This Saturday, April 22nd, is Earth Day. It’s a day to celebrate creative campaigns paving the way for the future of conservation, but also to highlight the urgent need for action to save our natural world.
This brings to mind the moment that fuelled my lifelong fascination with nature. It was my first sighting of a barn owl, as a child on a family holiday in Norfolk. This stunning ‘up close and personal’ moment sparked a passion that has been with me since.
Sadly, such breathtakingly spectacular sightings could soon become a thing of the past. Once-common farmland species have been decimated, and remain at an all-time low. In my lifetime alone, Britain has lost 44 million birds at the rate of a pair a minute.
Britain’s farmland birds have not fared well. From 1970 to 2012, some species have known unprecedented declines:
- Starling 81%
- Corn bunting 90%
- Tree sparrow 90%
- Grey partridge 91%
- Turtle dove 96%
These declines are not confined to Britain. European bird census results for the years 1980-2010 show that farmland birds have fared particularly badly, with 300 million fewer birds today than in 1980.
Much of this decline has been blamed on industrial farming. Birdlife International says the declines in Europe are widely accepted as being driven by agricultural intensification and the resulting deterioration of farmland habitats.
Over recent decades, intensive farming has seen farm animals disappear from the land into windowless sheds, where they are caged, crammed or confined. Instead of grazing or foraging, their food now has to be grown elsewhere, often in vast chemical-soaked prairies, where nature is sprayed away. There lies the link between factory farming, which causes so much suffering to chickens, pigs and cattle, and the hidden victims: our wildlife.
Far from being a haven, the countryside has become a hazardous place for wildlife. Indeed, when we think of pesticides, we might think of big tractors dusting and spraying fields to deal with an isolated problem. How many of us would imagine that this dousing of chemicals is routine and systematic - let alone that we regularly coat individual seeds with toxic pesticides before planting them?
Despite some chemicals being banned, the industrialisation of the countryside has continued, and Britain’s birds still face this chemical threat today. Chemical pesticides obliterate the flowering plants that provide seeds for birds to eat, and wipe out the insects that many species feed on.
Seeds are planted with a coating of pesticide to give early protection before planting, but some are inevitably spilt and may be found by seed-eating birds that spend a lot of their day foraging, such as sparrows and finches. Just one and a half beet seeds coated with the chemical imidacloprid of the neonicotinoid group is enough to kill a house sparrow.
Every hectare sown contains enough seeds accessible to wildlife to provide a fatal dose for 100 grey partridges. The grey partridge only needs to eat a small number of neonicotinoid-treated seeds to get a fatal dose: 5 maize seeds, 6 beet seeds, or 32 oilseed rape seeds.
Dave Goulson, Professor of Biology at Brighton’s Sussex University and a leading expert on the plight of pollinators like bees, says the use of neonicotinoid seed dressings in the UK has increased every year since 1994. “Scattering pesticide-coated seeds over great swathes of wildlife is a hidden but devastating aspect of the industrialisation of the countryside” he said. “Farming bird populations are collapsing, along with most other farmland wildlife”.
The NFU, somewhat predictably, responded by trying to cast doubt over his claims. “Dave Goulson’s theories about neonicotinoids poisoning birds are simply that – theories – and are not backed up by evidence from real life”, said Dr Chris Hartfield, Senior Regulatory Affairs Adviser at the NFU.
“In the UK, poisoning of all animals is investigated by the Wildlife Incident Investigation Scheme” he continued. “If seed-eating farmland birds were being poisoned as a result of eating neonicotinoid-treated seed, you would rightly expect this scheme to be finding these incidents”.
And there lies the problem. The Wildlife Incident Investigation Scheme confirmed in a response to questioning by Goulson that dead birds aren’t normally tested for neonicotinoid in the UK anyway, so it’s no wonder there are no detected incidents of bird poisoning resulting from these.
And at what cost does this come to our soils? Repeated applications of chemicals kill the living organisms which burrow in soil such as worms, insects and beetles, while lots of nutrient fertilisers on tired soils leaves them vulnerable to heavy rain washing both soil and nutrients into rivers.
According to the European Environment Agency, the over-application of agrochemicals such as pesticides and mineral fertilisers is a significant factor in diffuse soil contamination. Compassion in World Farming is one of 500 organisations who have signed a letter urging the European Commission to develop a dedicated, legally binding framework protecting soils.
We are also supporting the European Citizens Initiative by People4Soil asking the EU for specific regulations to protect soil. Legislation is urgently needed to protect our soils before it’s too late. The NFU are notably opposed to legislation to protect soils in the UK.
Thankfully, awareness is growing that the future of food depends on taking care of our soils and the precious wildlife inhabitants of our countryside, not spraying them with endless chemicals.
One farmer turning his back on chemical dependence is Tim May of Kingsclere Estates. I visited his farm to research my book Dead Zone and listened to his fascinating story. The farm has been in his family for four generations, and followed the predictable path of intensification for many decades. But Tim had the wisdom to realise that a different way of farming was vital for the survival of his business and the countryside.
Watch Tim tell the story of how he is kicking the chemical habit – and the resulting chain of benefits for his farm animals and wildlife.