Careful pesticide use brings benefits for farmland birds

New Voluntary Initiative advice has been issued to help sprayer operators minimise the indirect impact of pesticides on farmland birds.

When used correctly, pesticides pose minimal direct risk to farmland bird species such as yellowhammer, corn bunting, grey partridge and skylarks, which are important indicator species for DEFRA’s sustainable development programme

But changes in farmland management can affect populations and the use of pesticides can have indirect effects, particularly removing food sources. The new advice recommends four steps that farmers can take to reduce those effects.

Growers need to ensure they follow integrated farm management practices, use pesticides responsibly, provide field margin habitats and adopt in-field food and habitat stewardship options, explains RSPB‘s Jim Densham, chairman of the Voluntary Initiative Biodiversity sub-group.

The advice suggests rather than relying solely on chemicals, growers should consider cultural methods too, he says. Sprays should be selected to have a minimal adverse environmental impact and their effect on the environment assessed with a BASIS qualified adviser.

Use selective herbicides where possible, he adds, as these can leave sources of seeds and insects for birds. Insecticide treatments should be minimised between 15 March and harvest to reduce the impact on the insects birds eat, and also encourage beneficial insects that may reduce future spring insecticide requirements.

The advice also suggests avoiding spraying when broadleaved crops or weeds are in flower unless necessary to provide insects in the summer and seeds for birds over-winter.

Non-cropped areas can also provide alternative food-rich habitats, says Mr Densham. Provision of conservation headlands, for example, can increase grey partridge brood sizes nearly three-fold.

In-field options are essential for some species, and while they may be more costly they are also usually rewarded more generously through agri-environment schemes.

A mixture of field margin and in-field options is particularly beneficial to offset the effects of pesticides on farmland birds, Mr Densham notes.

Importantly almost all the habitat measures listed by the advice could also contribute to the Campaign for the Farmed Environment – the industry-led initiative aimed at fending off a compulsory set-aside replacement in England.

NFU countryside adviser Andrea Graham said: “This is helpful practical advice on the creation and maintenance of important wildlife habitats on farm and complements the key messages being promoted by the campaign.”

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