When it's a hamper created by many of the wildlife-friendly farmers we work with across the country to help demonstrate the importance of supporting farmland wildlife.
You may have seen our blog posts before Christmas highlighting the hamper we handed in to Defra, created by many of the wildlife-friendly farmers we work with across the country. What you didn’t see was that we actually produced two hampers and last week we presented the second one to the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, to thank him for the positive work he is doing for the environment and to keep in mind these wildlife-friendly farmers when important decisions are being made at the top levels of Government. In particular, in the next few months as the New Environmental Land Management Schemes (NELMS) are being designed and implemented, we wanted to make sure that the Government creates schemes that deliver the most for the natural environment.
We took the opportunity to remind him that by last year, 23,000 people had told us that they think the Government should invest in farming that creates a countryside richer in nature and that in England we’ve seen 47,258 messages to UK and EU governments calling for a better CAP.
The hamper went down well and we hope that it gives the Deputy Prime Minister a real idea of what can be achieved when farmers work with wildlife in mind and that the Government keeps these farmers in mind when making future decisions for the UK countryside.
Elsewhere, the Welsh Government’s wildlife-friendly farming scheme – Glastir - is the main tool for rewarding farmers who protect and maintain our countryside. In order to deliver, the scheme has to be designed to form part of a wider well-funded plan to tackle wildlife declines across Wales. Given Glastir’s key role, it’s also vital that farmers in the scheme are given the help, training and guidance they need to make it work for them, their wildlife and their farms too. Land management for nature often requires specialist knowledge and experience, and farmers must be able to draw on those best qualified to provide assistance.
The Welsh Government is currently consulting on the design for the Glastir scheme. We’ve been encouraging supporters in Wales to help farmland wildlife and the farmers looking after it by writing to the Welsh Government with their views on the proposals. If you’d like to get involved, you have until the 28th March, when the consultation closes. For more information see here.
Farmland butterflies benefited from the best summer weather for seven years, a survey has revealed.
The Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey (WCBS), which assesses the fortunes of common and widespread species, found that many farmland butterflies flourished as a result of long periods of warm, sunny weather last summer.
Typical farmland species such as the Brimstone, Common Blue, Small Copper, Small Skipper, Large Skipper and Small Tortoiseshell all fared better in 2013 after experiencing a crash in numbers during 2012.
Read the results in more detail here
Remember when anything to do with Genetically Modified food (aka GM) guaranteed front page newspaper coverage? It seems those days are well and truly past. Last week the EU approved GM "Maize 1507", the first new commercial GM crop to be grown in the EU since 1998, with the mainstream media hardly noticing. What does this decision mean?
Maize is an important crop for the EU, covering 13 million hectares of European farmland. It provides animal feed, industrial starch, bioenergy and food for people. Like all crops, it comes under attack from pests – species that take advantage of the vast monocultures humans have created to eat and multiply. Maize is a favourite food for moth caterpillars of various species such as the European Corn Borer.
European farmers use a variety of pest management tools, including crop rotations to stop pests building up, good husbandry to produce healthy plants that can withstand pests, and pesticides. Maize 1507 has been genetically engineered to produce a pesticide within its tissues (known as Bt toxin) to kill pests that eat the crop. The RSPB isn't against GM in principle, but we have to ask: is a particular GM crop safe for people, wildlife and the environment? And is it the best solution to the problem at hand?
Maize 1507 was assessed by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Although they approved the application, EFSA highlighted certain risks to wildlife that would need to be managed if the crop was grown commercially. Bt is a potent poison: during studies in the Camargue Bt spraying knocked back insect populations to such an extent that house martin breeding success was affected. As well as killing the target pests, the Bt in the maize could also kill sensitive species like the Diamondback Moth, the Mediterranean Brocade and the Ni Moth. The possibility of sub-lethal effects on non-pests (e.g. affecting their breeding or growth) wasn't even considered. The RSPB believes we need rigorous field trials to assess these concerns - and others - before we consider commercial release of this crop.
A moth called ‘Ni’ – at risk from GM maize. Photo by Bettaman
So the answer to the first question – is it safe – is "maybe not". But I think there is an even bigger point at stake, about the direction we want farming to take. It is interesting to read EFSA’s risk assessment, which states that the GM maize doesn't pose risks that are significantly greater than conventional maize (where the pests are controlled with insecticide sprays). But the damage caused by these intensive farming systems is well-known: loss of wildlife, degradation of soil, contamination of water. EFSA is effectively saying Maize 1507 is OK because it is no worse than the existing, unsustainable farming system. Shouldn’t new technology be aiming higher than this? Maize 1507 does not address any of the issues with intensive maize cultivation, but perpetuates an approach of chemical eradication of pests and weeds. The RSPB, along with many progressive farmers, believes we should be looking to proven wildlife-friendly methods like Integrated Pest Management and organic farming, before we take a risk on new technologies like Maize 1507.
After literally years of wrangling, Member State representatives were asked to state their positions on Maize 1507 at a meeting on 11th February. 19 countries were against authorising the maize, with only five supporting it. However, because of complications which I won’t bore you with, this was not enough to block authorisation: the European Commission therefore have to approve the maize. So the first new GM crop to be approved since 1998 will get through not because it’s better than previous GM crops, scientific understanding has progressed or public opinion has changed, but because of a glitch in the bureaucratic process.
I should say that this particular crop is unlikely to be grown in the UK. However, it’s a sign that the longstanding EU deadlock on GM is ending. RSPB will be watching developments closely and urging our government to make decisions based on sound evidence, with the protection of our health and our wildlife as the top priority.