9 May 1997

Pesticides responsible for declining farm birds

PESTICIDES are continuing to reduce farmland bird numbers, prompting calls for government to levy taxes on broad spectrum chemicals and tighten pesticide approval legislation.

Launching the Joint Nature Conservation Committee report on the Indirect Effects of Pesticides on Birds, the RSPB and English Nature also called on government and the agrochemical industry to provide more independent advice and training for farmers on the impact of pesticides.

A Department of the Environment spokesman said Labours environment protection department, headed by Michael Meacher, would shortly be publishing an action plan for the responsible use of pesticides.

While pesticides were not directly killing large number of birds, the report found they were removing their food chain resulting in dramatic declines over the past 25 years in numbers of skylark, grey partridge, lapwing and swallow.

The loss of spring sown cereal crops and the demise of mixed farms was also substantially affecting wildlife on farms.

Dr Mark Avery, RSPB head of conservation science, said crop pesticide applications had risen substantially since 1975. "Fields now have three fungicide, two or three herbicide and an insecticide application, compared to just a herbicide application 20 years ago."

ICM approach encouraged

Dr Avery called for an increase in the use of integrated crop management, which encouraged minimal and more efficient chemical use and farmland conservation; more funds for the proposed pilot arable extensification scheme launched in January; a higher emphasis on organic farming and a successor to set-aside which was more sympathetic to farmland birds.

Dr Arnold Cooke, English Nature toxic chemicals specialist, said the introduction of tighter targeted herbicides was a step forward, but that broad-based insecticides were having an increasing impact on insects and invertebrates.

Tony Pexton, NFU deputy president, welcomed the report but said more research was needed. Changes in farming practice, such as the switch from hay to earlier silage making and its effect on ground-nesting birds also needed to be taken into account.

Hugh Oliver-Bellasis, Hants farmer and vice-chair of the NFUs environment, parliamentary and land use committee, rejected allegations that farmers were still drenching the countryside with pesticides. He said it was important to understand that they had to produce food competitively to remain in business.

Peter Beaumont, spokesman for the Pesticides Trust, said the organisation was working with the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group to set up a pilot project with farmers in East Anglia, which would give advice on specific crop application rates and timings.

Geoff Bruce, Pesticide Safety Directorate spokesman, said the concerns would be passed to MAFFs advisory committee on pesticides.n