and pass on diseases.
In Scotland, it’s now thought that there are as few as 120,000 red squirrels compared to the millions there would have been in the past. Habitat destruction, road accidents, and predation by pine martens are all further threats to this species.
UK Wildlife Trusts have been making serious efforts not only to restore the woodland habitats of these squirrels but also to provide them with additional resources like nuts to ensure they have enough provisions over winter.
10. European Pine Marten (Martes martes)
The pine marten is a type of mustelid found all across Europe and Asia, and while they’re generally listed as being of Least Concern, their populations in the UK are declining.
Sadly, the pine marten is mainly under threat because of humans. Since these are predatory animals, they’re often shot or poisoned, which has vastly reduced their numbers. However, humans also impact the species by causing habitat loss in the wooded areas where this species lives. Continuing human activity means that conservationists are unsure how recovering populations might survive.
In Scotland, protection has been put in place for the pine marten, but in England and Wales, no such program exists, meaning that numbers continue to decline. That said, the species is being monitored in terms of annual breeding, which is a good start in understanding how the population is changing.
11. Pipistrelle Bat (Pipistrellus pipistrellus)
There are 18 bat species native to the UK, and the pipistrelle bat is sadly one of the most at risk. These bats may be tiny, but they can eat up to 3000 insects every night, so they’re an important part of a balanced ecosystem.
But because of their appetite for insects, the pipistrelle bat population is under threat. The use of pesticides means that insects are not as readily available, and without an abundant food source, the bats struggle to survive.
On top of this, it’s thought that increased urbanization is one of the biggest threats to this species. There are two types of pipistrelle bats; the common and the soprano, and it seems that the latter is more seriously affected by new urban developments.
While all of this is concerning, the UK government has put protection in place for the pipistrelle and all other UK bat species, making it illegal to harm, kill or even handle a bat.
12. Sand Lizard (Lacerta agilis)
Sand lizards, as their name suggests, prefer a dry habitat, including rocks, heathlands, sand dunes, and beaches. While they’re found all over Europe, they were once common in the UK, but numbers have declined. So much so that they’re now considered as threatened and the UK has introduced strict laws to protect them.
Habitat fragmentation and loss are the main causes of concern for the sand lizard and, in some areas, such as Dorset, more than 85% of the habitable locations has been lost or divided into as many as 150 sections.
Known as the UK’s rarest reptile, the sand lizard is able to detach its tail when threatened by a predator but this unfortunately doesn’t help where urbanization and farmland encroach on its natural habitat.
13. Black-Tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa)
The black-tailed godwit is listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List, and globally there are fewer than 800,000 individuals. In the UK, these rare wading birds may be spotted around the coast during winter but will move further inland during migrations.
The black-tailed godwit is one of many shore birds that are thought to avoid contact with humans, and with so much urbanization and disturbance, it’s pushing these birds away. In fact, the species became extinct in the United Kingdom back in the 1800s and breeding pairs did not return until the 1930s.
Another problem for these birds is that breeding in the UK is incredibly difficult as a result of increased flooding during summer. What’s more, when breeding is successful, predators will often take the chicks.
These birds are now protected under UK law, but the public is encouraged to help ensure their survival by becoming a member of the Wildlife Trusts that provide protected reserves for the black-tailed godwit.
14. Hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus)
Growing up in the UK, I have personally noticed a decline in the number of hedgehogs I see at night. When I looked up the figures, I realized that this was not just my imagination. In the last two decades alone, it’s thought that the UK hedgehog population has declined by up to 77%!
These small spiny mammals are common in gardens around the UK, but they mainly prefer a woodland habitat. However, invasive farming has reduced the quality of their habitat, which is one of the leading causes of their decline. What’s more, the runoff of pesticides means that hedgehog habitats do not have such an abundance of insects that these animals rely on for food.
In an attempt to save the hedgehog, UK residents are encouraged to set up a hedgehog habitat in their backyards. What’s more, they have been given partial protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, making it illegal to trap them without a license.
15. Eurasian Beaver (Castor fiber)
There are only three places where the beaver is found in the United Kingdom; Tay, the Otter, and Knapdale. There are a few other places where they can be found but they’re enclosed and not considered to be a wild population. But for centuries, there were no wild beavers here at all, and it’s only recently that they’ve been reintroduced.
It’s great news that these creatures are being reintroduced after they were hunted to extinction around five hundred years ago. However, today, they still face threats due to their low numbers.
However, more efforts are underway to release more into the wild and this is essential since the beaver can help to reduce the impact of floods caused by climate change through the building of dams.
16. Greater Mouse-Eared Bat (Myotis myotis)
The greater mouse-eared bat is common across Europe, but in the UK, numbers are in such serious decline that, at one point, it was thought they had become extinct here. During the late 20th century, only a few greater mouse-eared bats remained in southern England, but most of them were male.
While still incredibly rare, there have been a couple of sightings which could suggest there are some of these bats left in the UK. There’s even one specimen that’s been seen for as many as 20 winters, living alone in a cave in West Sussex.
As with all British bats, the greater mouse-eared bat is protected under law, and conservationists have not recognized the importance of monitoring the species.
17. Grey Long-Eared Bat (Plecotus austriacus)
Another bat species native to the UK that is facing potential extinction is the gray long-eared bat which is typically found in grasslands or gardens. However, it is considered to be one of the rarest bat species in the UK and is protected by law.
They are so rare that they’re only found in some southern parts of the country where the winters are not as harsh. What’s more, there has been a significant decline in their habitat which has caused their decline.
