WILDLIFE in Oxfordshire has suffered 'serious decline' over the past two decades and urgent action is needed to save it before some species disappear completely.

That is the conclusion of the first ever comprehensive survey of the state of nature in the county.

More of the species measured were found to declining in numbers than increasing, and the nightingale, turtle dove and adder are now close to extinction in Oxfordshire.

More than 60 wildlife experts and 40 environmental organisations contributed data on species and habitats dating back more than 20 years for the inaugural Oxfordshire State of Nature Report.

The project was co-ordinated by Wild Oxfordshire, a small group of nature-loving volunteers who now want to persuade the authorities to help save the county's green 'crown jewels'.

Programme manager Hilary Phillips, who led the report, said: "On the whole, things are declining at a scary rate.

"When young people are saying to us 'maybe there won't be hedgehogs around when I grow up', we should definitely be worried.

"We wanted to raise awareness of the jewels in the crown of Oxfordshire's environment such as our rare plants: we have got our plants where ours is the only population in the country and people are working very hard to look after them.

"We wanted to raise awareness of what we have got but also how it could be so much better."

Among the 'jewels in the crown' are creeping marshwort, which only grows in two places in the country including Oxford.

Oxfordshire conservationists have also been able to rescue the water vole in the county, and while numbers in the rest of the UK plummeted by 95 per cent in the past century, in Oxfordshire its range has increased three-fold in recent years.

But other species are still disappearing: nightingales, adders and turtle doves are all close to extinction in the county and entire habitats such as grassland and rivers are at 'huge risk', the report concluded.

The blame has been pointed largely at modern farming practices: massive fields of single crops and hedgerows being pulled up to create larger, more efficient spaces.

Studies have shown that this decimates biodiversity and has a disproportionately negative effect on wildlife.

But these practices, along with housing developments, also fragment the landscape and isolates populations.

One of the surprising conclusions of the study was that Oxford and the county's towns and villages have become a 'last refuge' for many species such as hedgehogs, badgers and swifts fleeing the carving up of countryside.

Yet even those urban refugees are being squeezed out of existence as garden fences, walls and new building break up the urban environment even more.

Mrs Phillips said: "The environment comes at the bottom of a lot of peoples' shopping lists and it needs to be shouted about."

The report lists eight 'key actions' for local authorities to help enforce:

• Urgently create larger and more connected areas of high quality habitats.

• Help farmers to find financially viable ways of managing land to provide greater benefits to nature.

• Improve practical advice and support for communities and landowners.

• Ensure better planning for open water and green areas that benefits nature and people.

• Put sustainable development that invests in nature at the heart of local decision making.

• Increase access to green space and volunteering opportunities to keep people in touch with the health and wellbeing benefits of nature.

• Develop more collaborations within our strong and diverse environment sector.

• Continue to improve the methodology for monitoring the state of nature across Oxfordshire.

Mrs Phillips explained: "What we need is more collaboration within the environment sector but also with other sectors.

"It is no good us just talking to each other, we can't do it on our own.

"We all have to work together."

The report is being officially launched today in a ceremony at Blenheim Palace, but Wild Oxfordshire will also be issuing it to local councils, MPs and other organisations to try and foster more awareness of what each can do to help the environment.


Oxford Mail:

Since the 1930s, grasslands have declined by the greatest proportion of all the habitats covered in the report, and species-richness has plummeted.

Although the vast majority of grasslands in Oxfordshire have been ‘improved’ for grazers by fertilisers, herbicides and reseeding, there has been an increase in the restoration and sympathetic management of grasslands in non-agricultural situations.

• 44 per cent of Oxfordshire’s grassland local wildlife sites have declined in condition since they were first selected.

• The marsh fritillary butterfly and wall butterfly, both grassland specialists, are now considered extinct in the county.

• Apart from at the RSPB’s Otmoor reserve, curlew numbers decreased by 51 per cent, lapwing by 21 per cent, snipe by 88 per cent and redshank by 50 per cent in Oxfordshire between 2005 and 2015.

Causes of change

Mainly the intensification of agriculture, made worse by mineral extraction, urban and industrial development, changes to floodplains and lack of appropriate management.


Oxford Mail:

A range of important wetlands can be found in Oxfordshire, such as floodplain meadows, fens, and ponds.

However, of the 101 water bodies in the county, only five per cent are classed as having 'good status'. As a result, there has been an increase in activity to protect freshwaters and wetlands from threats like pollution, and to manage habitats sensitively.

