Flindt on Friday: Neonics – the Law of Unintended Consequences

The Hangar field seems to feature in this column a lot these days. Mind you, there’s a perfectly simple explanation for it: I’ve had to spend an awful lot of time out there recently. And it’s worth doing a thorough history of the Hangar from the end of August 2018, because it raises an interesting question.

It was sown with oilseed rape on 24 August into hot ground that got a well-timed downpour and a good roll within a couple of days.

We couldn’t have asked for a better start. But by 7 September, Tod the Cropdoctor’s verdict was simple. Despite well-timed pyrethroid application, both the Hangar and Kilmeston Road fields were done for.

See also: Read more from Charlie Flindt

So we shrugged our shoulders, agreed that early September was not too late to re-drill, reallocated the seed that was due to go into Blackhouse Road to those failed fields, called up the contractor, and he did them again.

Once again, the seed-bed was perfect, warm and moist and rolled to perfection (even if I say so myself).

But at this point you have to pause and start adding up the unintended extras – not just on a cost basis, but in environmental terms.

That second drilling involved more driving over fields, more evil diesel – stuff that wouldn’t have been needed if the first crop hadn’t failed.

Revised plans

We then spent a couple of months watching the resown fields, and while about two-thirds of Kilmeston Road will be worth combining, the Hangar failed again – despite more doses of pyrethroid.

It had gone green for a bit, and we all agreed, unconvincingly, that we’d won the battle, and slapped a winter dose of N on it. But as soon as we turned our backs, the plants vanished.

By early spring, the colours on the farm map had been revised, and the Hangar went from the yellow of OSR to light blue for spring barley.

We had a bag of Planet left over from the frantic February barley frenzy, so an extra tonne was sourced (and treated and delivered, using those pesky chemicals).  

Tod and I sat down and discussed the new fertiliser programme. Would the first N dose we put on the OSR count towards the spring barley? Was it still in the seed-bed, or in the droppings of the birds which might have eaten the beetles that had eaten the crop?

But first, the stragglers of the oilseed rape and the assorted weeds that had thrived in the open cover had to be eliminated.

And that means a good tank of the ecowarrior’s worst nightmare: glyphosate. Three weeks later, the whole field was a crisp, even brown, ready for some late barley, and in I went with the little Horsch for another diesel tank’s worth of drilling.

Unintended consequences

The next day, I was back again, this time with the 8m rollers, and used another half tank of the devil’s red stuff to smooth it down a bit, bash the stones in, and make the seed slightly harder for the birds to find.

Yes, Mr and Mrs Rook and their thousand closest neighbours were working the rows of barley within hours, and the only answer to that was to shoot a couple and dangle them from long sticks on the prominent brow.

As I folded up the rollers to head home, I wondered about all that extra glyphosate, diesel and pyrethroid. All that extra soil cultivation. All those dead rooks. And, of course, the effect on the bees when we all give up on oilseed rape altogether.

Was that really what the ecowarriors wanted when they banned neonicotinoids?