THE BLOG

Chemical Hazards In The Countryside: Poisoning Our Wildlife

30/03/2017 14:49 BST | Updated 30/03/2017 14:49 BST

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©Compassion in World Farming

In recent years, there has been increased awareness of the plight of the nation's wildlife and the health of our countryside. Campaigns to help save bees from exposure to harmful pesticides have led to a ban on a number of these, including three from the group of the pesticides known as neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids are heavily linked to devastating declines in bee populations.

Despite this ban, the latest UK government data suggests that the use of pesticides is greater than ever.

Poison-laced seeds are being used on a widespread basis in the countryside, with damaging effects on wildlife such as birds, bees, and other small animals - in a practice little known to the general public. I discovered just how common this practice is while researching my new book, Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were.

A staggering decline

My first sighting of a barn owl is one I will never forget. It was as a child on a family holiday in Norfolk. Undoubtedly I'm sure that it was this unforgettable 'up close and personal' moment that fuelled my lifelong fascination with the natural world.

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. Birds including turtle doves, grey partridges, corn buntings and tree sparrows have declined by 90% or more over the last forty years. The skylark, lapwing and even the common starling have dwindled by at least 60%. In my lifetime alone, Britain has lost 44 million birds at the rate of a pair a minute.

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. The grey partridge and crested lark have been hit particularly hard, with declines of more than 90 per cent. Ortolan buntings, turtle doves and meadow pipits have seen their numbers slashed by more than two-thirds.

Our countryside: no longer a haven

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.

Far from being a haven, the countryside has become a hazardous place for wildlife.

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 in chemicals is routine and systematic - let alone that we regularly coat individual seeds with pesticides before planting them?

It has been revealed that this chemical threat still faces Britain's best-loved birds today. Despite some chemicals being banned, the industrialisation of the countryside has continued.

Chemical herbicides obliterate the flowering plants that provide seeds for birds to eat and wipe out the insects that many species feed on.

A hidden, but devastating practice

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 is enough to kill a house sparrow.

Every hectare sown contains enough 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, six 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 gone up 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."

Wildlife can thrive once again

Many are aware of the cruelty inflicted on animals in factory farms, but let's not overlook the devastating impact industrial farming methods have on the environment and our much-loved wildlife.

Over the last decades, animals have disappeared from the countryside. Cramming animals into barns may look like a space-saving idea, but this ignores the fact that vast amounts of space is required elsewhere to grow food for them. Staggeringly, in Europe, half of the cereals grown go to feed farm animals.

All of this means that it's not just the farm animals which are disappearing from the land. It's also the trees, the hedges, the birds, the bees, the bats and the insects which enrich our countryside - leaving little more than the crops. Britain's green and pleasant land is becoming a wildlife desert.

Whilst the vast majority of land is intensively farmed, wildlife will continue to decline, unless we move to more humane and sustainable farming systems.

By moving beyond the industrialisation of the countryside we can restore it as a thriving haven of land where farm animals can graze instead of being locked in cruel factory farms, and where wildlife can flourish once again.