Pesticides Are Killing Our Birds
Bird On! News
12th May 1997
A damning report was published on 6th May 1997 clearly implicating the indirect effects of agricultural pesticides in recent farmland bird declines. Commissioned by the Joint Conservation Committee and edited by Len Campbell of the RSPB and Arnie Cooke of English Nature the report challenges Government and the agro-chemical industry to find out exactly what is happening and put it right.
A total of 40 bird species were examined and of the 24 that were declining half were highlighted because there was a close link between the start of decline and the use of pesticides which might affect their diet and ecology. The twelve species, with the overall declines measured by the British Trust of Ornithology from 1969 to 1994 are as follows:
Tree Sparrow 89% Reed Bunting 61% Grey Partridge 82% Skylark 58% Turtle Dove 77% Linnet 52% Bullfinch 76% Swallow 43% Song Thrush 72% Blackbird 42% Lapwing 62% Starling 23%
Only for one of these species, the Grey Partridge, has enough work been dome to confirm the effects of pesticides in reducing the amount food available for their chicks enough to affect their survival, reduce breeding success and so result in population declines. This research has been undertaken by the Game Conservancy Trust and, in Norfolk particularly, the shooting community has done much to help the birds through modifying farming practice.
The main conclusions are:
- The evidence suggests that declines in bird food are partly attributable to the effect of pesticides
- There is a correlation between increasing pesticide use, over time, and a decline in farmland birds over the same period
- There is an urgent need for more information into the trends in abundance of invertebrates and plants and about the diets of farmland birds.
These do not come as a surprise to many concerned people both from the conservation movement and the farming community. The politicians and the agro-chemical industry have asked that farmers should turn their fields into factories for producing the crops - with nothing in them for wildlife. Now set-aside and the introduction of such initiatives as Countryside Stewardship, beetle banks and conservation headlands present an opportunity for us to make a difference.
The report recommendations are aimed at government and industry:
- The need for better monitoring of invertebrates and plants
- The need for more detailed research into the ecology of individual bird species
- Large-scale experimental studies that assess the effects of pesticides and other agricultural factors on wildlife
Changes that might increase farmland bird numbers include:
- The adoption of Integrated Crop Management
- An agri-environment scheme which includes a targeted reduction in pesticide use
- An environmentally oriented successor to set-aside
Modern pesticides were first introduced some forty years ago. Awful mistakes were made when powerful and persistent chemicals like DDT, Dieldrin and Aldrin were used with horrible lethal and sub-lethal effects both on the birds that ate contaminated food and their predators. It was about these effects that Rachel Carson raised awareness with 'Silent Spring'. The withdrawal of the worst compounds resulted and there is now very careful vetting of chemicals before use is allowed.
The new report ties in the use of permitted chemicals with the reduction of the plants and insects within the crops - the pests and weeds - that our ordinary farmland birds depend on to live. Graham Wynne, RSPB conservation director, said:We are very alarmed at the implications of this report for our countryside birds. The RSPB is calling for immediate action by the new Government to take steps to halt these tragic declines.
In East Anglia there are areas of prairie farming as badly affected as any in the country. However other parts, with a mosaic of fields and woods, with pasture and arable in existence side by side, still hold good populations of many birds. However the census results, nationwide, show that even in the best areas we should not be complacent. In 1970 nobody would have expected there to be 3,000,000 less breeding Skylarks in Britain by now. We need to act now to ensure there is not another Silent Spring.
These results are widely applicable - not just in Britain nor Europe - throughout the World. One hopes that our government and the European Commission will pay attrention before it is too late - and use some of their money to commission the urgent research needed.
All was not plain sailing at the launch of the report at the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre in Westminster. The findings were presented by Mark Avery from the RSPB and Arnie Cooke of English Nature. They were pressed by several questioners who maintained that other things were going wrong, for wildlife, in the farming environment and that the huge losses of birds, which no-one contested, were more about the loss of hedges, the CAP and autumn rather than spring sowing leading to the loss of winter stubbles.
Most people present were convinced that if pesticides, in the wider sense of insecticides, herbicides and fungicides, were depleting the food resources for birds it was sensible to put their use down as the cause of the declines.
East Anglian farmer and environmentalist Robin Page was convinced.If we can get more farmers to follow the actions we are taking at the Countryside Restoration Trust we will create 'Centres of Excellence' for birds and other wildlife. This would show farmers how it can be done and encourage them to become, as many already are, caring stewards of the Countryside.
Jeremy Greenwood, Director of the Thetford based British Trust for Ornithology, was convinced that confrontation was not the answer.Many farmers are really concerned with the birds and other wildlife on their holdings. The agro-chemical industry and the politicians have given them the means and asked them to produce efficiently grown bumper crops. If they are asked to make a little of the production count for wildlife they would be delighted - provided they do not lose out financially.
And just for those of you not familiar with our birds a few lines on each:
- Tree Sparrow. Country cousin of the House Sparrow but a little smaller and both cock and hen look very like a male House Sparrow but with a wholly chocolate crown. Nests in holes and will use tit-type nest boxes. Only 110,000 pairs left breeding in Britain.
- Grey Partridge - or English Partridge. A round brown and grey game bird with a chestnut face and dark horse-shoe mark on tummy. Call a throaty 'Keeer-ICK' often repeated. Roughly 150,000 pairs left and a few reared by keepers.
- Turtle Dove. A small migrant dove, spending the winter South of the Sahara, with chestnut and black scallops on the wings and back and black and white markings on the sides of the neck. Lovely purring coo used to be the epitome of a warm summer's day. Retreating from the North and West and only 75,000 pairs left.
- Bullfinch. Round big-billed hedgerow finch - usually found in pairs - the male with a striking pink breast and the female with warm buff instead of the pink. They keep in touch with a thin piping call and have a prominent white rump. Only about 190,000 pairs left.
- Song Thrush. One of Britain's best loved songsters which often repeats its song phrases. Smaller than the rarer Mistle Thrush and is the bird that can eat snails by hammering them in anvils. Fewer than one million pairs left in Britain.
- Lapwing - or Peewit, Pyewipe or Green Plover. The round winged plover which used to be found over much of our farmland. The charming, fluffy chicks have just hatched where the remaining birds (now less than a quarter of a million) breed.
- Reed Bunting. The wetland bunting whose males have a striking black head and white band round the neck. It has a particularly boring song but was a successful bird 30 or 40 years ago when it spread into farmland. No longer, probably down to 220,000 pairs in Britain,
- Skylark. The most familiar bird of open farmland with stupendous and varied song sung in flight. The biggest loser with 3,000,000 birds missing from the breeding population which now numbers only 2 million pairs.
- Linnet. The small brown finch with white in the wing and, for the adult male reddish pink on the forehead and the breast. This used to be a favourite for bird catchers in the old days. Present population just over half a million pairs.
- Swallow. The migrant bird wintering in South Africa and returning to breed in farm buildings and outhouses. The overall colour is blue and the male has exagerratedly long outer tail feathers. About 570,000 pairs breed in Britain.
- Blackbird. One of the most familiar garden birds and, in many areas, the most prominent contributor to the dawn chorus. Only the males are black, the females and youngsters are brown. Still 4.4 million breeding pairs in Britain.
- Starling. A familiar bird in summer and winter - when millions of migrants come to us from the Continent. A prodigious mimic some males have a repertoire which covers 15 or more other species. Breeding numbers now about 1.1 million pairs.
Breeding numbers are from latest estimates published in British Birds earlier this year.