Why are so many wetland species at risk?

In the UK, we notice our skies are falling silent as more and more birds disappear from our wetland landscapes. The curlew with its emotive call beloved of poets and once synonymous with summer moorlands, muddy winter estuaries and flower-filled hay meadows is now disappearing at an alarming rate.

Wetland loss in other countries is similarly bleak. It’s estimated that 60% have been lost from Madagascar in the last 60 years. On the central plateau, almost all remaining wetlands are severely degraded and many of the species that rely on them are on the brink of extinction.


When Greta Thunberg says that: ‘Our house is on fire’, it’s a stark warning that we’re in danger of effectively ‘burning the library of life’ – biodiversity.

There are warnings that the unprecedented decline in biodiversity is affecting nature’s ability to function and provide the world with vital services. In 2018, WWT along with other global NGOs issued a stark warning that the loss of wetland biodiversity is driving extinctions of animal and plant species. This loss will impact on food security, fisheries, water provision for agriculture and domestic needs, and natural protection from storms and floods. But it’s not too late to do something about it, if we start to appreciate how important nature is for a thriving world.

One attempt to put a monetary value on the goods and services provided by ecosystems estimates the worth of biodiversity at US $33trillion per year – close to the GDP of the US and China combined. A further estimate in 2014 put it at between $125 trillion and $145 trillion per year.

In 2000, it was estimated that biodiversity losses across the EU equated to £44 billion with the biodiversity loss in the UK in 2000 valued at around £150 million.

The economic and biodiversity value of wetlands far outweighs many terrestrial ecosystems, yet they are disappearing faster than any other habitat.

How fast are we losing wetland biodiversity?

According to a comprehensive and global report released in 2019 by the IPBES (The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) biodiversity in wetlands and other habitats around the world is in freefall.

The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.

IPBES Chair, Sir John Watson

It’s estimated that a quarter of all wetland species are at threat of extinction.

Biodiversity is vanishing from rivers, lakes and wetlands at an alarming speed with experts warning of a ‘catastrophic collapse’ in the world’s freshwater biodiversity. Globally 83% of freshwater species numbers (WWF Living Planet Report 2018) have declined with many amphibians and crustaceans now under global threat of extinction. Amphibians such as frogs, toads and newts have declined by 40% worldwide. While in Europe, there’s been a 71% decline in freshwater fish.

Nowhere is the biodiversity crisis more acute than in the world’s rivers, lakes and wetlands – with over a quarter of freshwater species now heading for extinction.

Dave Tickner, WWF-UK Chief Freshwater Advisor

European eel

What’s causing biodiversity loss in wetlands?

There are five driving forces behind the decline in biodiversity according to the latest report by The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and the misuse of land and sea and the resulting habitat loss is the number one cause.

More than a third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75% of freshwater resources are now devoted to crop or livestock production and use of land is the number one direct driver of change for biodiversity.

2019 UN IPBES report

The other key drivers include the direct exploitation of organisms for food and trade, (for example hunting, fishing and logging), climate change and pollution.

Invasive non-native species are also listed as one of the most serious threats to global biodiversity with wetlands and their wildlife being particularly at risk. In 2010, a study estimated that invasive species cost the British economy £1.7bn a year.

New Zealand pygmyweed is an invasive species
New Zealand pygmyweed is an invasive species

Wetlands tend to be severely affected for a variety of reasons. Firstly there’s the sheer number of invasive species that affect them. Wetland environments are also frequently disturbed and often enriched by nutrients, both of which create the ideal conditions for the fast growth and reproduction of non-native invasive species. Wetland wildlife is also particularly vulnerable because water provides easy pathways for INNS or Invasive non-native species to spread and grow.

The invasive American mink, which arrived in the UK countryside in the late 1950s after it was allowed to escape from fur farms, wreaked havoc on wetland biodiversity. This upset our ecosystem and is widely blamed for the decline in water vole populations.

Read more on the threats facing wetlands

What can we do to halt the catastrophic loss of wetland biodiversity?

The situation is dire, but there is still hope. WWT, along with a global team of scientists, is calling for the implementation of an Emergency Recovery Plan aimed at reversing the rapid decline in the world’s freshwater species and habitats. It sets out a comprehensive six-point plan providing proven solutions rooted in cutting edge science, which involves:

  • Letting rivers flow more naturally
  • Reducing pollution
  • Protecting critical wetland habitats
  • Ending overfishing and unsustainable sand mining in rivers and lakes
  • Controlling invasive species
  • Safeguarding and restoring river connectivity through better planning of dams and other infrastructure

With governments meeting in 2021 to agree a new global plan at a landmark conference of the Convention on Biological Diversity, this plan will help set new targets including restoring water flows, controlling illegal and unregulated sand mining in river and improving the management of freshwater fisheries.

A strategic approach to the implementation of these measures is vital if we are to make a global impact.

WWT’s Head of Conservation, James Robinson

With healthy freshwater ecosystems central to our survival, the plan is being hailed as an ambitious roadmap to safeguard freshwater biodiversity and all the benefits it provides to people across the world, as the report’s lead author and WWF-UK Chief Freshwater Advisor, Dave Tickner explains:

We have the last opportunity to create a world with rivers and lakes that once again teem with wildlife, and with the wetlands that are healthy enough to sustain our communities and cities, but only if we stop treating them like sewers and wastelands.

This decade will be critical for freshwater biodiversity: countries must seize the change to keep our life support systems running by ensuring freshwater conservation and restoration are central to a New Deal for Nature and People.

What can I do?

It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of facts and figures. While the Emergency Recovery Plan is calling on governments, investors, companies and communities to take action and prioritise freshwater biodiversity, there are lots of things we can all do to help boost wetland biodiversity. We’ve pulled together some helpful information we hope will help you to join us in helping save and protect wetland wildlife.

Protecting threatened wetland species

We protect wetland biodiversity through our work both in the UK and around the world. Find out more about why saving wetland species has a disproportionately beneficial effect on our environment.

Find out more