Crop spraying, Hope Farm RSPB Knapwell

Pesticides and wildlife

Pesticides are chemicals designed to kill pests. When they come into contact with non-pest species, they may harm them, too.

Overview

Agricultural technologies and chemical inputs have made UK agriculture some of the most productive in the world. These factors can also have serious impacts on the environment.

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

We work to ensure that new agricultural technologies do not have negative impacts on farmland birds, the environment and ecosystems, whilst improving the productivity of farmland. Similarly, we believe that the pesticides and nutrients must be used with care, in a targeted way and with respect to the environment. This includes ‘natural’ inputs such as manures.

Government uses legislation and regulation to control the introduction and sustainable use of technologies and inputs. Government and other organisations also provide support and advice to farmers in how they manage their use.

We work to make sure legislation and regulation go far enough to protect the environment whilst working to provide valuable advice and management tools to farmers.

The use of pesticides

Pesticides are chemicals used to kill the weeds, insects and diseases which damage crops and reduce yields.  

We believe pesticides are a useful tool and, when used carefully, can play a role in productive, wildlife-friendly farming.  

Pesticides, along with other advances such as fertilisers have allowed intensive production systems to develop, with higher yields and denser crops. However these improvements have often also resulted in environmental impacts which affect both wildlife and water quality. For example, pesticides can be very effective at removing insects and weed seeds from the environment, which has an indirect impact on birds and other wildlife which rely on these for food.

There are also direct risks - as well as removing pests, insecticides may kill harmless or beneficial organisms and can pollute aquatic habitats.  

The RSPB is concerned by the environmental impacts of pesticides. To reduce them, it is important that pesticides should form just one element of a pest control strategy, and should only be used as a last resort.  We campaign for well-designed agricultural policies which reduce the impacts of pesticides on the environment.

Their impact on wildlife

Wildlife is exposed to pesticides in crops, in the field boundaries, or if a pesticide washes or drifts into a watercourse. To minimise the effects of pesticides, they must be robustly assessed to ensure their safety both for people and biodiversity.

When pesticides are applied it should be by well trained and certified operators to ensure biodiversity and the wider environment is protected.

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.

Modern pesticides are in general less harmful 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. 

Even so, wildlife is still poisoned sometimes through legal use of pesticides. Incidents are recorded on an ad hoc basis through government’s Wildlife Incident Investigation Scheme. There is currently concern over a group of insecticides called neonicotinoids: a growing body of evidence shows they may be harming bees and other pollinating insects. See our downloadable reports for our latest thinking on neonicotinoids. 

Perhaps the most significant impacts of modern pesticides on wildlife are their indirect effects. Pesticides disrupt food webs, killing plants and insects which may be essential food for other wildlife. 

RSPB research, and the work of other organizations, has shown that these food chain impacts affect the grey partridge, corn bunting and yellowhammer. Other species may also be affected, so more research is urgently needed to understand more about indirect effects of pesticides and to develop ways of minimising these effects.

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

A side view of a grey partridge in short grass near a hedge.

More sustainable pest management

The RSPB supports organic farming and wants to see more funding and research targeted at organic and wildlife-friendly farming systems. We believe that pesticides can be a useful tool, but they must be used wisely.

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. 

The RSPB works with more than 3,000 farmers every year to find and share practical wildlife-friendly farming techniques. We carry out scientific research and campaign for policies which support wildlife-friendly farming.