Crop spraying, Hope Farm RSPB Knapwell

Pesticides and wildlife

Pesticides are chemicals designed to kill 'pests' such as weeds, insects and diseases. They're used mostly by farmers to protect crops and increases harvests, but are also employed by gardeners, foresters and local councils.

Our views on pesticide use

The RSPB is very concerned by the environmental impacts of the widespread use of pesticides. We believe that if they must be used, it should be with care, in a targeted way, and with respect to the environment.

Our vision for agriculture is for sustainable systems of farming that produce safe, healthy food; safeguard our soil, air and water; and help to protect and enhance wildlife and its habitats.

Our governments use legislation and regulation to control the approval of pesticide products. We work to make sure legislation and regulation go far enough to protect the environment. This is particularly crucial as the UK has now left the EU, and, along with it, the EU’s pesticide approvals process.

We, along with other environmental, health and farming organisations, are calling for a national pesticide reduction target to be implemented in the UK. This has already happened in other countries (eg Denmark), and has shown to have a significant impact.

We recommend the UK Government sets an ambitious target – taking into account both the amount of pesticide and the risk/toxicity, or “toxic load”.  A risk reduction target will ensure that the most harmful pesticides to the environment or human health are prioritised for reduction. Meanwhile, a target for cutting overall use will ensure that indirect and poorly understood effects from pesticides are reduced.

We are calling on our Governments to provide more support for farmers to reduce their reliance on chemicals. It is vital that farmers are supported to do this through a variety of means, including the new land management schemes in each UK country, provision of independent advice and training, and increased research into alternatives (especially agroecological farming systems).

Pesticides and wildlife

Evidence is mounting for the impact of pesticides on wildlife and the environment, both directly and indirectly.

Pesticides are toxic chemicals, designed to kill pests. But when they come into contact with vulnerable non-pest species they can harm or kill them too. Wildlife is exposed to pesticides in crops, in the field boundaries, or if a pesticide washes or drifts into a watercourse.

Perhaps the most significant impacts of modern pesticides on wildlife, and often the impacts most overlooked, are their indirect effects. Pesticides disrupt food webs, killing plants and insects and removing weed seeds from the environment, which may be essential food or habitat for other wildlife. 

RSPB research, and the work of other organisations, has shown that these food chain impacts affect the grey partridge, corn bunting and yellowhammer. Other wildlife, particularly insect-eating species, are likely to be affected, so more research is urgently needed to understand more about indirect effects of pesticides and to develop ways of minimising these effects.

Pesticide use brings other risks. If pesticides enter waterways they can harm biodiversity and pose a threat to human health. Water companies spend money every year removing pesticides from drinking water, a cost that is passed onto the customer.

Another issue is that if a pesticide is used repeatedly, pests become resistant to that specific chemical. This means that if farmers rely too heavily on a pesticide, it will become less effective and farmers must use higher concentrations or turn to new chemicals.

Pesticides, if used wisely, can sometimes be a useful tool within sustainable farming systems. However, too often they have become an intrinsic part of intensive farming systems that leave little space for nature and are not sustainable in the long term.

Neonicotinoids

Neonicotinoids are the largest group of systemic insecticides used around the world to protect a wide variety of crops from agricultural pests. Systemic pesticides are chemicals that are absorbed by the plant when applied to seeds, leaves or soil. In 2013, in response to growing evidence of the impact of neonicotinoids on bees, the European Union placed a moratorium on three kinds of neonicotinoids, restricting their use in flowering crops that attract honeybees and other pollinating insects. Specifically, we now know that minute traces of these pesticides in the pollen of crops like oilseed rape affect the ability of bees to forage and navigate, with serious implications for colony growth and survival. There is also increasing evidence of the impacts of neonicotinoids on other wildlife. In 2018, the EU banned the three main neonicotinoids for all outdoor uses.

Since 1 January 2021, the UK is no longer subject to EU laws, and therefore there is a risk that pressure to make trade deals with other countries such as the US will lead to weakening of standards, and potentially bring back these harmful pesticides for use in the UK. In January, the UK Government announced that a product containing a neonicotinoid pesticide would be allowed on sugar beet crops in England as an emergency for the 2021 growing season. This is unrelated to Brexit and emergency derogations are allowed in certain circumstances even when the product is generally banned. However, the RSPB and many other organisations do not believe this is the right approach as neonicotinoids cause unacceptable farm to wildlife and farmers should be supported to use alternatives. Along with Pesticide Action Network UK and others, we wrote a letter to the Secretary of State to urge him to reconsider.

The sub-lethal but catastrophic impacts of neonicotinoids on bees, despite being an approved group of active substances, highlights some of the limitations of the approvals process to determine the safety of a product when used in the real world.

Bumble bee on flower |The RSPB

Deliberate and accidental poisoning

Sadly, pesticides are still used for illegal poisoning of some birds, particularly birds of prey such as peregrines and buzzards. The RSPB is working to combat this sort of persecution. Sometimes these are legal, over the counter pesticides used in an illegal way, and other times are highly toxic chemicals banned in the EU, such as carbofuran.

Modern pesticides are, in general, less directly toxic to non-pests than in the past. Horrors such as the pesticide DDT – which led to the loss of millions of birds during the 1960s and 1970s – have now been banned in the UK. However, wildlife is still poisoned sometimes through legal use of pesticides, such as secondary poisoning of kestrels from rodenticides when they eat poisoned voles. Poisoning incidents are recorded on an ad hoc basis through government’s Wildlife Incident Investigation Scheme.

Dead red kite on the ground | The RSPB

Sustainable use of pesticides

To reduce the impacts of pesticides on wildlife and the environment, it is important that pesticides should form just one element of a pest control strategy, and should only be used as a last resort. The RSPB supports organic farming and wants to see more funding and research targeted at organic and wildlife-friendly farming systems. We campaign for well-designed agricultural policies which reduce the impacts of pesticides on the environment by rewarding farmers for using alternative pest control methods where possible. We also work to provide valuable advice to farmers and work with them to share wildlife-friendly farming techniques to help them farm in a sustainable way.

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is an approach which helps farmers to manage insect pests, weeds and diseases effectively while minimising the impacts on the environment. The specific actions to take will vary according to the farm type and other factors, but any IPM plan should build on the following priorities:

  • Good practice to minimise pest outbreaks. This might include having a suitable crop rotation, choosing appropriate varieties of crops, and cleaning farm machinery as necessary.
  • Setting thresholds for action. Any action to remove pests costs time and money and may have unwanted impacts. Sometimes it makes more sense to tolerate a low level of pests in the crop.
  • Carefully monitoring the presence of pests, making use of professional advice and online early warning systems where available.
  • If pests reach the threshold level, using sustainable non-chemical methods to control them. Depending on the specific situation, this might include things like mechanical weeding or introducing a natural enemy of the pest species.
  • If non-chemical methods do not reduce pests to acceptable levels, consider using a pesticide. Choose the safest, most specific pesticide available and apply it according to best practice (for example leaving buffer zones around water courses and only using the amount necessary). Take appropriate actions to avoid pests developing resistance, such as alternating between different chemicals.
  • Monitoring and recording the results of interventions to inform future decisions.

Maintaining diverse habitats on farmland is a vital part of sustainable pest management. A healthy environment supports populations of wildlife like birds and predatory insects, which can help keep pest populations at manageable levels.

Field of poppies and daisies | The RSPB