pesticides and fertilisers


A team of over 50 experts from various fields of study has come together to address the alarming decline in wild bird populations in Europe.

While factors such as cat predation, hunting, urbanisation, habitat destruction, light pollution, wind turbines, and climate change all play a role, this team has identified the intensive use of pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilisers by farmers as the primary cause.

“While many studies have tried to figure out what has driven bird declines in UK and Europe, this is the first to look at the major, man-made drivers in one go, using the best data available”, said one of the lead authors, Richard Gregory, Head of Monitoring at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) Centre for Conservation Science, and an Honorary Professor at the Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research (CBER) at the University College London.

“The results are compelling”, Professor Gregory continued. “They show the power of citizen science and cooperation across borders to better understand the natural world and what must be done to turn things around.”

The researchers conducted an extensive analysis, using the most comprehensive dataset ever compiled on European bird populations. They examined data collected from 20,000 monitoring sites across 28 countries over a span of 37 years, from 1980 to 2016. The findings were alarming, with a 25.4% decline in common bird species throughout Europe during this period. Not only did this decline signify a reduction in bird numbers, but it also reflected a decline in overall bird diversity.

When the team analysed the data based on different bird ecotypes, they found that farmland bird species were the hardest hit, experiencing a reduction of more than half (-56.8%). Declines were also observed in woodland birds (-17.7%), urban birds (-27.8%), northern, cold-preferring birds (-39.7%), and even southern, warm-preferring bird species (-17.1%).

The researchers confirmed earlier studies that highlighted the significant decline in bird species across Europe, and they specifically identified pesticides and herbicides used by farmers as major contributors to this decline. These chemicals directly poison or harm the health of wild birds, and they indirectly impact bird populations by causing a decline in their insect prey or the insects they feed to their offspring.

“Invertebrates represent an important part of the diet for many birds in at least some development stages”, the authors wrote in their study. “They are particularly crucial during the breeding period for 143 species among the 170 studied species for which, for instance, a reduction in food availability is likely to impact reproductive success by modifying parental behaviour and nestling survival in addition to direct contamination by seed consumption and trophic accumulation with sublethal effect.”

The study revealed that bird species relying on invertebrates for food experienced the most significant population drops. Farmland species, in particular, were heavily affected, but urban and woodland bird populations also suffered declines.

“The tremendous negative impact of agricultural intensification on birds has long been reported in particular for farmland and insectivorous birds, but our study provides strong evidence of a direct and predominant effect of farmland practices at large continental scales”, the authors elaborated in their study.

Only “the rapid implementation of transformative change in European societies, and especially in agricultural reform” could save the continent’s bird populations, the researchers warned.

The researchers emphasised that urgent action is required to save Europe’s bird populations, with a particular focus on agricultural reform and the reduction of pesticide and herbicide usage. They called for transformative change in European societies to address these issues effectively.

However, there is still hope. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has made efforts to implement nature-friendly farming practices at Hope Farm, a 181-hectare farm in south Cambridgeshire. The RSPB’s initiatives have resulted in a 177% increase in the number of farmland breeding bird territories on the farm, with a nearly 15-fold rise in winter species. Butterfly numbers have also increased by 398%.

Interestingly, despite dedicating more than 10% of the farmland to nature and transitioning away from conventional production, Hope Farm has maintained a similar profit level. In 2019, the farm eliminated the use of insecticides, but this did not significantly affect yields compared to previous years or national averages.

These positive outcomes demonstrate that adopting nature-friendly farming practices can lead to the recovery of bird populations and other wildlife. It provides evidence that a shift towards sustainable agricultural methods is not only beneficial for nature but can also be economically viable.

“Increasing our reliance on pesticides and fertiliser has allowed us to farm more intensively and increase output, but as this study clearly shows, at a huge cost to our wildlife and the health of the environment”, said Alice Groom, the Senior Policy Officer at RSPB and head of sustainable land use policy in England. “Yet we also know that the loss of nature, alongside climate change presents the biggest medium to long term risk to domestic food security.”

“The UK and devolved governments should ensure agri-environment schemes reward nature-friendly farming practices such as flower rich margins and herbal leys that are proven to enable farmers to produce good food whilst supporting progressive reductions in the use of pesticides and fertilisers.”



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The declines in our wildlife is shocking and frightening. Without much more support, many of the animals we know and love will continue in their declines towards extinction.

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We are convinced that this is much better for the UK than growing lots of fast-growing coniferous trees, solely to remove carbon, that don’t actually help our animals to thrive.

This is why we stand for restoring nature in the UK through responsible rewilding. For us, it is the right thing to do. Let’s do what’s right for nature!

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