Almost 500 plants and animals have become extinct in England in the past two millennia - with most vanishing in the last 200 years, according to a wide-ranging audit of the country’s wildlife.
The roll-call of 492 species which have vanished from our countryside stretches from ancient losses such as the lynx to the disappearance in the last few decades of the greater mouse-eared bat and short-haired bumblebee.
The study, published by the Government’s conservation agency Natural England, also warns that almost 1,000 native species - including the leatherback turtle and the pine martin - are under threat.
While a few “big, hairy and scary” animals such as bears and wolves were hunted to extinction, most vanished species have gone because of land management changes including the industrialisation of farming, habitat loss, persecution and pollution.
And even where species have not become extinct at a national level, many have disappeared from some parts of the country, leaving populations fragmented and more at risk from threats including storms and a changing climate, the report warned.
While some species are hanging on nationally, they are disappearing from parts of the country, with the West Midlands losing twites and marsh warblers.
But conservation efforts have reversed the fortunes of some species in the UK, with reintroductions of once-extinct wildlife including the red kite, now a common site near the M40 in Warwickshire, the large blue butterfly and the pool frog.
Action to improve habitat for species such as bitterns, sand lizards and the ladybird spider have also helped stem and reverse declines in those animals.
But with 943 English species listed on the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan because of the threats facing them, Natural England is calling for a “step change” in the way landscapes are managed to reverse the declines in the country’s biodiversity.
Natural England’s chief scientist Dr Tom Tew said the Lost Life report - drawing on records which in some cases dated back two millennia but came mostly from 19th century to the present day - was not a “story of unmitigated doom and gloom”.
But it did present a stark message about the state of England’s wildlife, he said.
“The message is clear: we are losing species at an alarming rate and many of our species are seriously threatened.”
He said species once described as “common”, such as common sparrows, common frogs and common toads, were no longer common.
All of England’s reptile species and our dolphin and whales are in decline, he said, along with 60% of amphibians, 40% of freshwater fish, 40% of land mammals, a third of butterflies and bees and around a quarter of breeding birds and vascular plants.
“This suggests the extinctions we have recorded could turn out to be the tip of the iceberg unless we take action.”
Dr Tew suggested funding for conservation should rise from current levels of £8-18 million up to £800 million.
Large areas of habitat should be created, and linked up, to provide space for wildlife and and knock-on benefits to society.
He said: “You don’t need to be an ‘ologist’ to understand that when we lose our wildlife we lose something precious that reduces our quality of life.
“Every species has a role, like the rivets in an aeroplane or bricks in a dam, and the overall structure of the environment is weakened when you lose a species.”
He said a healthy, natural environment was necessary to provide important services such as clean air and water, floodwater and carbon storage and productive land for growing food.
And he warned that allowing species to become extinct could push whole ecosystems to “tipping points” where the quality of the environment becomes degraded.
“With those rivets in an aeroplane, you could take out 100 and the plane will keep flying, but the next one that pops out could be the one holding the propeller on and then you’re in trouble,” he said.
Natural England’s chief executive Helen Phillips said that despite other pressures on the land - such as the need to produce more food - looking after the environment was necessary to proving natural resources and food security in the future.
She said the amount of land managed in agri-environment schemes had risen from 45% to 70% in the past few years, and the recently-launched voluntary Campaign for the Farmed Environment showed farmers’ willingness to look after the countryside.
And she said: “We need a step-change in conservation that goes beyond the targeted work that has gone on to protect individual sites and species, and which focuses on restoring the health of ecosystems across entire landscapes.
“We have to give wildlife and habitats more room to thrive and only by tackling the problems of environmental decline in this co-ordinated way, and at this sort of scale, can we succeed in halting and ultimately reversing many of the recent declines in biodiversity,” she said.