List of endemic species of the British Isles

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The British Isles have few endemic species due to past frequent glaciations and because of the proximity to Continental Europe and former land bridges which enabled species to re-colonise the islands from the continent following glaciations.[1] Most endemic species to the British Isles are considered to be subspecies of a larger species, with mutations or adaptations slightly changing the species in the islands or in certain localities.

British Conservationists often describe this as a “wiped clean effect” with repeated glaciations forcing many species out of the modern area of the islands to more southern latitudes in Europe and perhaps even driving some species extinct.[1]

Some species which were present in Britain before past glaciations, often during periods with a warmer climate than now failed to return after the Last Glacial Maximum. Amongst these are Rhododendron ponticum and rabbits, now considered invasive and non-native.

A species is only deemed native if it reached the British Isles without human intervention (either intentional or unintentional). That means that to be native the species must have reached Britain before the land bridge joining Britain to the continent was submerged. Alternatively species can also be native when they have flown or swum to Britain as is the case with many bird species which arrived after the submersion of the land bridge, a recent example is the collared dove which arrived in the 1950s, this also applies for plants which spread seed in the wind.

A few endemic species are Arctic-Alpine species, survivors of Arctic species of plants and animals which either adapted to the warming climate or became isolated in suitable areas of mountains or lakes which still retained a suitable micro-climate. A common misconception is that the entirety of the British Isles was under glaciers and was uninhabitable both for humans, plants and animals. Whilst unsuitable for most species, a number of Arctic species survived in the areas not under glaciers in southern areas of England, Wales and south west Ireland and were either driven to extinction in the British Isles or to micro-climatic refuges as the climate warmed and the Arctic conditions retreated north.

Most endemic species or subspecies however date to more recent, post-glacial times, many having spread via land bridges or along the Atlantic seaboard of Europe.

Origins of endemic species[edit]

  • Ice Age survivors in suitable micro-climates
  • Subspecies (offshoots) of a larger species, many may in turn develop into new species
  • Glacial or pre-glacial survivors which have become extinct across much of their former range or have never occurred outside of Britain.



Vascular plants[edit]

Primula scotica, endemic to the north of Scotland

In 1999, 47 species of flowering plants (430 including microspecies[4]) were considered to be endemic to the British Isles, 32 of them in the "critical genera" Euphrasia, Limonium and Sorbus.[5] Further additions are made from time to time, as cited below.

Subsequently, Hieracium attenboroughianum is an endemic plant which was discovered in the Brecon Beacons in 2004 and Sorbus pseudomeinichii was discovered on the island of Arran in 2007.[10] In 2015, a newly formed and endemic species of monkeyflower (Erythranthe peregrina) was identified in Scotland and the Scottish islands.[7] Bromus interruptus is an endemic to England, which was extinct in the wild but has been reintroduced from saved seed.[6][11] The total number of endemic plant species has now grown to 52.


Amphipoda (freshwater)[edit]

  • Niphargus glennei (Spooner) – the south-western ground water shrimp is found in Cornwall and Devon.[13]



Metatrichoniscoides celticus Oliver & Trew, 1981 - A small woodlouse usually below 3mm. It is found only on maritime cliffs in the Vale of Glamorgan from Ogmore-by-Sea to St. Donat's.


Britain has few endemic species of birds but quite a few subspecies. A few Arctic-Alpine species have subspecies in the British Isles, some have been in the islands since the last Ice Age, but many spread in the immediate Sub-Arctic conditions as the ice retreated. Furthermore, these species were later reinforced by newer arrivals as the climate assumed temperatures and conditions more similar to the present day.

Distribution of white wagtail subspecies, with British pied wagtail (Motacillia alba yarellii) highlighted in blue.


Britain has a few subspecies of mammals but no endemic species. Many again are Ice Age survivors that adapted to the new conditions; others arrived in warmer conditions whilst the land bridge still existed.

A wildcat

Aquatic fauna[edit]


The Cnidaria are a group of animals found exclusively in aquatic and mostly marine environments. They include sea anemones, sea pen and corals and their distinguishing feature is cnidocytes, specialized cells that they use mainly for capturing prey.[18][19]


In some areas of uplands in the British Isles the retreating glaciers left melt water in hollows which had been carved out by the movement of ice. In these, Arctic species of fish survived, due often to the sheer depth of the lakes and the colder temperatures. For the young endemic fish varieties of the British Isles, it is usually controversial whether they should be considered as distinct taxa (species or subspecies) or just as isolated populations of their ancestral species.

