WWF UK Blog  

Our kingdom of nature – not so united


On the whole, the United Kingdom seems to love its nature. We worship Attenborough, re-use and recycle, and are encouraged to make our gardens wildlife friendly. But how much do UK citizens really understand the threats to – and importance of – nature?

A 2013 Flash Eurobarometer Survey interviewed 25,537 people from the 27 EU countries to uncover attitudes to, and awareness of, biodiversity – and we looked at the results from the 1,003 UK respondents.

Red squirrel, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland © Wild Wonders of Europe/Peter Cairns / WWF

In levels of awareness, the UK came out in the middle somewhere. We aren’t top of the ladder like the Portuguese and Greeks, or bottom of the ladder like Finland and Latvia. Surprised? We were. While on the whole UK citizens fared well, we thought we’d do a bit better.  Here are the main findings from the UK:

  • UK citizens perceive the loss of animals as more serious than the loss of plants, and the loss of forests as more serious than the loss of other natural habitats – such as wetlands or rivers
  • UK citizens perceive the loss of biodiversity at a global level as more serious than the loss in Europe and the UK.

These results may be linked to more exposure to communication on the more charismatic animals; such as lions and tigers, and landscapes found outside of the EU; such as tropical coral reefs and rainforests – and less about those within.

Scottish wild cat © David Lawson / WWF-UKScottish wild cat © David Lawson / WWF-UK

As it turns out, nearly 90 percent of the EU’s fish stocks are over-exploited or significantly depleted, and 25 percent of species are threatened with extinction – such as the Scottish wild cat, (pictured left), with less than 100 individuals remaining in the wild today. Some of our other charismatic creatures – such as the red squirrel (pictured above) and hedgehog (pictured below) have experienced dramatic declines in numbers recently. The issues here are as serious as elsewhere – but perhaps people are less exposed to this.

  • There was a slight increase in tolerance for damage to protected areas in favour of economic development compared to a 2010 survey – and half of UK respondents said that precedence should be given to economic projects over protected areas when there is a major public interest – though what major public interest meant wasn’t made clear.

This view may link with the fact that over half of respondents don’t think biodiversity loss affects them now or will do in the future – and also relates to the following, which shows – as expected – lower recognition of what biodiversity does for the economy compared to its other contributions:

  • While contributions of biodiversity to the production of food, fuel, medicine, human well-being and other goods and services like clean water and air are generally well appreciated by most UK respondents (>85 percent of respondents agreed with this), contributions of biodiversity to the economy and in tackling climate change are less recognised.
Hedgehog, on forest ground © Sanchez & Lope / WWF-CanonHedgehog, on forest ground © Sanchez & Lope / WWF-Canon

Biodiversity is actually extremely valuable economically – reports of coral reefs for example have put their value at US$29.8 billion a year (nearly £18 billion) not only because of their contribution to fisheries, but their contribution to tourism, creation of jobs and protection of coastlines. They also absorb carbon dioxide so are important in mitigating climate change.

Tropical coral reef, Sipadan Island, Malaysia © JÜrgen Freund Tropical coral reef, Sipadan Island, Malaysia © JÜrgen Freund

Do UK citizens do their part to protect the environment?

Unfortunately, only 41 percent said they personally make an effort to protect biodiversity – which is almost a 10 percent decrease from 2010.
A huge part of WWF’s work is to encourage people to protect our planet. But we tend to be famous for the work we do on those more ‘exotic’ animals and places we mentioned earlier – the Amazon, the Arctic, the tigers…and of course the pandas. Guilty. But our ‘Green Ambassadors Scheme’, started in 2011, is one of the ways we’re working in the UK – trying to encourage our own citizens to take measures to protect our environment, by targeting our youth. Over 3,600 schools are registered to this scheme in the UK – which reaches nearly 900,000 children. The scheme is encouraging a new generation of sustainability champions, and rewards children and their schools for their eco-friendly efforts.

Green Ambassador Awards given to schools include an ‘Encouraging Wildlife’ award, and an ‘Energy Award’ amongst others. The main prize of £5,000 was awarded to Pools Park Primary School in London for their project to create an organic allotment where pupils can grow their own produce and get close to nature – including at their wildlife pond. Teachers use these green areas to teach pupils about wild habitats, lifecycles, and more. The scheme gets kids out in the wilderness, learning about nature and taking part in surveys.

2014 Green Ambassadors pupils from Pooles Park at Highgrove 2014 © Tristan Fewings / WWF

Hopefully, through this scheme, we can create a generation of people who understand the importance of nature, and so make an effort to protect it. This may increase the percentage of people (41 percent as mentioned earlier) who personally make an effort to protect biodiversity.

It’s not all bad news

It seems almost half of UK respondents would do more to protect biodiversity if better informed of what they can do; and 92 percent wanted to be better informed about the importance of biodiversity in general. With up-to 80 percent of UK respondents saying they buy eco-friendly products, and 21 percent of them being members of at least one organisation dedicated to protecting nature, this call for information seems genuine and could go a long way – so should be taken seriously.

It’s now the responsibility of environmental organisations – and indeed the media – to capitalise on this – and start communicating the necessary information to move our citizens to a place where they fully understand the severity of the biodiversity crisis – in the UK, EU and globally – are well-informed of our impact on the Earth and how they can help, and are aware of just how valuable biodiversity is to us – and the problems that arise when it’s lost. This way, we can improve the UK’s already commendable attitude to wildlife and their ability to safeguard the natural world.

This blog was co-authored by Mxolisi Sibanda

What do you do to protect biodiversity? Leave us a comment. 

Related posts