Whilst I'm still on holiday, today's guest blog comes from David Gibbons, RSPB's Head of Conservation Science. He will tell you about neonics and the impact they have on the domesticated honey bee and wild bumble bees.An awkwardly-named group of insecticides – the neonicotinoids, or neonics, for short – has been in the news recently, with increasing evidence of their damaging impact on domesticated honey bees and wild bumble bees.Chemical insecticides are commonly applied to crops by spraying, but this sometimes kills beneficial insects as well as pests. An alternative approach is to ‘dress’ crop seeds with an insecticide before planting. The insecticide becomes distributed systemically throughout the plant, killing only those insects that eat it. Or, at least, that’s the idea. Unfortunately, such systemic insecticides – of which the most widely used are neonics – end up in the pollen and nectar of crop flowers, and can be eaten by pollinators, such as bees. It has been known for a while that honey bees are killed by high concentrations of neonics. In a recent Italian study, for example, honey bees that flew through the dust cloud from the exhaust of a pneumatic seed drill during normal crop sowing operations received a large dose of neonics, and were all killed. What has remained less clear, however, was whether the concentrations that bees would routinely be exposed to in the field were harmful to them or not.Two new studies have looked at the impact of neonics at field-realistic levels. The first, by researchers from Stirling University, exposed bumble bee colonies in the lab to realistic levels of the neonic imidacloprid, and then reintroduced them into the wild. Colonies treated with imidacloprid produced 85% fewer new queens than those that were not. In a separate French study, honey bees that were treated with realistic doses of a different neonic (thiamethoxam) were much less likely to return to their colony than those that were not; the bees became intoxicated by the neonic, lost their homing ability and died. Both studies suggested that numbers of bees would fall over time at the concentrations used in the experiments.Bee populations are in decline for a variety of reasons, such as parasites and the loss of flower-rich habitats, but these new studies suggest that neonics may be playing more of a role in honey and bumble bee declines than previously thought.So what is the RSPB doing about it? We are urging the UK Government to fund further research into the impact of neonics, particularly under field conditions. We are also assisting an IUCN Task Force to review all the available scientific evidence, and to devise an improved way of testing pesticides before they are approved for use. Perhaps, most importantly, we are supporting thousands of farmers in the work they are doing to help wildlife. Such actions are vital to safeguard populations of honey and other bees, and their roles as pollinators of crops and wild flowers. What are your thoughts on this? It would be great to hear your views.
I'm still on holiday but in my absence, I've asked Richard Gregory to share an insight into his world with you. Richard is Head of Species Monitoring and Research here at the RSPB.
When you think about nature and what is important, it’s natural to think about blue whales, tigers and pandas, the rarest and the most threatened anywhere on earth, but we have our share of rare and threatened animals and plants in miniature in the UK.
They are important to us and we at the RSPB would argue that we have a moral responsibility to look after them. Some of them don’t live anywhere else in the world, most have been in long-term decline, others are known from a tiny number of sites or just a few individuals and for others, we hold a significant part of their total European population.
They are precious, weird and wonderful and many are suitably named. Some sound regal like the Duke of Burgundy butterfly, the Noble Chafer or the Royal Splinter Cranefly, whilst others conjure more sinister images like the Black Night-runner, the Wart-biter or the English Assassin Fly – but they’re all worth saving! So, in different ways and for different reasons they are vulnerable to being lost and we need to do our bit make sure they are safe. They are our ‘crown jewels’ when it comes to nature.
A whole range of people and organisations from individual experts to NGOs and governmental agencies work terribly hard to catalogue, count and protect them and the places they live - we do this for birds and other wildlife ourselves - but you might be surprised to learn that overall there is no system to track their fate.
We could lose the lot and we would not know. We could have lost the lot and we would not have known. I exaggerate for effect but this is almost true.
The last assessment of the status of our rare and threatened animals and plants in the UK was in 2008 and this looked at less than half the relevant species, and since then there has been nothing……radio silence.
The reasons for this are complicated, linked both to changes in government, devolution and changes in strategies. I have attended two workshops in the space of two weeks recently to talk about how we fix this problem.
