“We can’t have farmland birds at the level they used to be with the agricultural system we have today” claimed the UK Government’s chief scientific advisor, Professor Ian Boyd, at a meeting discussing UK agricultural strategy in London last week. His assessment came on the day the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) released new figures showing Britain’s farmland bird populations have reached their lowest level on record.
Yet, despite the growing chorus of disquiet, the government seems hell-bent on turning the screw tighter under the guise of ‘sustainable intensification’, the main topic in the room at the UK agriculture strategy session. Professor Boyd made clear his part in balancing agriculture with the environment: “I and my colleagues put the information up and ask society through their elected politicians to make that choice.” The continued decline of once-common farmland birds shows policy-makers aren’t listening.
According to DEFRA’s own latest statistics, farmland bird populations have dropped by more than half over the last forty years with the biggest dip happening between the late 1970s and early 1990s. That was when intensification really took hold, with its chemical-soaked monocultures of crops, the demise of mixed farming and increased use of pesticides. Hardest hit have been the farmland specialists like the grey partridge, turtle dove, tree sparrow and corn bunting – down by over 85 per cent in four decades. Strong downturns in more recent times have been shown by species like the skylark, lapwing, starling and kestrel.
Britain’s soils have only 100 harvests left
It’s not only birds at risk from over-intensive farming as scientists warn that Britain’s soils have only 100 harvests left. “With a growing population to feed, and the nutrients in our soil in sharp decline, we may soon see an agricultural crisis,” said Professor Nigel Dunnett of Sheffield University.
“Meanwhile we are also seeing a sharp decrease in biodiversity in the UK which has a disastrous knock-on effect on our wildlife. Lack of pollinators means reduction in food,” he told The Independent newspaper.
Threat of ‘Silent Spring’ remains
As pesticide protagonists lick wounds over recent EU action to ban the use of neonicotinoids on crops used by bees, there are fears that a ‘Silent Spring’ could still become reality: the highly respected International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) warns that global use of these pesticides is responsible for ongoing threats similar to those “posed by organophosphates or DDT”.
Birds and bees have become just as much a victim of agricultural intensification as the pigs, chickens and cows crammed into factory farms. The industrial rearing of animals goes hand in hand with intensive crop production, often grown to feed incarcerated animals. Concerted action is needed to ensure that farming becomes genuinely humane and sustainable. Sadly, strong interests and blinkered thinking seem determined to stand in the way.