How to help Britain's most endangered animals

More than one in seven species native to the UK now face extinction. But with your help, they can be brought back from the brink. Here are five of Britain's most endangered wild animals and how you can help to restore their numbers.

Red squirrels

an endangered red squirrel in British snow

With its unmistakable reddish-brown fur, bushy tail and long ear tufts, the red squirrel is one of the UK’s most distinctive native animals. Their population has been in decline for a number of years due to competition from their North American cousins, the grey squirrel, and the severe form of smallpox they carry.

Wild red squirrels can only be found in a few parts of the British Isles now, and their population is just a fraction of their grey-haired relatives. The red squirrel population is stabilising, though, and efforts to restore their population through breeding programmes are proving fruitful.

Habitat loss is a huge factor in the red squirrel’s decline. So if you want to do something to help rebuild their population, a good place to start is supporting local forestry initiatives and petitioning against urban sprawl. By reporting any sightings to your local red squirrel association, you can also help researchers to build a better picture of population numbers, allowing them to put more effective conservation strategies in place.

 

Water voles

how to help water voles

Often mistaken for rats, water voles have shorter noses, less prominent ears and are rounder than their Ratty friends, eating up to 80 per cent of their body weight per day. They live along the banks of slow flowing rivers and were once a common sight in many of the UK’s waterways.

The population of these water-dwelling critters has fallen by 94 per cent over the past 30 years and like the red squirrel, their decline is in large part due to the introduction of a non-native American species: American mink.

Mink were first introduced to the UK over 50 years ago and quickly established themselves in wetland and coastal regions, preying on smaller animals like ground-nesting seabirds and voles.

There’s very little that can be done to protect water voles from these predators—they’re fiercely territorial and very good swimmers. However, you can take steps to protect water voles' natural habitats. Conservation charities do lots of work to restore riverbanks and reintroduce voles to parts of the country where they’re endangered. By volunteering your time or donating to these organisations, you can keep wetland vole friendly and make a big difference to the water vole’s future.

 

Hedgehogs

a baby hedgehog looks up from under a leaf

Hedgehogs are very familiar to Brits. Famous for presenting a series of road crossing commercials in the late nineties, they’re a big part of British pop culture and a recognisable sight across the UK. Unfortunately, since the turn of the century, the number of hedgehogs has rapidly fallen and is now only half of what it once was.

The population of these spiny mammals is plateauing in urban areas but is still declining rurally. Campaigners have linked this decrease to a loss of hedgerows in farmland, but the drop can also be linked to the UK’s rise in road traffic and growing badger population—the hedgehog’s only predator.

There are a number of ways to help these adorable creatures. If you see one in the daytime and it looks unwell, bring it indoors and put it in a high-sided cardboard box with an old towel at the bottom for the hedgehog to hide under. Put the box somewhere quiet and provide some fresh water and something to eat (they love cat and dog food) then call the British Hedgehog Preservation Society.

Other ways to help include creating hedgehog-friendly access points at the bottom of fences and building a hedgehog home in your back garden.

 

Small tortoiseshell butterflies

a small tortoiseshell butterfly rests on a leaf

British butterflies have struggled to maintain their numbers for several decades now. A species that’s particularly vulnerable is the small tortoiseshell butterfly. With its characteristic reddish-orange colour and black markings, it’s a beautifully patterned insect and one that used to be fairly common in the UK. Sadly, reports published in 2013 showed its population had dropped by a staggering 77 per cent.

A loss of wild flowers and butterfly habitats is said to be behind this decline in native butterfly species. Although, this trend has been ongoing since the mid-1970s, which means it could be due to a number of things, including climate change and pesticide use.

By leaving weeds alone and allowing pollen-heavy plants like dandelions to grow in your garden, you can improve the availability of nectar and make your patch more pollinator-ready. Insects like the small tortoiseshell butterfly also need a place to stay during the colder winter months, so by planting ivy and shrubs along the edges of your garden, you can make it easier for them to make it through to spring.

 

Turtle doves

A turtle dove rests by the water

Turtle doves are a small breed of pigeon. Their gentle coo is often associated with the sounds of summer and their upper body has a distinctive mottled pattern. Turtle doves are the UK’s fastest declining bird species, falling by 97 per cent since the 1970s, and they are now the focus of multiple conservation efforts across the UK.

Breeding in lowland England, turtle doves can only be spotted in southern and eastern areas of the UK, where the RSPB is working closely with farmers to cultivate feeding habitats, the loss of which is thought to be behind the turtle dove’s dramatic decline.

Raising money for bird societies like the RSPB helps to protect endangered bird species like the turtle dove. Making a positive change closer to home is also important. You can achieve this by installing a feeder and bird bath in your garden, or by planting varieties like fumitory and black medick to provide a source of seeds in summer.

 

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