Wildlife SOS - 4 species at risk in Yorkshire

Atlantic Bluefin Tuna (Thunnus thynnus)

Atlantic Bluefin Tuna (Thunnus thynnus) - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

From the bottom of the sea to the top of the tallest tree, there are tales of wildlife woes all over Yorkshire. The good news is that it’s not too late to save what little remains.

A crane in flight

A crane in flight - Credit: Archant

This year, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust carried out the first ever Great Yorkshire Creature Count, encouraging people all over Yorkshire to count the different types of wildlife they saw on their doorsteps over the weekend of the summer solstice.

Though pleasing to see so many people getting to know their wild spaces better, the results brought home some hard truths: much of our most beloved wildlife, which not so long ago would have been a common sight in gardens and local neighbourhoods, is suffering.

These results are reflected time and again in local, national and international surveys. The 2019 State of Nature Report reported that 15% of UK species are at risk of extinction; a major report from WWF revealed that global wildlife populations have fallen by more than two-thirds in less than 50 years; and recent analysis from RSPB announced that the UK has failed to reach 17 out of 20 UN biodiversity targets agreed on 10 years ago, describing it as a ‘lost decade for nature’.

Though many of us are fortunate enough to still see hedgehogs, swifts and bats in and from our gardens, results like those from the Great Yorkshire Creature Count reveal that numbers are dwindling fast. It is difficult to imagine a future where hedgehogs are so rare to be almost completely lost from our shores, but it has happened time and again to many species. Here are four examples of wildlife that were once abundant in Yorkshire, but have now almost vanished completely…

Freshwater pearl mussel in a diver's hands, Russia, Karelien, Keret River

Freshwater pearl mussel in a diver's hands, Russia, Karelien, Keret River - Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Atlantic bluefin tuna

By any standards, the Atlantic Bluefin tuna (or tunny) is a big fish. Adults average between 2 and 2.5m in length and weigh between 200 and 250kg – the largest on record is 679kg. It’s a sleek, fast, torpedo of a predator, glistening blue-black above and silver below. It was once an important game fish in the North Sea, the unlikely British centre of which was Scarborough. The largest tunny ever caught in British waters, weighing 386 kg, was landed in Scarborough in 1933.

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Populations began to plummet in the 1950s - driven both by commercial pressure on the species itself and overfishing of prey species such as herring – and the tunny had vanished by the 90s. Since 2014, though, sightings around the UK have been rising. It’s currently illegal to land Atlantic bluefin tuna in the UK, so perhaps we’re witnessing the return of the tunny.

Common crane

At over a metre, the common crane is the UK’s tallest bird. Unmistakeable in flight with its outstretched neck, vulture-like wings and trailing legs, it is largely grey with red and white markings on its head. For such a large bird, it’s surprising how well it can blend into its freshwater wetland habitat.

Cranes were once so common in Britain that 204 were served roasted at a banquet for the Archbishop of York in 1465. Medieval ecclesiastical diets notwithstanding, massive drainage for agriculture pushed them to extinction not just in Yorkshire but across the UK four centuries ago.

A trio of migrating birds were blown off course in 1979, ending up in Norfolk. Careful protection, reintroduction projects, and some landscape-scale habitat restoration projects mean that there are

now around 160 cranes in Britain. A pair bred successfully in South Yorkshire in the late 90s and there were three successful attempts in 2016.

Freshwater pearl mussel

The freshwater pearl mussel is an endangered species of mollusc, found in clean, nutrient-poor low-calcium rivers. They have a fascinating life cycle; their larvae attach to the gills of salmonid fish and ‘hitch a ride’ for up to 10 months of the year. When they are ready, they need to drop off into pristine river habitat where they will use their muscular foot to rasp algae and bacteria from the gravel.

At around 3-5 years, the larvae will have developed gills and will be able to filter free-flowing river water. The mussels do not mature sexually until the age of 12-15 years, or about 65mm long. Each female can produce up to 4 million larvae which are released into the water column every May/June.

The mussel was formerly widespread throughout western and northern parts of Great Britain. Like many filter feeders, they are vulnerable to pollution and declining river water quality has seen populations plummet. We have only one record in the region, in north east Yorkshire. The only viable population of freshwater pearl mussels left in England is in Cumbria.

Pine marten

Think of a large arboreal stoat, mostly chestnut-brown with a characteristic pale yellow ‘bib’ on its chin and throat, and a long, bushy tail. This elusive mustelid prefers woodland habitats, climbing very well and living in tree holes, old squirrel dreys or old birds’ nests. It feeds on small rodents, birds, eggs, insects and fruit.

When Britain was cloaked with woodlands, after the last ice age, they were the second most common carnivore, with an estimated population of 147,000. Woodland clearance, coupled with predator control, devastated the pine marten population; the species was confined to just a few very remote areas across Britain by 1915. There’s anecdotal evidence of pine martens hanging on in North Yorkshire. In summer 2017, Heritage Lottery Funded project, Nature Spy, caught a male pine marten on camera traps in Forestry Commission land in the North York Moors; but nothing has been seen since.

Wildlife Recovery Fund

We are rapidly running out of time to save our wildlife, from the hedgehogs that hide in our gardens to the great whales that roam the open seas – but it is still not too late. Rapid, urgent change can still save what little wildlife is still clinging on. Charities like Yorkshire Wildlife Trust are working tirelessly to protect and restore wildlife and wild places across land and sea, but we need your help. Wildlife Recovery Fund ywt.org.uk

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