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Endangered wetland species that still need our help

Posted on 12 Mar 2020

13% of freshwater wetland species are threatened with extinction from Great Britain. It’s a sobering reflection of the state of the UK’s wetlands. So what can we do to prevent them disappearing forever?

At WWT, we take the view that single-species conservation can play an important role as part of a broader conservation strategy, as long as they clearly positively impact the wider ecosystem or environment (and often, humans too). Here we look closer at some of the most endangered wetlands species found in the UK and beyond, and what can be done to help them. These species are not necessarily listed on the IUCN Red List as officially 'Endangered' (more on how the IUCN Red List works here) but they are considered by many to be extremely concerning. And by focusing on what we can do for these particular species, we hope to create a healthier ecosystem and biodiversity of species in wetlands and beyond.

Nearly 35% of the world's wetlands were lost between 1970 and 2015 - 2018 Ramsar report

1. Curlew (Scientific name: Numenius arquata)

The curlew is the largest European wading bird, instantly recognisable by its long, down curved bill, mottled brown and grey plumage, long legs and haunting ‘cur-lee’ call.

Although the UK is home to a quarter of the global breeding population of curlews, the numbers fell by 64% from 1970 to 2014. Food scarcity, predation and changes in farming practices are all contributing to the decline.

Conservation status

The curlew was added to the UK red list in in December 2015, and it is argued to be the most pressing bird conservation priority in the UK.

How we can help them

We’ve rescued threatened curlew eggs across the country, hatched and reared them, and then released them in a process known as headstarting. We’re also researching long term solutions to stop the population crash – something that won’t just benefit the curlew, but the whole ecosystem.

2. Water vole (Scientific name: Arvicola amphibious)

This much-loved British mammal lives in the banks of rivers and wetlands or in small nests in fens and reedbed. Sometimes they’re called ‘water rats’ but actually there is no such thing; there are brown rats that swim, but these are a different species. Read our guide to telling the difference for more information about how to spot water voles in the wild.

Now the water vole faces an uncertain future, having experienced the fastest decline of any native UK mammal in the 20th century. Habitat loss and predation by non-native American mink are mainly to blame. They’re estimated to have been lost from 94% of places they one lived – a staggering number. However, there's not really enough data

Conservation status

They are a priority species in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan and are protected in the UK under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981.

How we can help them

We carefully manage the ditches on our reserves, getting support from the Internal Drainage Boards – the public bodies responsible for maintaining the ditch systems in wetter parts of the UK. Their help in sensitively clearing ditches combined with our planting and management has reaped some great results. At Slimbridge, the amount of ditches used by water voles went up from just 250m to over 15 kilometres in just four years! There are also large populations of water vole reported at Arundel and Steart.

3. Natterjack toad (Scientific name: Epidalea calamita)

The rare natterjack toad gets its name from the loud rasping call made by males in the spring. To attract a female, the males sing together at night, making such a chorus that their calls have been heard up to a mile away.

Smaller than the common toad, the natterjack has a distinguishing yellow stripe running down its back and walks on short legs, rather than hop. Unfortunately, due mainly to habitation loss, it is now only found in a few coastal areas in England and Scotland, where it prefers shallow seasonally flooded pools on sand dunes, heaths and marshes.

Conservation status

They are a priority species in the UK Post-2010 Biodiversity Framework and are protected in the UK under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981.

How we can help them

Natterjack toads are present at our Caerlaverock reserve. They use temporary ponds on both saltmarshes and inland pools. The numbers of natterjack toads have seriously declined at Caerlaverock in the last few years and we have increased our surveys and monitoring efforts to try and establish the cause.

4. Spoon-billed sandpiper (Scientific name: Calidris pygmaea)

The spoon-billed sandpiper is perilously close to extinction. Its numbers recently plummeted to fewer than 200 pairs worldwide.

This adorable, small and very rare migratory bird – or “spoonie” as it is affectionately known – has a beak the shape of a spoon and a red-brown head, neck and breast.

It spends the winter on the vast wetlands of South Asia, making incredible migrations across the continent to its breeding grounds on the Russian tundra.

Conservation status

They are listed as Critically Endangered on the global IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

How we can help them

We’ve been working alongside a wide range of people and organisations to halt the decline of the spoonie. The Spoon-billed Sandpiper Project is truly international and collaborative in effort, involving conservation breeding, headstarting and satellite tracking. But their fate still hangs in the balance.

5. European eel (Scientific name: Anguilla Anguilla)

Photo: Neil Aldridge

The European eel is a curious and fascinating creature. It undertakes an incredibly daunting migration as a young ‘glass’ eel, drifting on the currents from the Sargasso sea in the Caribbean to the colder estuaries of northern Europe.

