The much-debated restrictions on neonicotinoid seed treatments will begin this December. The RSPB supports the ban but shares the concern expressed by many that farmers may resort to using greater amounts of other pesticides.
Like farmers across the country we at Hope Farm are reviewing our pest management strategy in light of the ban. We had a head start as RSPB decided in December 2012 to phase out neonicotinoid use on our estate, unless there are exceptional reasons to use them e.g. for research. I thought I’d share our experiences so far.
We haven’t often used neonicotinoids in the past. For our wheat crop it hasn’t made economic or agronomic sense to use treated seeds, and we usually establish our oilseed rape (OSR) by a broadcast method. Since this leaves seeds lying on the surface where birds might find them, use of neonic-treated seeds is prohibited. Instead we spray with pyrethroids (another type of insecticide) to control insect pests as needed.
In the 2012 planting season, conditions were such that we had to use a drilling method to establish some of our OSR. This meant the seeds would be buried and raised the question of whether we should use treated or untreated seeds.
After discussions with our agronomist we ended up with a field of drilled, treated seeds and two fields of broadcast, untreated seeds. This year, we have again decided to drill one of our fields, this time with untreated seeds in line with our new policy.
Oilseed drilling at Hope Farm copyright Andy Hay (RSPB Images)
We didn’t set this up as an experiment but it has enabled us to make some (non-scientific) observations. One surprising fact was that the OSR treated with neonicotinoids needed nearly as many pyrethroid sprays as the broadcast, untreated crop. The untreated crop was sprayed twice in autumn and three times in spring/summer. The treated crop only needed one spray in autumn but still required all three summer sprays.
So in this situation the benefits of seed treatment did not seem very great. On the other hand, this year’s field of drilled, untreated seed is suffering from flea beetle damage and may well end up needing extra pyrethroid sprays.
What do we take from this? That the picture is more complex than a choice between neonicotinoids and sprays. Our experience shows how the outcome of the neonics ban could depend greatly on the crop management choices farmers make. It’s interesting that, nationally, use of pyrethroids hasn’t dropped since neonicotinoids came on the scene - you can check out the figures yourself at https://secure.fera.defra.gov.uk/pusstats/.
RSPB scientists believe that the risks to bees from neonics are greater than those from sprays such as pyrethroids. The priority is to help farmers to use sprays wisely, as part of an Integrated Pest Management strategy – an approach we continue to develop at Hope Farm.
There are still many questions to be answered on neonicotinoids. This is why we are hosting a PhD project at Hope Farm to look at whether wild plants round the edges of a treated wheat field become contaminated with the neonicotinoid (clothianidin). Wheat is not covered by the restrictions because it does not attract pollinating insects.
This is a rapidly developing area of study with real consequences for wildlife and farmers alike. We are pleased to be adding to the growing science on this topic so we can clearly identify the risks to wildlife, but we are equally interested in learning what the real consequences are to the farmer of changes in regulations.
This is one of the cornerstones of Hope Farm, and indeed RSPB farmland research - carrying out studies in challenging subjects and finding realistic solutions to these problems so that farming and wildlife can happily co-exist.
Stephanie Landymore, Parliamentary Campaigns Officer, gives an update on how we’re showing government that wildlife-friendly farming is important to tens of thousands of people across the country.
Over the past six months, we’ve heard very positive noises from the Westminster Government around support for wildlife-friendly farming, and we were pleased to hear them re-iterated by George Eustice, the new farming Minister, at our joint farmer lobby in Parliament yesterday.
We’ve been campaigning for increased support for wildlife-friendly farming since the beginning of this round of CAP reforms, and many farmers and supporters have joined us throughout the process, writing to and emailing their MEPs and MPs, asking Cameron to ‘Vote for Nature’ in the European negotiations over the CAP budget and most recently voting in this year’s Nature of Farming Award championing those farmers doing outstanding things for wildlife.
To show the government that this support is still going strong, we’re encouraging not just farmers but all our supporters themselves to ‘Vote for Nature’. We've asked them “Do you think government should invest in farming that creates a countryside richer in nature?” – add your vote at www.rspb.org.uk/VoteforNature.
I was inspired to see so many farmers in Westminster yesterday showing MPs their passion for wildlife on their farms – it was a real demonstration that nature matters to successful business people running profitable farms of all types and scales and is very relevant to a vibrant rural community and economy.
We’re expecting the consultation on CAP implementation in England any day now and will be encouraging our supporters to speak up again and respond to the consultation. And of course Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are also making the same decisions imminently. Watch this space to find out how else you can get involved and make your voice heard!
Yesterday, over 25 farmers from across England convened in Westminster to tell MPs and Ministers how vitally important agri-environment schemes are - both for the wildlife they help support and for the farm businesses themselves. Supported by RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts and National Trust, farmers from Devon to Yorkshire embraced the opportunity to make their voices heard at a time when political decisions about how much money to make available for agri-environment, including through transfers from Pillar I, are being considered. For those of you who regularly buy Farmers Weekly, watch out for a special report in Friday's edition (25 October) but in the meantime, read all about the event, including what was said by farmers, MPs and the new Minister for farming, George Eustice, over at Matin Harper's blog, the RSPB's Director of Conservation. If you’d also like to add your voice to the debate, take part in our current poll. And if you haven’t already, what about writing to your local MP to tell them why agri-environment is so important to you and why the Secretary of State has to make the right funding decisions in the coming weeks?