British wildlife charity, the Mammal Society, is calling for greater protection for the nation’s wild mammals in light of proposed revisions to legislation. Changes to the Wildlife and Countryside Act would see legal protection extended only to mammals deemed ‘Critically Endangered’. The Mammal Society argues that British mammals should be afforded the same protection as birds, all of which are protected from deliberate killing, injury and disturbance whilst breeding in Britain.
According to the Mammal Society, one in four of the UK’s 48 native land animals are deemed ‘Threatened’, meaning they are classified as Vulnerable, Endangered or Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. Threats to British mammals include direct persecution, accidental killing and loss of habitat through rural development or intensive agricultural management. These factors leave some of Britain’s most-prized wildlife at risk including as the beaver, hedgehog and red squirrel. Hedgehogs are faring particularly badly. Their population in England, Wales and Scotland is estimated at one million, in comparison to 30 million in the 1950s.
In May 2021, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), the Government’s conservation advisory body, shared details of proposed changes to schedule 5 and 7 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act. Among other things, the changes would mean that only mammal species classed as Critically Endangered on the GB IUCN Red List – such as wildcats and greater mouse-eared bats – would be automatically eligible for protection. Although ‘Endangered’ species can still be proposed for consideration, lower categories ('Vulnerable and 'Near Threatened') would no longer be eligible. This would include mountain hares, red squirrels and hedgehogs.
In response to these proposals, Dr Stephanie Wray, Mammal Society chair, said: 'The government is chipping away at legislation which is over 40 years old and is no longer fit for purpose. To limit legal protection to those species on the very brink of extinction seems at odds with the Government’s own stated agenda set out in the 25 Year Environment Plan.'
The Society says it has ‘significant reservations about placing such reliance on Red List status’. In a statement, it argues that Red Lists are not designed to be used in the way the Government is proposing, pointing to the fact that ‘the IUCN explicitly states that Red Lists are not designed to detect longer-term more gradual changes, which can be of equally serious conservation concern.’ Its concern is that animals that could be at risk of extinction will fall through the gaps.
The Society is calling for new legislation to tackle conservation at the population or ecosystem level, rather than just protecting individual animals of specific species. One option would be to offer mammals the same level of protection as birds which are all protected from deliberate killing, injury and disturbance whilst breeding in the UK. This could prevent all species of threatened mammals from reaching critically low populations, rather than offering a last line of defence from imminent extinction.