Get your priorities right and don't forget glowing woodlice

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Martin Harper's blog

I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

Get your priorities right and don't forget glowing woodlice

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When Defra publishes its plan to address its manifesto commitment to restore UK biodiversity in 25 years, I hope and expect it will remember its responsibilities to the 14 UK Overseas Territories. 

Our UKOTs are mostly small islands, and include two World Heritage Sites of exceptional natural beauty. Their inhabitants are British nationals, and the UK is responsible for helping to protect their incredible wildlife found in habitats ranging from tropical rainforests to coral reefs. 

Despite incomplete data and limited knowledge about wildlife on many UKOTs, the conservation value of the UKOTs is clear with over 32,000 native species recorded of which over 1,500 are endemic i.e. found nowhere else in the world. It is estimated that there are a further 70,000 species (including a minimum estimate of 1,800 endemics) yet to be documented. 

Last December, we celebrated conservation success with the St Helena plover, locally called the wirebird, and the Montserrat oriole both being down-listed from Critically Endangered to Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List – meaning that risk of extinction had been lowered. Credit goes to the St Helena National Trust on St Helena, and the Department of Environment and the Montserrat National Trust on Montserrat with support from RSPB.

With the down-listing of these two species, this now means that the UK’s remaining Critically Endangered birds (the Tristan albatross and the Gough bunting) are dependent on Gough Island, a World Heritage Site that is part of the Tristan da Cunha group in the remote South Atlantic, highlighting the importance to see the delivery of the Gough Island Restoration Programme.

Yet, there are also featherless species in trouble.  The spiky yellow woodlouse in St Helena, for example, was listed as Critically Endangered in 2015. With funding from the Darwin Initiative, the RSPB and Buglife are supporting our partners to do vital cloud forest restoration work to ensure this striking invertebrate has a home in the future. 

Remarkably, through this Darwin project, we have discovered that the spiky yellow woodlouse glows under UV light.  Glowing under UV is more commonly known in scorpions, and only one other species of woodlice has been recorded to glow in this way. The exact reason why spiky yellow woodlice glow is currently a mystery. However, this discovery has helped with surveying these woodlice as they are now much easier to spot! Using a UV torch, we are working out ways to survey the remaining colonies of this Critically Endangered species more effectively. 

As highlighted in the 2016 State of Nature report, of the native species recorded in the UKOTs, 5,304 (17%) have undergone assessment against the IUCN Red List criteria. There are currently 449 globally threatened species in the UKOTs listed on the IUCN Red List, 121 are Critically Endangered, 111 are Endangered and 217 are Vulnerable (IUCN, 2017). 

This still highlights however, the knowledge gaps existing for the native species of the UKOTs. Even species that are found nowhere else on earth are known to be highly threatened lack the most basic information (distribution, population size, number of populations, population trends, threats) to be able to track their current conservation status and evaluate required actions to safeguard them in the future. 

Over 2016, there has been some positive progress from Defra in delivering its UKOTs Biodiversity Strategy. As well as the FCO’s commitment of £20 million to deliver the blue belt ambition to protect the UKOTs marine environment (as discussed in a previous blog),  the UK Government has committed  £1.75 million to support the Gough Island Restoration Programme, plus a further £1 million to advance biosecurity actions across the UKOTs, to prevent the further spread of invasive non-native species across these unique places. This is a positive step, but the challenge of invasive non-native species is vast, and is an issue for all of the UKOTs.  

Currently, the UK government’s contribution to the UKOTs is still not adequate to protect the unique biodiversity present, and I will return to this subject again in due course.   This is why we need Defra to outline a comprehensive plan for how it will work with the UKOTs to bolster conservation efforts in these remarkable locations. They need to outline how they will deliver the UKOTs Biodiversity Strategy, and in particular a plan is needed to address the threat of invasive non-native species across the UKOTs in a way that has a clear follow up investment on the ground. Critical to success will be better coordination of invasive alien species management efforts for UKOTs government departments of environment, agriculture and customs. 

For now, though, marvel at the woodlouse that glows...

  • Well done RSPB for taking the holistic view and placing much emphasis on the biodiversity of the UKOTs. These are vital as they contain so many internationally vulnerable and endangered species, many more than in the U.K. Itself and the UKOTs are our direct responsibility.