2020 Conservation Successes: 10 Positive Environmental Stories

January 08, 2021

Looking back on positive conservation stories from the past twelve months is my way of finding the silver lining to the overwhelming and devastating year we have all experienced, keeping the 
eco-anxiety at bay, and for remaining motivated for the year to come.

Finding solace in nature

The comfort so many of us found in nature during lockdown has left me optimistic that more people than ever will now acknowledge its unparalleled value and work harder to protect our wildlife and their vulnerable habitats.

Almost half of the UK population have spent more time outside than before the pandemic, and a third of people reported noticing nature and wildlife more. The National Trust revealed that interest in nature has risen by a third since the first lockdown, and more than half the population plan to continue spending as much time in nature once things go back to normal. For many, having extra time also meant they could get involved in citizen science projects. Butterfly Conservation saw the highest number of butterfly sightings ever submitted to their Big Butterfly Count, with an increase of 25% on 2019. Even when people couldn't get outside, interest in nature was still prevalent, as The Wildlife Trust saw a 2,000% increase in live wildlife webcam views.

The quiet that came with lockdown provided a unique opportunity for research. The drop in noise pollution allowed scientists and artists to create the first global public sound map of the spring dawn chorus. Bird recordings were submitted to the Dawn Chorus website from people around the world with the aim of helping conservation and creating public art. In South Carolina, the absence of people during lockdown gave scientists a rare opportunity to observe fireflies and collect pristine data in Congaree National Park.

Ocean optimism

Humpback whales have made an impressive comeback after being reduced to just 450 individuals in the 50's due to commercial whaling. Last year, a study revealed that humpbacks can now be found in similar numbers seen before the days of whaling - a positive example of how nature can recover if allowed to. This recovery is also good news for the climate, as on average a single whale stores around 33 tonnes of CO2.

A new species of pygmy seahorse as small as a grain of rice was discovered in the waters off the coast of South Africa. It is the first pygmy seahorse found in all of the Indian Ocean and the continent of Africa, and was compared to being like "finding a kangaroo in Norway" by one of the researchers. This is an exciting discovery and researchers are optimistic that there are many more species of pygmy seahorses waiting to be discovered.

Seabirds are the most vulnerable group of birds, facing numerous threats globally, but some of these are easier to tackle than others. A recently published paper has found that after a decade working with the fishing industry in Namibia, the Albatross Task Force in the country has managed to save the lives of around 22,000 seabirds! The 98% reduction in deaths is a result of measures which scare birds away from getting accidentally caught by longline fishing vessels, and will hopefully be a model for fisheries all over the world. Another threat faced by breeding seabirds is invasive mammals, which prey on helpless seabird chicks. There is good news in this area too, as the RSPB council approved a mouse eradication scheme to begin in 2021 on Gough Island in the South Atlantic Ocean, where almost the entire world population of seabirds such as the Tristan albatross (Diomedea dabbenena) and the Atlantic petrel (Pterodroma incerta) breed, as well as many other species. The island was identified as the third most important in the world for an eradication project and would be a major boost for global conservation efforts.

Species reintroductions, rediscoveries and recoveries

2020 was the year of the beaver, and the news of their many reintroductions brought me some much needed joy. In August, they were given the permanent right to remain in their East Devon river home - the first legally sanctioned reintroduction of an extinct native mammal to England. In September, two male beavers were released in Norfolk as part of a rewilding scheme, and quickly paired up with females already in the area. In October, it was announced that Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his siblings arranged for beavers to be released on their father's estate, which is hopefully an indication that government will encourage the reintroduction of more species across the UK. In November, Cheshire Wildlife Trust released a of pair beavers into Hatchmere Nature Reserve, and beavers in Exmoor built their first dam in over 400 years!

In July, Natural England celebrated the 30 year anniversary of the landmark re-introduction of red kites. In 1980s, the red kite was a threatened species in the UK due to hunting with only a few breeding pairs left in Wales. In 1990, 13 young red kites were reintroduced to the Chilterns and the project has been a massive success as there are now an estimated 1,800 breeding pairs in the UK. 

The efforts to bring pine martens to England look to be going well, as the first reintroduced females that were brought from Scotland to England in 2019 had kits last summer. The species is very rare in England, and the hope is that a population will be established over the next few years.

The RSPB announced that the UK common crane population is at its highest in over 400 years. The species was declared extinct in the UK, but natural recolonisation alongside extensive conservation work and a reintroduction programme has resulted in their population bouncing back, meaning more of us will hopefully be able to witness their graceful courtship dance for generations to come.

Environmental protection

Tristan da Cunha is one of the world's most remote islands, home to whales, sharks, seals, millions of seabirds, and under 300 humans. Last year, the government announced that the four-island archipelago will be designated as a marine sanctuary, and fishing and mining will be banned in 90% of the waters.  

Looking for more conservation optimism? Read:

And for some inspiration on new year's resolutions for the environment:

Nature's Good News