A suite of threats is implicated in the eels’ demise – weirs and dams, hydropower and water-pumping stations could be blocking their migration pathways from the sea into the freshwater catchments where they grow and mature; overfishing, pesticides and parasites are believed to be part of the problem; and climate change may be shifting the track of the Gulf Stream so that fewer glass eels are hitching a trans-Atlantic ride.

Conservation status

They are listed as Critically Endangered on the global IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

How we can help them

We're making routes into our reserves as eel-friendly as possible, including installing 'eel passes' to help the glass eels on their journey, and cameras to learn more. We're also conducting research to learn more about what happens during the eels' long lives, and how they use freshwater habitats.

6. Marsh fritillary butterfly (Scientific name: Euphydryas aurinia)

It is one of the most brightly coloured of all the fritillaries butterflies found in Britain, but its fate now hangs in the balance.

With a striking chequered pattern of orange, brown and yellow markings on its wings, the Marsh fritillary gets its common name from the marshy, damp wetlands and grasslands where it makes its home.

Once widespread throughout Britain, its populations plummeted in the 20th century due to habitat loss and fragmentation and it is now restricted to parts of southern England and Wales, the west coast of Scotland and a few sites in Ireland.

Conservation status

They are a priority species in the UK and are protected in the UK under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981.

How we can help them

We’re investigating trialling the reintroduction of the Marsh fritillary at one of our wetland reserves in the UK to help combat the effects of habitat fragmentation.

7. Common crane (Scientific name: Grus grus)

Common cranes were wiped out from Britain 400 years ago after being hunted to extinction for food. Combined with a loss of their natural wetland habitat, the birds were gone from Britain by 1600.

Conservation status

Thankfully, we have helped secure the future of the common crane as a British breeding bird. But because its breeding population is so small, the crane is on the UK Amber conservation list for birds.

How we can help them

WWT (along with partner organisations) came up with the concept to take crane eggs from Europe (where cranes number in their tens of thousands) and bring them to the UK to hatch and rear in safety before releasing them into the wild.

As a result of the Great Crane Project, 93 young cranes were released into at a secret location in the Somerset Levels and Moors over five years. The cranes adapted to life in the wild more successfully that anyone predicted and the latest reports reveal a record of 54 pairs of cranes across the UK in 2019, with the total population coming in around 180 birds.

The UK crane population has now reached its highest level in over 400 years!

Read the story

8. White clawed freshwater crayfish (Scientific name: Austropotamobius pallipes)

The white-clawed crayfish is a freshwater, brown-coloured invertebrate, similar to a lobster. It has cream undersides to its claws - hence the name. It’s found throughout the UK in freshwater streams where it hides under stones and feeds on water plants, small water invertebrates and dead organic matter.

Conservation status

White-clawed crayfish are endangered in the UK due to the introduction of the invasive signal crayfish which carries a disease that affects our white-clawed crayfish. They are also threatened by water pollution and loss of natural habitat.

How we can help them

In November 2018 WWT Slimbridge received a female white-clawed crayfish from Bristol Zoo who was already carrying eggs on her underside. The eggs successfully hatched in June 2018.

9. Madagascar pochard (Scientific name: Aythya innotata)

When it wasn't seen for 15 years, the Madagascar pochard was believed to have been wiped out completely. Then a tiny group of the birds was rediscovered in 2006 at one remote lake in the north of Madagascar.

Conservation status

They were listed as ‘Possibly Extinct’ on the global IUCN Red List of Threatened Species; following rediscovery they are now listed as ‘Critically Endangered’.

How we can help them

WWT experts quickly set up an emergency conservation breeding programme and it’s been so successful, the captive population has effectively quadrupled the world population.

We used the world’s first floating aviaries to release 21 captive-bred Madagascar pochards onto Lake Sofia in Madagascar in 2018 as part of a decades spanning project. We’re now monitoring their progress as they become accustomed to their new surroundings - and in early 2020, the ducklings had ducklings!

10. Tadpole shrimp (Scientific name: Triops cancriformis)

The tadpole shrimp has existed virtually unchanged for over 200 million years. But in the UK only a single population – in a single pond - was known to remain until it was discovered at the WWT Caerlaverock reserve in 2004.

Conservation status

Triops are considered threatened in the UK as they have been recorded at very few sites. On a wider scale, we’ve seen a decline across Europe, although more data is needed.

How we can help them

We’re continuing to survey and improve the management of temporary pools on our Caerlaverock reserve, for example encouraging small amounts of cattle to disperse the eggs naturally in their hooves. Field workers are now searching for other populations across the UK. We’ve also hatched triops in captivity to study their somewhat mysterious lifecycle further.

Help our most threatened species

You can help bring wetlands species back from the brink by becoming a member of WWT. Together we can protect the wetland habitats that many endangered species rely on. You’ll also get free access all year to explore our wetland sites around the UK.

Find out more