This week saw an unwelcome twist in the tale of the controversial neonicotinoid pesticides.
In December 2013, the EU banned neonicotinoids for use on crops that attract pollinators. This was in response to research suggesting that bees and other beneficial insects can be harmed by use of these chemicals. Since then, the evidence for risks to bees has got ever stronger, while research is uncovering a slew of other unforeseen hazards, potentially affecting wildlife from earthworms to partridges.
The ban meant that last autumn, when farmers were sowing the oilseed rape crop, for the first time in years none of the seeds were treated with neonicotinoids. Farmers in some parts of the country suffered worse than usual losses to pests – in some unfortunate cases crops were completely destroyed and had to be redrilled. But at a national level the impacts were reported as ‘modest’. It looked like the sector was going to be able to cope quite well with the withdrawal of neonicotinoids.
Nevertheless, the NFU, alongside the pesticides manufacturers themselves, has continued to lobby Government to lift the ban – in technical terms, to grant an ‘emergency authorisation’ to use these pesticides. And on 22 July, in the last hours before Parliamentarians headed off for the summer recess, it emerged that Defra had quietly given in to pressure.
In some ways, what Defra has actually granted is a minor concession. Only farmers in the 5% of the country considered most at risk from oilseed rape pests – about 30,000 ha in the East of England – are to be allowed to use neonicotinoids this autumn.
What concerns me is the veil of secrecy that surrounds this decision. Government is advised on pesticides policy by a committee of independent experts. This committee usually publishes the minutes of their meetings online where everyone can read them. However, the minutes of recent meetings are missing. Apparently, Defra officials instructed the committee to withhold the minutes of meetings where the neonicotinoids issue was discussed. The details of the NFU’s applications have also been kept secret, so we don’t know on what grounds they argued that an emergency authorisation is needed.
There is very strong evidence that neonicotinoids pose risks to our wildlife. The RSPB supports the EU-wide restrictions on neonicotinoid use and believes the ban should be expanded to cover all crops. The Government has repeatedly stated that it makes policies based on evidence, a stance that the RSPB fully endorses. However, it is difficult to see how this recent decision can be justified by the science. We are extremely concerned at the lack of transparency over how Government has arrived at this decision. The RSPB works with hundreds of wildlife-friendly farmers every year. We see first-hand how passionately these farmers care about their wildlife, and how they constantly innovate and adapt to face new challenges. It is disappointing that, rather than work with farmers on real, sustainable solutions to pest problems, the NFU and the pesticides industry continues to focus on lobbying government to lift the ban on neonicotinoids.
Much of the biodiversity monitoring that takes place at Hope Farm is focused on birds, as you would expect. Fifteen years of breeding and wintering bird surveys has shown just how well birds have recovered during RSPB ownership and management of this farm. But as we all know birds are just one part of the ecosystem here.
We also monitor butterflies and bumblebees regularly during the spring and summer, and moths every night of the year. It really is a delight walking alongside our pollen and nectar margins, or flower rich meadows, and seeing the abundance and diversity of butterflies, bees and other insects.
While most of the species are expected, every now and again nature springs a surprise on us, and we get quite excited!
Remarkably we have had two such moments this summer.
The first happened while two of our Senior Conservation Scientists, Tony Morris and Rob Field, were inspecting a pollen and nectar research margin. When they came back to the farmhouse they were very quick to tell us about a white-letter hairstreak they had seen and photographed. To our knowledge this was only the second record of white-letter hairstreak on this farm, with the first being recorded during in 2010 during a farm walk to celebrate the farms 10th anniversary. Amazingly the next day when Derek Gruar, the Senior Research Assistant at the farm, and I went to check the margin we discovered at least 3 hairstreaks, and possibly four!
White–letter hairstreaks are a species associated with elm trees, and the records here this year were of adults feeding on a vetch dominated margin alongside elms trees.
White-letter hairstreak feeding on vetch at RSPB Hope Farm copyright: Ian Dillon/RSPB
The second Lepidoptera moment occurred when I received an email from our volunteer moth identifier, David Kipling. He had identified a toadflax brocade which was a new species for the farm. This a species which was first recorded in south-east England in 1950 and has slowly colonised and expanded north since. There appear to be several small colonies in Cambridgeshire, but it is still exciting to learn of a nationally scarce moth being found on the farm.
Also seen recently was a marbled white butterfly which appears to be another butterfly that is slowly expanding its range and colonising new areas. We have had several sightings in recent years so it would be equally exciting if these whites did settle to form a new colony at Hope Farm.