18. Natterjack Toad (Epidalea calamita)
An interesting fact about the natterjack is that it’s the loudest toad in the UK! They’re found all over Europe in heathlands and sandy areas but are now considered to be one of the most endangered species of toad in the UK.
Many of the issues faced by the natterjack toad come in the form of human population and the demand for urban areas, encroaching on their natural habitat. But on top of this, the natterjack toad is also threatened by pollution and acidification, which has decreased the water quality in areas where it lives. Furthermore, the species faces competition from the common toad.
There is some good news, however; the UK has listed these toads as one of three protected amphibian species, and there are several nature reserves in England where the species can live an unhindered life.
Efforts to Protect Vulnerable Wildlife in the UK
It is very worrying to learn that so many of the UK’s animal species are under threat but this is not something that has gone unnoticed. In fact, the UK has many projects and laws in place to help these species come back from the brink of survival.
The degradation or loss of habitats is one of the biggest threats faced by UK wildlife, but there are efforts in place to restore and replace these habitats. This is happening all over the UK, but it’s a process that has to take place gradually.
The Great Fen is creating wetlands, and one of the ways that these areas are being protected and prevented from being turned into woodland is through the management of reeds. What’s more, the project is looking at water drainage and how best to retain as much as possible for wildlife. In Oxford, efforts are being made to restore wetlands over a three-hectare area that will contain as many as 8 pools that will hopefully improve biodiversity.
Where farming has depleted the nutrient levels of soil in areas where wildflowers once flourished, there needs to be a focus on restoring the balance and returning these meadows to their natural state. Again, this is a gradual process as the areas need to be grazed by sheep over the course of several years before the nutrient levels can be restored.
New woodlands are also being established after many areas have been destroyed to make way for urban developments. What’s more is that these areas will be planted depending on the local area, for example in wetter areas, the woods will be primarily made up of willows, whereas in drier areas, trees like oak and ash will be planted.
Sustainable Agriculture Practices
The UK is finding new ways of farming that are less harmful to local wildlife, and many measures have been put in place. Of course, it will be difficult to get farmers to change their established practices, so the UK government is offering incentives to those that are willing to cooperate. While this may seem like an expensive venture, it’s thought that it would be more cost-effective to the taxpayer. It’s hoped that through these programs, as many as 300 hectares of animal habitat could be recovered.
One of the biggest issues caused by farming is the removal of trees and hedgerows, which has taken away a lot of natural habitats for things like birds and insects. But the UK is now handing out up to 90,000 trees to farmers in the hopes of replacing these lost animal homes. Not only this but with more trees, this could contribute to limiting the effects of global warming.
If that isn’t enough, the UK is also planning to provide support to farmers to grow new hedgerows and restore as many as 45,000 miles (72,420 km) of hedgerows within the next 30 years.
In days gone by, it was common practice for farmers to leave land fallow for at least one or two cycles as this would not only increase the productivity of the land but it would also create a haven for wildlife. By doing this in modern agriculture, a lot of the UK’s biodiversity could be restored.
Species Reintroduction Programs
Over recent decades and centuries, there have been many species that have all but gone extinct in the United Kingdom. One of the ways that the UK is restoring its biodiversity is through the reintroduction of these animals.
One of the most exciting reintroductions is that of the beaver, which had been extinct here for more than 5 centuries after excessive hunting took place. However, beavers are now being released into the wild in many areas. While the current releases have taken place in just three spots, more are planned in Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Dorset and the Isle of Wight, among other places.
It’s been found that the European bison is one of the most important species in woodland management and improved biodiversity. So much so that they’ve been lovingly named the ‘ecosystem engineer.’ As part of an effort to restore diversity in Britain’s woodlands, the wilder blean project plans to release these animals along with other species like the iron-age pig.
Rewilding efforts seek to restore natural processes that in turn allow for the survival and thriving of species. Taking what we have learned from the past, it is possible to reshape the future, and some amazing projects are underway in the UK, such as reducing the number of grazing animals, restoring woodlands, and marine protection, among other things.
Greater Support for Conservation Groups & Community Initiatives
The fight for the UK’s endangered animals cannot be done if everyone doesn’t do their bit. That’s why there is now much more support available for conservation groups, with plenty of volunteering opportunities being advertised to help more people get involved.
Education is incredibly important because many people aren’t aware of the risks these animals face. By raising awareness and through public engagement campaigns, conservationists are able to encourage the community to get on board with their efforts.
The UK is also providing support to conservationists looking to survey and monitor species. This enables us to get a much clearer picture of where work is needed in the future and which species are facing the most difficulties.
Implementation of Legislation to Protect Wildlife & Habitats
One of the most wonderful things that we are seeing in the UK is the implementation of laws that are designed to protect endangered species and their natural habitats. There are many pieces of legislation now in place, including the following:
- The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 protects native species and controls the release of non-native species as well as providing protection to specific areas within the UK where animals can thrive.
- The Wild Mammals Protection Act 1996 protects vulnerable mammals and makes it an offense to harm them in any way.
- The National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 gives local authorities the right to claim tenure over land to make them into Local Nature Reserves.
- Hedgerow Regulations 1997 means that, in order to remove a hedgerow, you must apply for planning permission which may or may not be granted.
- The Countryside and Rights Of Way Act 2000 protects Sites of Special Scientific Interest.
- The legal status of beavers in the UK has now been changed making them a protected species.