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Pesticides Are Killing Our Birds

Bird On! News
12th May 1997

Chris Mead

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 Sparrow89% Reed Bunting61%
Grey Partridge82% Skylark58%
Turtle Dove77% Linnet52%
Bullfinch76% Swallow43%
Song Thrush72% Blackbird42%
Lapwing62% Starling23%

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:

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:

Changes that might increase farmland bird numbers include:

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:

Breeding numbers are from latest estimates published in British Birds earlier this year.

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