As global warming affects the British climate there is some concern for these species, some confined to a handful of lakes. Action has been taken to protect them, as is the case with vendace which has been moved to tarns in nearby mountains due to the cooler temperatures. It is hoped that these will act as refuges should the species die-out in the lower-level lakes where they occur naturally.



The distribution of endemic species seems to have a North Western bias and with endemic species on the whole showing an oceanic / alpine distribution with most endemics being found in upland areas or islands.

Endemic livestock breeds[edit]

Human bred-animals are not usually classified as distinct subspecies but rather breeds which is a similar concept. However some animals such as Iron Age pigs are classified as a distinct species from their wild relatives.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Cunliffe, B. (2013). Britain Begins. OUP Oxford. p. 50. ISBN 978-0-19-967945-4. Retrieved 2020-07-11.
  2. ^ Blackman, Stuart (July 2015). "New Species of the month". BBC Wildlife. 33 (402): 17.
  3. ^ Holyoak, David T (2009). Bryophytes: Liverworts (Marchantiophyta), Hornworts (Anthocerotophyta) and Mosses (Bryophyta). In Red Data Book for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. Praze-an-Beeble: Croceago Press. pp. 72–104. ISBN 978-1-901685-01-5.
  4. ^ T. G. C. Rich; G. Hutchinson; R. Randall; R. G. Ellis (1999). "List of Plants Endemic to the British Isles". BSBI News. 80: 23–27. Archived from the original on 2013-08-20. Retrieved 2015-06-06.
  5. ^ M. O. Hill; J. O. Mountford; D. B. Roy; R. G. H. Bunce (1999). Ellenberg's indicator values for British plants. Huntingdon: Institute of Terrestrial Ecology. ISBN 1-870393-48-1. ECOFACT Volume 2 Technical Annex.
  6. ^ a b Royal Botanic Gardens Kew - Grasses
  7. ^ a b Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh - New to Science 2015
  8. ^ "BSBI Species accounts archive: Fumaria purpurea". 2010. Retrieved 5 July 2019.
  9. ^ New Journal of Botany - Hieracium attenboroughianum (Asteraceae) a New Species of Hawkweed
  10. ^ a b "New species of tree discovered on Arran". Scottish Natural Heritage. 14 June 2007. Retrieved 6 November 2013.
  11. ^ European and Mediterranean Plant Protection Organisation - Bromus interruptus
  12. ^ "Britain's rarest spider found at new site, and photographed". buglife. Retrieved 10 February 2016.
  13. ^ Gainey, P A. Amphipoda. In Red Data Book For Cornwall And The Isles Of Scilly (2nd ed.). Praze-an-Beeble: Croago Press. p. 177.
  14. ^ "202 Eudarcia richardsoni". UKmoths. Retrieved 7 May 2012.
  15. ^ Alexander, Keith N A T (2009). Hemiptera. In Red Data Book for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. Praze-an-Beeble: Croceago Press. pp. 214–232. ISBN 978-1-901685-01-5.
  16. ^ Beavis, Ian (2003). "Bees, Wasps and Ants of Scilly". Isles of Scilly Bird and Natural History Review 2002: 168–183.
  17. ^ Compton, S. G.; Key, R. S. (2000). "Coincya wrightii (O.E. Schulz) Stace (Rhynchosinapis wrightii (O.E. Schulz) Dandy ex A.R. Clapham)". Journal of Ecology. 88 (3): 535. doi:10.1046/j.1365-2745.2000.00477.x.
  18. ^ Gainey, Paul T (2009). Hydroids, Sea Anemones and Jellyfish (Cindaria). In Red Data Book for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. Praze-an-Beeble: Croceago Press. pp. 449–456. ISBN 978-1-901685-01-5.
  19. ^ Holstein T.; Tardent P. (1984). "An ultrahigh-speed analysis of exocytosis: nematocyst discharge". Science. 223 (4638): 830–833. Bibcode:1984Sci...223..830H. doi:10.1126/science.6695186. PMID 6695186.