Wildlife brings £4.8 billion to the UK economy

Posted: 13 January 2004

The use of wildlife, or wild living resources, in the United Kingdom makes a substantial contribution to the country's economy, according to a study by the UK National Committee of The World Conservation Union (IUCN).

A wide range of species are used for consumptive and non-consumptive purposes, including health, nutrition, construction, and leisure, accounting to a minimum contribution of £4.8 billion (US$8.1 billion) to the UK economy and supporting 35,000 jobs. This figure is equivalent to some 0.5 per cent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP). Indeed, demand outstrips supply from the wild in the UK such that many products have to be imported.

Red deer. Photo: Robert Potts © California Academy of Sciences
Red deer. Photo: Robert Potts © California Academy of Sciences
Red Deer. Deer-related employment in Scotland is estimated at 850 jobs. Photo: Robert Potts © California Academy of Sciences.

Wildlife value

"In an increasingly urbanised Britain, with its intensive agriculture, factory-produced foods, imported raw materials, and limited natural habitats, it is perhaps surprising to find that British wildlife is widely utilised and has considerable socio-economic value," says Dr Jane Smart, Chair of the IUCN-UK Committee. "It demonstrates that guidance on how to use wildlife sustainably is as pertinent to the UK as to any other country," Dr Smart added.

Recreation is the number one use of wildlife, which contributes over £3 billion a year, and sports fisheries (inland and marine), game and coarse account for most of this figure.

While red grouse (Lagopus lagopus) shooting is an important commercial activity, sustaining around 2,500 jobs in Britain and bringing gross revenues of up to £8.7 million to grouse moor owners, birdwatching is decidedly more popular with the British public, with over 1 million visitors and local expenditure of £11.8 million annually, according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

The situation is similar with wild mammals. Total gross expenditure for deer stalking in Great Britain is estimated at £14 million, and Scotland contributes most to this, with £10.4 million direct expenditure on this activity. At the same time, commercial viewing of marine mammals such as whales, porpoises, dolphins and seals is a growing industry. The first commercial whale-watching operation began in Scotland in 1989, and by 1998 there were over 40 businesses in the UK. Direct economic income from whale-watching in Scotland is estimated at £10.7 million, and in remote coastal areas, up to 12 per cent of the total tourism income may be attributable to it.

Fishing income

Nutrition is also a major reason for the use of wildlife in the UK. The total net economic value of commercial salmon fishing in England, Wales and Scotland is estimated to be between £9.2 million to £16.9 million. However, there have recently been major decreases in fishing capacity and profitability.

On the marine front, the UK fishing fleet landed 748 thousand tonnes of sea fish with a value of £550 million in the year 2000. The catches peaked in 1998 (923.8 thousand tonnes, £661.5 million) but have since declined by around 10 per cent every year, to some stocks now being found at historically low levels. Unwanted by-catch is also an issue of concern.

Of the wild game birds sold for consumption in Great Britain, the woodpigeon (Columba palumbus) has the biggest wholesale value of up to £1.5 million. Venison holds the number one wholesale value for wild game meat at £10 million.

Wood products

Britain is one of the least wooded countries in Europe with semi-natural woodlands covering a mere 2 per cent of the land surface. Nevertheless, coppice woodlands are important in the production of up to 60 'greenwood' products such as thatching spars (20 million sold a year) and hurdles, brooms, brushes, firewood, charcoal and basketry.

When speaking of consumption of edible plants, over 40 species of fungus, algae, and higher plants are exploited and used for purposes ranging from making wine and non-alcoholic cordials, providing gourmet foods, or as curd and wrappings for cheese. Although when it comes to mushroom-picking, the British do this on a much smaller scale compared to continental Europeans.

Herbal medicines are becoming increasingly popular and are now widely sold across the UK. Although it has been estimated that the herbal remedy trade in Britain is worth more than £200 million per year, it is almost exclusively supplied by imported material. Of the 704 medicinal plants being traded in the UK, the largest proportion is imported from Germany. Many species used in traditional Asian medicines are also imported.

Seaweeds are harvested by one company in Scotland (20 tonnes annually of eight species) for the production of cosmetic soaps, masks, wraps, creams, and lotions based on traditional recipes.

Wild material

Plants are also used as artisanal craft products such as basketry, jewellery and musical instruments, as well as plant bulbs and decorative products such as Christmas trimmings. For instance, foliage from conifers, holly (Ilex aquifolium), ivy (Hedera helix) and mistletoe (Viscum album) is sold for Christmas decorations but information on material collected from the wild is limited and some is imported from continental Europe.

Even invertebrates have a price tag. Used as bait for sea-angling, an estimated 140-150 tonnes of ragworms (Nereis spp.) and lugworms (Arenicola marina) are harvested for a total retail value of some £10 million.

Economic contribution

Presenting the report, Dr Smart said: "Even though the UK as a developed country does not have a primary reliance on biodiversity, the use and conservation of our wildlife continues to make a significant contribution to our economy, to employment and to the enjoyment and well-being of the UK's population."

"In countries with a richer resource of biodiversity the benefits are likely to be greater still," she concluded.

The report, Use of Wild Living Resources in the United Kingdom: A Review, was produced by the IUCN-UK Committee, which comprises the UK Government, four statutory UK Government agencies and 33 NGOs. It is a broad partnership working to further the conservation of natural resources in the UK.

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