The good news is that there is a real appetite to do so from both NGOs and government agencies as well as a willingness to work together. We need to check on the status of our priority animals and plants and track their fate. By doing this we will be able to assess how we are doing on an annual or near annual basis and act accordingly. We know a huge amount about some of these species, like some of the butterflies, birds, mammals and plants but hardly anything about others and expertise is thin on the ground. Part of what we want to do is to fill these gaps in knowledge. We don’t want to be responsible for losing some of our rarest wildlife on our watch.
What can you do? Visit your local nature reserve and learn about the special wildlife that lives there. Why not help out with their local recording efforts? It is a great way to help and learn at the same time. There are a wide variety of recording schemes for wildlife, from birds to mosses. Some need a high level of expertise to contribute, but for others complete novices can make valuable contributions – the more that contribute, the better.
The RSPB sees this as a real priority for nature conservation in the UK, do you share our view?
Today the hosepipe bans comes in for parts of eastern and southern England. Yes, it is snowing or raining in many parts of the UK and it is doubtful that anyone will be reaching for their hose this weekend, but the ban is a symptom that we just have not had the right amount of rain.
While not all of us are covered by the ban, we all have a role to play in both responding to the drought and in taking the necessary steps of minimising the impact of future droughts.
Yesterday, I outlined some of the things that we are doing to respond to the drought and manage water for wildlife on our reserves.
Today, I want to offer those simple things we can do in our own lives and what government and water companies should do.
There are some simple things that we can do to reduce the water we use in their home and garden which will help to protect rivers and wetlands.
...take short showers rather than baths ...use water butts and used water from washing up bowls and basins to water gardens and house plants and water in the evening to reduce loss from evapo-transpiration...only use washing machines and dishwashers when you have a full load...comply with hose-pipe ban restrictions and please don’t use hose-pipes or sprinklers in the garden or to clean your car...contact your water company for water efficient shower heads, water butts and shower timers....use drought-resistant plants in the garden and use ample compost and mulch to retain soil moisture...if you’re buying new bathrooms or ‘white goods’ go for the most water efficient kit available (which will also save energy of course)
[I have to say that this was a little painful to write as I do like baths, but I am determined to shake the habit.]
We can also help garden wildlife by...
...considering leaving some water (from your butt) for birds to drink and bathe....maintaining an area of mud to help freshly arriving migrant birds like swallows and martins gather material for their nests.
And it is worth remembering that our heathlands are very dry at the moment (70 acres of Ashdown Forest burnt just 2 weeks ago) so please also please take care whilst out and about in the countryside. Threatened species like the nightjar and the Dartford warbler, and rare reptiles like the sand lizard and the smooth snake, are exceptionally vulnerable to the risk of fire.
While the RSPB is urging the public to play its role in helping our river and wetland wildlife through this drought, we are also working with the government and its agencies to help make sure that we and our environment can cope better with future droughts.
...more investment in the next water industry business plan period (2015-2020) to renew our mains infrastructure to help drive wasteful leakage down (leakage in the drought areas has flatlined since the last drought as most companies are at their so-called economic level of leakage despite environmental risks and social concern which hinders drought management). ...action to stop water company abstractions that threaten our most important rivers and wetlands even when there is no drought....far greater efforts made to make our society water efficient and to painlessly cut consumption levels from 160 litres per head per day toward 100 litres per head per day.
We will also be continuing our efforts to change the way we manage water in the countryside to retain more water in the landscape, to help protect and enhance our precious aquifers and to reduce the waste of land drainage. We think that habitat repair and creation have an important role in protecting our groundwater sources of water from pollution while also helping to prolong the period of recharge (Soil Moisture Deficits are made worse by intensive agricultural activities above aquifers).
So we (including me) can all do our bit and step up for nature in times of drought.
What about you? Are you doing your bit?
It would be great to hear your views.
P.S. I am off to Wales next week for a short break before our Members' Weekend in York. We may or may not have some guest blogs lined up for you next week. I'm not sure yet! In any case, have a great Easter weekend.
The hosepipe ban comes in tomorrow, so I thought I would dedicate this week's blogs to the drought. Today, I focus on what we are doing to manage water for wildlife on our land.
As an aside, I spent yesterday at Hope Farm with John Godfrey, the chairman of the the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (and, so I found out, President of Scunthorpe United). It is always good to share our experiences with key figures in the farming sector, to demonstrate how we have managed to triple the numbers of farmland birds whilst maintaining profitability. And it is always good to get fresh perspectives and learn from others.
