Farmers to blame for the silence of the birds

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The mysterious decline of many of Britain's farmland birds, such as the skylark and the partridge, is laid at the door of pesticides and agricultural practices in an explosive new report.

The five-year study, prepared by the Government's wildlife advisory bodies, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and other organisations, is likely to be the British equivalent of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson's devastating indictment of the effect of pesticides on wildlife in the United States, which was published in 1962 and effectively launched the modern environmental movement.

The UK report will blame insecticides and intensive farming practices for the alarming drop in population of many familiar birds in the last 25 years, such as the tree sparrow (down by 89 per cent), the grey partridge (82 per cent), the turtle dove (77), the bullfinch (76), the song thrush (73), the lapwing (62), the skylark (58) and the blackbird (42).

In the wake of Silent Spring, DDT and other chlorine-based insecticides found to be killing birds directly were withdrawn.

An RSPB spokesman, Chris Harbard, said: "We now believe modern pesticides and farming methods affect the decline in songbird numbers by destroying the food they rely on and their breeding sites. For the first time we have established a likely connection between some pesticides for some species."

The grey partridge, with a population of 100,000 pairs, is an example. Pesticides have killed off much of its food source in the fields and hedgerows where it breeds, and nests have often been removed to accommodate agricultural machinery.

Dr Nicholas Aebischer of the Game Conservancy Trust said the survival rate of partridge chicks in areas where pesticides are used intensively had dropped from 33 per cent to 24 per cent through the 1990s.

The report is expected to call for a change in intensive farming methods, which utilise every strip of land, sow a single crop in winter rather than spring, and then enhance its growth with an armoury of pesticides, fertilisers and herbicides.

"We're not looking to turn the clock back 30 years," said Mr Harbard. "But conditions have to be made more favourable for wildlife. Farmers do not have enough incentives to change."

The National Farmers Union said it was keen to address concerns over the fall in bird numbers and that many farmers took active measures to help bird populations recover.

BBC 2 is screening a documentary on the findings of the report, Nature Special: Another Silent Spring? on 8 May.