Being early July, the peak of butterfly and moth activity may lie ahead, so you never know we may have yet more exciting Lepidoptera to report to you by the end of the summer.
If you would like more information on Hope Farm please contact:
Ian Dillon (Hope Farm Manager): firstname.lastname@example.org
Most folk involved in arable farming will either have visited or know of Cereals, one of Europe’s premier agricultural shows. This year the show was held on 10-11th June at Boothby Graffoe, and the RSPB hosted a stand along with approximately 1000 other exhibitors.
Picture 1: RSPB Stand at Cereals 2015. (Anna Broszkiewicz).
With so much to grab visitors attention, we had to stand out, and our star attraction this year was a hand-made barn owl box, one of three specially made for the show. Throughout the two days the box attracted a huge amount of attention, and it was fantastic to hear from so many farmers who have owls on their farm. For the chance to win an owl box, visitors we asked to answer three quiz questions about barn owls. At the end of the show the first three correct answers drawn won a box. The lucky winners have all now been informed and are looking forward to installing the boxes on their land. Those entering the competition could also sign up for the RSPB’s farming e-newsletter, a quarterly summary of farming related stories from this blog.
Picture 2: Visitors flock to enter the barn owl box competition. The box (right) was one of three specially made for the show. (Anna Broszkiewicz).
Our main offering this year was a series of free 1-2-1 Countryside Stewardship advice sessions for farmers. During these sessions and RSPB advisors used digital mapping to help farmers plan the Countryside Stewardship options on their farm. The mapping module with the new Countryside Stewardship options was specially designed for the show, and the sessions generated a lot of interest. One farmer commented they were ‘the best thing I’ve seen all day’! The sessions could be pre-booked and nearly all available slots were filled.
Picture 3: Senior Conservation Officer Niki Williamson discusses Countryside Stewardship options with a farmer during a 1-2-1 session. (Anna Broszkiewicz).
The sessions were a unique offering at the show, and helped bridge the current information gap for those farmers whose old schemes are ending and who are looking to apply for Countryside Stewardship. There are a number of differences between the old and new schemes, and Senior Policy Officer Tom Lancaster offers a run-down of the key points in his blog here. Keep an eye out on this blog for further news on the new scheme in the coming months. Countryside Stewardship is a powerful tool to support wildlife friendly farmers and we were very pleased at the level of interest the 1-2-1 sessions generated. As a result of attending one of the sessions at Cereals, a farmer has just submitted his Expression of Interest form, the first to have been submitted for Nottinghamshire!
The support among stand visitors and passers-by for managing a proportion of farmland for wildlife was gauged by using a straw poll to answer the following question; 'Would you be prepared to answer 3-5% of you land for wildlife through an agri-environment scheme?" On both days the overall answer was a resounding yes. More specifically, the net result from 71 votes over two days was; Yes = 59 (83%), No = 5 (7%) and It depends = 7 (10%).
Picture 4: Coloured vases were filled with water for the straw poll, the results of which were very encouraging. (Anna Broszkiewicz).
As in previous years, we were very lucky to have the support of two guest Farmers, Martin Lines and Steve Bumstead, who both joined us on the stand for several hours. Their knowledge and expertise was invaluable and we look forward to working with them in the future to promote wildlife friendly farming. We also welcomed Katie Cruickshank from Butterfly Conservation onto the stand to offer advice on how to manage farmland for butterflies. It was a pleasure to see our stand so busy throughout the show, with folk popping in to chat to advisors, book 1-2-1 sessions, browse the leaflets available or just have a cup of tea. Katie later commented that, “ I was so impressed by the service that the RSPB was offering and the level of positive energy on the stand- it was definitely the most interactive stand that I saw on my wanderings'!
Picture 5: The stand was buzzing throughout the show. Many visitors were proud of the wildlife on their farm and were seeking advice on schemes to help support continuing management for wildlife. (Anna Broszkiewicz).
Butterfly Conservation is working in partnership with the RSPB, other wildlife charities and industry experts to develop a new online advisory tool for farmers. When it is launched next year, the FarmWildlife website will provide farmers and their advisors with the best advice available on how to manage farmland for wildlife. There will also be case studies, a questions forum and guest blogs throughout the year. Keep an eye out for further publicity
Many thanks are due to the great number of staff who helped with the show, and to the visitors who came along to the stand, your interest and enquires made for an inspiring and stimulating two days. I hope some of you reading this will have been among those visitors, and if not, we look forward to welcoming you at Cereals next year.
By Rebecca O'Dowd (Agricultural Communications Manager).