Blog: Protecting the UK’s remarkable island biodiversity

Published: 14 May 2020

Author: Joshua Powell
Blog: Protecting the UK’s remarkable island biodiversity

The UK is not somewhere we usually associate with outstanding and globally threatened biodiversity. However, we are very familiar with our status as an island nation - something Sir Winston Churchill was very conscious of - both in terms of the British Isles themselves and the offshore islands that make up most of the British Overseas Territories.

"Islands certainly present a rather different set of conservation challenges to mainland systems. Many of the species on offshore islands, like the British Overseas Territories, evolved in isolation, or represent refuge populations of wildlife that has elsewhere gone extinct" - Joshua Powell, Fellow 

Biologically speaking, islands are incredibly important. The reason for this is that islands host a disproportionate share of global biodiversity and, when you combine the territory under British jurisdiction, you in fact find almost 1,600 known endemic species - that is species found nowhere else in the world. 94% of them are on the British Overseas Territories. Many of these species are threatened with extinction and, with biodiversity under immense pressure worldwide, the responsibility to protect them lies solely at our door.  

Above: The UK and the British Overseas Territories support numerous species of apex predators like albatross, almost 1600 known endemic species and, perhaps surprisingly, the world’s largest population of penguins 

In search of good examples of island conservation, in 2017 my Churchill Fellowship took me to New Zealand, Australia and Fiji, which have some of the best examples on the planet. New Zealand in particular has really led the world on island conservation. It was a New Zealand Churchill Fellow, Don Merton, who was instrumental in saving the black robin (Petroica traversi) from extinction. As a conservation biologist, I was interested to find out what has allowed these countries to make giant strides in the protection of biodiversity on offshore islands, and which lessons can be applied to the UK and the British Overseas Territories. 

Above: The takahē (Porphyrio hochstetteri) is found only on New Zealand’s South Island. Through careful conservation management, numbers are slowly increasing and the species has been brought back from the brink of extinction

Islands certainly present a rather different set of conservation challenges to mainland systems. Many of the species in the UK evolved in isolation, or represent refuge populations of wildlife that has elsewhere gone extinct. That means approaches like invasive species eradication, biosecurity and marine protection become vitally important. Tasmania in Australia is an excellent example of this: strict biosecurity measures are designed to prevent the introduction of novel invasive species, which could cause havoc on the island’s unique wildlife. We are beginning to introduce these sorts of measures to our offshore islands, both in the UK and  British Overseas Territories, but we are still a long way behind.  

After my Churchill Fellowship, I was grateful to receive post-Fellowship funding to meet some of the organisations in two British Overseas Territories where these lessons could be best applied. I was able to visit South Georgia, which at the time was carrying out possibly the world’s most ambitious invasive species eradication for rats and which has since been declared a resounding success. I also visited the Falklands Islands, where conservation is beginning to play an increasingly significant role in improving biodiversity.  

Above: South Georgia’s remarkable birdlife (all of which is ground-nesting and includes the world’s most southerly songbird) has benefited from an ambitious eradication of invasive species like reindeer and rats

Remarkably, the majority of funding and leadership for the South Georgia eradication programme came from a relatively small charity, the South Georgia Heritage Trust. A charity is also leading attempts to restore Gough Island, a World Heritage Site in Tristan da Cunha, which is home to the critically endangered Tristan albatross (Diomedea dabbenena). Here in the UK, it is the RSPB who are leading efforts. It is unthinkable that, as a nation, we would let endemic species under our care slip into extinction - much less an entire species of albatross, the world’s largest flying birds.

I’m convinced that we should be emulating the level of ambition that I saw during my Fellowship, particularly in New Zealand. South Georgia is now among the very best examples of island conservation anywhere in the world - but the true test of the UK’s commitment and ambition will be whether it can replicate that success elsewhere, without the advantages that South Georgia has (it is uninhabited, apart from a small team of scientific researchers). That will require the UK Government to support the British Overseas Territories with funding and expertise, working in active partnership with their governments.

The good news is that momentum is building in government to support ambitious action on the British Overseas Territories. In April, Defra published a call for evidence on safeguarding the environment on the British Overseas Territories, which my Fellowship report contributed to (alongside organisations like the British Antarctic Survey and Falklands Conservation). Encouraged by the Great British Oceans campaign and National Geographic’s Pristine Seas, another British Overseas Territories - Ascension Island - is soon to create the Atlantic Ocean’s largest marine protected area. If we can maintain and build on this sort of momentum, the wildlife with which we share our island homes may finally have a fighting chance.

Read Joshua's report 

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