‘An alarm bell we must not ignore’: Major report calls for huge pesticide reductions to halt collapse in vital insect populations

Almost 17,000 tonnes of pesticides are sprayed on UK countryside each year, warns The Wildlife Trusts

Harry Cockburn
Wednesday 08 July 2020 07:08
Wildflowers just outside Ipswich, Suffolk
Wildflowers just outside Ipswich, Suffolk

Insects are rapidly being annihilated, risking ecosystem collapse with dire repercussions for humanity, according to a report urging major new targets to preserve these vital creatures and the environments which support them.

The Wildlife TrustsReversing the Decline of Insects report lays bare the huge toll human activity is having on insects and their habitats, and calls for action “at every level of society, from local to global”, to address the issue.

The report says in the UK over the last 48 years, 41 per cent of wildlife species have suffered strong or moderate decreases in numbers. The chief causes of this decline include habitat loss and industrial-scale use of pesticides.

The country has lost 97 per cent of its wildflower meadows since the 1930s and 87 per cent of its wetlands. Both of these habitats supported a huge array of wildlife.

Compounding the destruction of these ecosystems is the fact that 16,900 tonnes of pesticides — toxic chemicals — are applied to the countryside every year, and that figure doesn’t include additional pesticides used in gardens, across towns and cities, or those which go down the drain.

The report calls for ambitious new rules on pesticides that will put the UK ahead of the EU, which is considering plans to halve the overall use of pesticides by 2030.

To do this the report urges support for farmers to adopt insect-friendly farming practices, and says future trade deals​ must not erode existing pesticide standards.

The Wildlife Trusts are also calling for a national effort to provide more wildlife-friendly planning, including making use of the quarter of a million miles of road verges (which support 700 plant species — 45 per cent of our native flora) as well as the land alongside train lines to create wildlife networks and corridors which promote biodiversity and the recovery of insects.

The report also says making gardens and other urban areas more wildlife-friendly would also “be a big step forwards”.

It said a reversal of fortunes could revitalise insects if:

  • A network of nature-rich areas is created covering at least 30 per cent of the UK, and legally binding targets are set for nature’s recovery which are monitored and enforced
  • Local councils prioritise green recovery and create more nature-rich places where insects can thrive and make cities, towns and parishes pesticide-free
  • Everyone steps up to become an insect champion

Craig Bennett, the chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts said: “In my lifetime, 41 per cent of wildlife species in the UK have suffered strong or moderate decreases in their numbers, and insects have suffered most.

“This has had a huge effect on the rest of the natural world. The vital role that insects perform is undermined and everything that depends on them suffers, from hedgehogs to nightingales, wildflowers to wetlands.”

He also said Brexit and the forthcoming Agriculture Bill was an opportunity to put in place the policies that will protect the natural world on which we all depend.

He said: “Current trade deals threaten to make a bad situation worse. It’s up to the government to ensure we maintain our current environmental standards, not let them slip and jeopardise the wildlife we have left. The Agriculture Bill is a golden opportunity to set high standards in law and make sure insect-friendly farming practices are rewarded.

“We want to see an ambitious pesticide reduction target and at least 30 per cent of land being managed for nature so that insects can become abundant once more. We’re calling on everyone to take action for insects and become an insect champion.”

In the report, the authors make clear how our own civilisation’s prosperity is dependent upon the continued existence of functioning natural ecosystems.

One paragraph reads: “In the UK alone we have more than 27,000 insect species; grasshoppers, bees, silverfish, caddisflies, beetles, dragonflies, mayflies, moths and many, many more. Most of us pay them not the slightest heed, but they are the dominant life form on Earth, living all around us, burrowing in the soil in our gardens and parks, buzzing from flower to flower in farmers’ fields, munching slowly through the leaves in our woodland ... Insects are everywhere, performing vital roles such as pollinating wildflowers and crops, serving as a major food source for birds, bats, fish, reptiles and amphibians, recycling the nutrients in animal dung and cadavers, spreading seeds, aerating the soil, eating pests and so on. Whether as an individual, you ‘like’ insects or not, we need them. Without their help in recycling nutrients and keeping soil healthy, it would be much harder to grow crops, and the three quarters of our crops that require insect pollinators would produce little or nothing.”

The report’s lead author Professor Dave Goulson of the University of Sussex said the demise of insects requires a response from “every section of society”.

“If we get it right for insects we get it right for everything else,” he said. “Insects are the canaries in the coal mine — their collapse is an alarm bell that we must not ignore. Action is needed from every section of society — we all need to change this together.”

The report notes that in France, the government has recently introduced legislation banning pesticides in towns and cities, following a grassroots movement.

Similar legislation is also in place in Copenhagen, Vancouver, Toronto and Barcelona.

In Amsterdam, a ban on pesticides on public land, and a municipal plan to convert half of the green space to native flowers, along with a campaign to put up bee hotels and plant flowers in private gardens, has led to an increase in bee diversity by 45 per cent since 2000.

“We can achieve the same in the United Kingdom,” the authors said.

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