Last week's headline that Britain's Great Butterfly Count had recorded its lowest number ever of common species since records began, was touted as a surprise and shock by journalists and scientists. This is because the summer in Britain was warm and mainly dry, ideal butterfly conditions. Previous unusually low counts had coincided with poor summers and this was thought to explain them. Now a different explanation must be found. Indeed, many people are already sure they know. Agricultural intensification leading to habitat loss, use of herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, neonicotinoids along with a general obsession with trimming roadside verges and indiscriminate spraying have all been implicated.
The status of our pollinator species should be of deep concern to farmers and rural dwellers, as without them we would be unable to produce much of our food. As we all know, bees, moths, butterflies, as well as certain kinds of bats and birds act as pollinators by going from flower to flower eating nectar. In doing so they pass pollen from one plant to another, fertilizing them. This is one the of the key methods of getting plants to fruit and most of our food crops, from apples, berries and vegetables to coffee, nuts and cocoa, rely on pollination. This why we need to be concerned that pollinator species worldwide are in sharp decline.
Pollinators are sensitive creatures. Many cannot survive certain kinds of sprays and even if they do, they need a diversity of plants in order to feed and breed. It's all very well having an apple orchard, but if you clear out all the weeds underneath, what will pollinators eat when the apples are not in flower and where will they live? A desire for tidiness is commendable, but using herbicides to keep yards and driveways clean deprives insects of important food sources and habitats. What many will call 'a dirty corner' could in fact be an insect haven. One sweep of the knapsack is all it takes to deprive hundred of species of food and shelter. The cumulative effect might do the same to us, as, without pollinators, we too could starve.
The trouble is, as farming has become specialised and intensified, farmers no longer feel responsible for wildlife. Indeed, with such low prices being paid for produce and EU subsidies based on productive land only, all the pressure is on farmers to clear rather than save marginal areas where wildlife thrives. The sad truth is that leaving space for nature is the last thing on many farmers' minds. Indeed, it is common to hear jokes about saving the environment, as if the collapse in species was all just another piece of political propaganda. I'm sure many nature lovers wish it was, but with so many disappearing species, we cannot afford to laugh.
So the problem is clear. What about solutions?
Firstly, while individual landowners must take responsibility for their own patches, we need a national consensus, so that broader measures can succeed. County and city councils need to change their current policies of spraying and cutting roadside verges. Pollinator-friendly planting of wild-flowers can enhance the appearance of waste ground while providing food and shelter for bees and butterflies. Insect populations can recover very quickly if given the chance to do so.
Farmers should learn to recognise the importance of leaving pollinator-friendly areas, ideally in a joined-up ring around their farm. As habitat loss is the single biggest contributor to pollinator decline, habitat conservation should therefore be the goal of every farmer. Spraying ditches and drains with herbicides has become a trend which, although it saves time in preventing fences from earthing, is hugely damaging to wildlife diversity. A better way would be to use a hedge-cutter to keep growth back from fences, without actually killing the problem plants. Fences should be kept back from hedgerows to allow a cutting head access to the vegetation. This way animals can graze under the fence and the land area lost is negligible.
Tillage farmers have been knocking ditches for generations now, with the result that they become more and more reliant on chemicals to control pests. The irony is that healthy diverse field margins host numerous beneficial insects which could reduce the input costs for farmers. As regards sprays, farmers can help by reducing their interventions to a bare minimum, avoiding treated seeds, especially those treated with neonicotinoids, which have been directly linked with bee deaths. Crops should ideally only be sprayed if conditions require it.
Ultimately, if we are to save our pollinators, it will take willpower from all sides. The European Commission is trying to force action from above by banning the use of herbicides on ecological focus areas under Greening, a move which Ireland and 17 other countries are resisting. But EU Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan said recently: "The simple facts are that the environmental dimension is here to stay and I will not stand by and watch us lower our level of environmental ambition." The EU is attempting to increase crop rotation and boost the ecological value of farms, but Greening encouraged farmers to use more herbicides as they had to reseed and replant fields more often. Under new rules burning off will not be allowed but this is not the end of the world. Cover crops can be topped and allowed to rot down instead of being sprayed and by not spraying, farmers can get added benefit from legumes which continue to fix nitrogen from the roots even after the plant has been cut down.
Environmental regulations are perceived to reduce yields and increase costs, which they sometimes do, but in fact, good environmental husbandry is about doing less, not more. Doing less costs less, but it need not affect productivity. There are clever ways of maximising both the ecological and monetary value of your farm. For smaller holdings in fact, an ecologically sound approach makes better financial sense. Small farmers cannot compete fairly with big farmers, whose scale allows them to soak up price shocks that can put a small farmer out of business. It is better to be niche and diverse, producing something not everybody has. By gaining high nature value accreditation or organic certification, farmers can put a premium value on their products and thereby compete.
It will also improve the balance of natural life on the farm, with many benefits in kind. Better conditions for pollinators mean increased crop yields and increased natural pest control. Achieving this balance can take a few seasons so don't expect overnight results but the rewards are notable. Best of all, a healthy wildlife on your farm will bring joy and beauty to your everyday life.
The following recommendations for voluntary actions come courtesy of Campaign for the Farmed Environment:
- Sow a wildflower or a pollen and nectar mix to provide
food and energy
- Provide legume and herb rich temporary grass to
provide enhanced food supplies and habitat
- Leave cereal headlands unsprayed and/or unfertilised
- Uncultivated field corners create habitat for pollinators
- Provide fertiliser-free permanent pasture
- Reduce the use of spring herbicide use on land to encourage a diverse range of non-competitive weeds in the crop
- Create a beetlebank – grass mounds that run through the middle of large fields
A good habitat for pollinators includes:
- Widespread and varied flowering plants,
- The right types of plants (some flowers are the wrong shape for bees to access and some don’t produce enough pollen or nectar).
- Food early in the year (when colonies are established) and later in the year (when pollinators are preparing for hibernation).
- Suitable nesting and hibernation sites