Back in February (over on Martin's blog) we announced our revised policy on neonicotinoid insecticides. Martin also mentioned that EU Member States were due to vote on whether to temporarily ban these chemicals on crops that attract pollinators. This partial ban was proposed by the European Commission in response to the evidence that neonicotinoids pose a threat to bees.
I was hoping to be able to give you the joyful news that the ban had been approved and our bees had one less thing to worry about... but sadly that's not the case. When the vote finally happened (it was put back until 15th March), Member States were unable to reach agreement. In technical terms there was no qualified majority either in favour of or against the proposed partial ban.
All is not lost, however: Commission can now take this matter to an Appeals Committee, giving Member States a second chance to debate the proposals. If this committee also fails to reach a decision, Commission can go ahead with the partial ban.
To the disappointment of the RSPB and many others (like the 12 NGOs, us included, who wrote to Owen Paterson urging him to support the ban), the UK abstained from the vote. Defra officials are saying that the government does not yet have enough evidence to make a decision, and they are awaiting the results of further field trials. We hope that this new information will be enough to allow our government to come to a decision on neonicotinoids - and that it will be available in time to influence the appeals committee vote.
Watch this space...
Posted on behalf of Abi Burns, Senior Agriculture Policy Officer
Our uplands are special. They provide nearly three quarters of our drinking water, their deep peat soils hold more carbon than any other habitat in the UK and they provide an escape for millions of people who visit these iconic landscapes each year in search of inspiration and a sense of solitude. But while the forces of nature are particularly evident in the uplands, these are lived-in landscapes which have also been shaped by man over millennia. As a result, some of our most treasured upland wildlife is dependent on human management and some level of grazing is essential to creating the habitats of many threatened upland birds such as curlew, black grouse and whinchat.
Historically, an increase in livestock numbers – largely driven by CAP-based production payments – led to environmental damage and many upland areas (including specially protected areas such as SSSIs) still bear the damage of past inappropriate grazing. However, with public subsidies now largely ‘de-coupled’ from production and upland livestock production often of marginal economic viability, there is now concern that there is insufficient grazing in some areas to maintain important habitats. Often the debate has been polarised with farmers and conservationists disagreeing about the right number of livestock, though in reality, other details of farming practice such as the type and timing of grazing can be just as important as numbers. To better understand these issues, we commissioned new research - involving a range of farming and conservation experts from across the UK - to draw together data on how livestock numbers have changed in the uplands across the four countries. Through a survey of specialist opinion and in-depth case studies, the researchers then considered the potential implications of these changes for habitats and species. The full findings can be seen at http://www.rspb.org.uk/Images/Final_Report_tcm9-340975.pdf along with the case studies which centre on the Uists and the Croick estate (Sutherland) in Scotland; the Cambrian Mountains and Snowdonia in Wales; Fermanagh and the Antrim Hills in NI, and Dartmoor and Limestone Country (Yorkshire Dales) in England.
One of the most striking findings is the major differences in changes in cattle and sheep numbers between regions. The greatest decreases in grazing pressure have occurred in the North of England, South Wales, the Western Isles of Scotland and the Western part of Northern Ireland, but some regions have experienced an increase in grazing pressure and the picture varies considerably at the local level with notable differences between the balance between cattle and sheep. Alongside changes in livestock numbers, there have been a number of other trends in upland grazing regimes in recent years which had important impacts on wildlife. These include fewer cattle and less mixed grazing, a greater use of continental breeds, more intensive use of the in-bye and less common land grazing. Less cattle and mixed grazing is contributing to the spread of ranker grasses, rush, scrub and bracken. Experts highlighted a proven need for the use of cattle with hardy traits, but the research also highlighted that not all traditional herds have these traits, illustrating the importance of careful stock selection. The research clearly identified a polarisation between unenclosed areas, which have experienced a reduction in grazing pressure, and improved areas which have been more intensively used and managed. A move from traditional breeds to continental or improved breeds with higher nutritional requirements has led to intensification in management of in-bye and marginal land, resulting in a loss of habitats as well as nutrient enrichment. Reductions in grazing pressure on unenclosed land were found to have been broadly positive, with upland habitats such as blanket bog recovering as a result of reduced grazing by sheep in particular. However, undergrazing is now occurring in some areas, with adverse impacts for some species.
For me, one of the most important messages from the report is the need to consider the whole farming system, rather than focusing on the ideal grazing regime in isolation. With the typical upland system losing money on its livestock production, it is vital that environmentally valuable farms receive a better package of support to allow the benefits they provide for society as a whole to continue. This research has helped us develop our understanding of grazing in the uplands and its central role in securing the future of some of our best loved wildlife and habitats. Many upland farmers in the UK are failed by the current CAP approach – for example, the Less Favoured Area Support Scheme (LFASS) in Scotland results in higher payments going to more productive, less disadvantaged areas in the LFA, rather than being targeted to the most vulnerable farming areas. It is surely time to reward good upland stewardship much more positively.
If you're following the debate on neonicotinoids, or you're interested in the health of our nation's bees, this one's for you.
The charity 'Sense About Science' have assembled a panel of experts for a live online Q+A about bees and pesticides. The live session will take place on the Sense about Science website on Tuesday 19th March 2013, 2-3pm.
You can send them questions in advance by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org; via Twitter using #plantsci, or via their Facebook page Sense About Science.
Questions people have already sent in include: What is causing the decline in bee health? Is bee colony collapse disorder linked to the presence of neonicotinoid pesticides? What safeguards are there that any alternatives to neonicotinoids that farmers may use will not have unforseen consequences?
They've lined up some top scientists and it promises to be an interesting discussion.