As ever, we were accompanied by our farm manager, Ian Dillon. Ian has the (enviable) responsibility of ensuring that the farm delivers decent harvests of wheat, beans, oil seed rape as well as delivering more wildlife. He seems to enjoy the pressure but has been fretting about the lack of rainfall. He was clearly a relieved man when, at the end of the day, the rain finally arrived. The change in the weather will doubtless bring cheer to many farmers in the east and south of England, but will, unfortunately, do little to address the drought we are facing - we will need serious rainfall this autumn and winter.
But, it is not just farmers that will feel the effect of the drought. Many site managers of wetland reserves up and down the country will also be feeling the heat.
With great foresight, our reserves ecology team have developed a water management audit for drought vulnerable sites and this is now underway. This will help site managers identify leaking structures like weirs and sluices and indicate where and how water can be moved around a site to optimise the success of breeding waders and other target species. As each site is different, we think that a site-by-site assessment is the best way to come up with tailored plans for each situation. We hope to share this approach with other land managers and the statutory agencies, Natural England and the Environment Agency, to help provide other wetlands with the resilience they need in the face of further drought.
There are a range of things that we can do when to help our sites cope with severe water shortages. We can store water in reedbeds, ditch systems and in shallow floods and scrapes. Some sites have ‘reservoirs’ that double-up as reedbeds – and these are designed to release water into adjoining wet grasslands to help maintain ideal conditions for breeding waders in the event of prolonged dry weather (and up to 18 months of drought).
Site managers are encouraged to eke out what water they have and target it at specific parts of reserves where wader productivity has the chance of being high; and it is a testimony to their hard work that many sites are looking in good condition despite the drought.
I should say that we have welcomed the ‘one-off’ flexibility for wetlands with abstraction licences which may help get water into those sites if water becomes available in the next few months. Most of our reserves that have licences have winter-only licences that stop at the end of March and our wardens are working with local Environment Agency staff to identify previously unused sources of water like that lost from pumped drainage. Sites such as Frampton Marsh are being helped with this, and Elmley now uses water previously lost from Windmill Creek by Environment Agency pumps.
We think that this planned approach will help us deliver what wetland wildlife needs. I have a feeling that this will become a feature of management planning for years to come. But dealing with environmental change is all part of running some of the UK's finest wildlife sites.
Tomorrow I shall outline what we can do to help and offer an agenda for the Government and water companies to follow.
How do you think we should be managing water for wildlife?
Phragmites reed and other plants silhouetted, at the edge of a pool. Frampton Marsh RSPB reserve, Lincolnshire
Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
On Thursday, a housepipe ban will be introduced to large parts of southern and eastern England. Eight water companies have said they will impose water restrictions after two very dry winters have left reservoirs, aquifers and rivers below normal levels. Across East Anglia - where I live - the last six months have been the driest since records began in 1921.
While many of us do not use (or even have) a hosepipe, the introduction of a hosepipe ban is a warning to all of us to be responsible water consumers. And even though (with impeccable timing) the weather looks like it has turned and we'll have a wet and cold Easter, as reported by the Environment Agency here, a long wet spring and summer will not necessarily provide a lasting solution if followed by another dry autumn and winter.
The impact of the drought will not just be felt by gardeners and farmers.
I wrote in February here about the threat that the drought posed for wildlife. At the time, site managers at our southern and eastern England wetland reserves were expressing concern about the forthcoming breeding season. Since then reports are coming in of desperate times for many of our wetland reserves.
For example, our Nene Washes reserve near Peterborough is in danger after failing to flood - this would be bad news for the wetland wildlife especially for black-tailed godwit as the Nene is the most important breeding site for this species. My colleague Phil Burston was quoted at the wekend as saying "our other worst-hit areas are in Kent such as Elmley marshes on the Isle of Sheppey and Northward Hill on the Hoo peninsula. The lack of water is wiping out wading birds".
I have feeling that the interest and concern about the drought will only grow. So, for the rest of this week, I shall dedicate this blog to what can be done about the drought.
I shall share what we are doing to try to manage water on our sites to support wetland wildlife, what we should all be doing in our homes to be responsible water consumers and finally I shall outline what we think government and water companies should be doing to provide long term solutions to water shortages.
And as ever, whether you are in a drought area of not, I'd be delighted to hear your views.