• Between 1900 and 1998, water voles suffered a 95 per cent reduction in their range in the UK. Targeted conservation action in Oxfordshire has resulted in a three-fold increase in their range.

• The banning of toxic chemicals, improvements in water quality and legal protection have all helped to bring otters back to the Thames catchment, including in urban rivers.

• After an absence of about 200 years, bitterns have returned to breed in the new reedbed at RSPB’s Otmoor reserve.

• 15 invasive non-native species of most concern to the environment agency are found in Oxfordshire, including the demon shrimp.

• Reedbeds were once a common habitat in the low-lying areas of Oxfordshire, but today, no large remnants remain.

Causes of change

Many rivers have been heavily modified through historic dredging, canals and impoundment, reducing connectivity with their natural floodplains and creating barriers to the movement of species. They suffer from nutrient pollution and, in some locations, low flows.


Oxford Mail:

From ancient woodlands and Royal hunting forests to modern-day plantations, all of Oxfordshire’s woodlands have been shaped by human activity to some extent. Woodland cover in the county is approximately one per cent less than the national average at just over 23,000ha, but nearly 9,000ha of that is ancient woodland. Yet, only 53 per cent of woodlands in Oxfordshire are actively managed.

• Willow tits, which like scrub and wet woodland, are the most rapidly declining woodland bird species locally.

• Oxfordshire has lost 80 per cent of its orchards since 1911.

• Despite dramatic national declines, colonies of the black hairstreak butterfly appear stable in Oxfordshire.

• Nightingales have disappeared from Oxfordshire’s woodlands; in 2016, only four birds and no breeding pairs were reported.

• Many of Oxfordshire’s woodlands are small – 38 per cent are less than 10ha in size, indicating a scattered and fragmented resource.

Causes of change

Neglect is a major threat to Oxfordshire’s woodlands, even though certain species rely on areas of older woodland. Sustainable management is crucial to maintain biodiversity, productivity and ecosystem function. Other threats include climate change, pests and diseases.


Oxford Mail:

Farmland accounts for 74 per cent of Oxfordshire’s land cover, of which 56 per cent is cereals farming and 30 per cent livestock grazing.

Farmland can support a wide range of priority habitats and species. However, intensification has caused a massive decline in farmland biodiversity, particularly in birds. The biodiversity value of farmland depends on good management.

• Between the 1980s and 2000s, there was a 27 per cent reduction in hedgerow length within a 1,200 km2 study area centred around Banbury.

• Turtle dove numbers have decreased by 93 per cent since 1994 – the largest decline of any farmland bird.

• 47 species of conservation concern use hedgerows as their main habitat.

• Oxfordshire’s farmland is home to 11 types of priority habitat. Between 2006 and 2014, more than 4,200ha of priority habitat were managed in the county.

• Research suggests that up to 50 per cent of recorded ponds have disappeared from farmland in the upper Thames region over the last century.

Causes of change

Since the Second World War, farming policies and practices have rapidly changed and intensified, causing dramatic declines in traditional farmland habitats and species. Changing management methods include decreases in mixed farming, moving from spring to autumn sowing of arable crops, switching from hay to silage production, increases in pesticide and fertiliser use, and removing non-cropped features like hedgerows. Also, agricultural pollutants now contribute 50-60 per cent of nitrates, 20-30 per cent of phosphates and 75 per cent of sediment to England’s waterways.


Oxford Mail:

Despite being a largely rural county, more than 66 per cent of Oxfordshire’s population lives in an urban setting. Urban green spaces, such as domestic gardens, playing fields, parks and cemeteries not only benefit people, but provide important habitats for wildlife. Urban green spaces can act as stepping stones for plants and animals, linking to rural areas and larger ecosystems.

This connectivity through the landscape is vital for ensuring the resilience and sustainability of sites and the populations they support, particularly in light of climate change.

• Between 1990 and 2007, there was an 11 per cent increase in developed land cover in Oxfordshire.

• Numbers of swifts, a bird dependant on accessible nest-sites in urban areas, declined by 47 per cent in the UK between 1994 and 2014.

• Between 1995 and 2014, urban butterfly abundance fell by 69 per cent compared to a 45 per cent decline in rural areas.

• Urban hedgehog populations have increased by a third, but rural populations have more than halved.

• Urban and rural gardens hold 86 per cent of all ponds and nearly a quarter of the total number of trees outside woodland.

Causes of change

The need for more housing has resulted in a decrease in the average size of gardens and green cover. Modern trends for impermeable surfaces like paving are also causing high volumes of water to enter watercourses during storm events, which causes erosion, bank collapse and flash-flooding downstream.