Thursday, 25 April 2019

"The countryside should not be a peaceful place. It should be humming with activity. While it’s hard to sometimes avoid humans, the real racket should be insects."

Spring is early again - and this mix-up continues to impact on insect numbers:
Futures Forum: Climate change >>> an early spring and upsetting the balance of nature
Futures Forum: Climate change >>> an early spring and putting nature 'out of sync'

And meanwhile, the British countryside is being killed by herbicides and insecticides:
Futures Forum: We need more dedicated expert and amateur naturalists to observe and record the distinctive flash of a firefly or the soft clatter of dragonfly wings
Futures Forum: Banning neonicotinoids to "save bees" ... but questions remain around the science, as the ban "is already forcing farmers to switch to older, broadly sprayed pesticides that are much worse for bees and have to be used in much greater quantities."

The commentator Rob Yorke writes for the consultancy Knight Frank: 

_Rob Yorke: The countryside should not be a peaceful place

Rob Yorke - rural chartered surveyor and independent environmental commentator, AKA@blackgull - has joined us as a guest writer on rural affairs. This month, Rob gives us his take on the latest countryside conversation; the decline of our insect populations, and why we should care.

April 09, 2019

The countryside should not be a peaceful place. It should be humming with activity. While it’s hard to sometimes avoid humans, the real racket should be insects.

They have, however, been making a big noise in the news. For the purposes of this piece, I will label them all collectively as bugs - an unfortunately bland name, but required when covering a huge range of species from the revered (butterflies and bumblebees), to the reviled (wasps and ticks) – as we pay them the most attention since Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’.

Her book is worth a re-read. If only to observe the raw nerves, as an early-warning environmentalist in 1962 rightly raises the alarm on newly concocted chemical insecticides being applied with all caution thrown to the wind - a wind that blew chill as birds dropped from the skies and fish went belly up in rivers.

Look out for the bits others skip over. This paragraph caught me unawares when thinking Carson would be an organic evangelist - “All this is not to say there is no insect problem and no need of control. I am saying, rather, that control must be geared to realities. Not to mythical situations, and that the methods employed must be such that they do not destroy us along with the insects”. She adds “It is not my contention that chemical insecticides must never be used.”

Today’s accurately applied, highly sophisticated agro-chemicals are efficiently operational in keeping pest insects at bay, but are also proving to be insidiously persistent in the wider environment.

Overall weights of dosage are down, but toxicity loads are up and some of Carson’s words are ringing true all too loudly. In the 60 and 70s, nascent environmentalism did not have the megaphones of today’s broadcasting tools.

And, in any case, back then society was too excited at the thought of not having to rake beetles out of crop stores, tend worm-riddled livestock or handpick aphids off vegetables. Modern media has now corrected that glitch in communication. And some.

Google (the internet) is not always your friend if you want to explore, with open-minded curiosity, all the intrinsic issues around declines in ‘bugs’ - food production, insecticide use, climate change and habitat variables.

There, see, lost you already! Much easier for unscrupulous scientists to direct-sell their own mis-framed research using ‘dreadful’ language within supposedly peer-reviewed papers which, without any scrutiny, translate into apocalyptically beautiful #insectaggeddon headlines lamenting the lack of insects mashed on modern car windscreens.

Much more subtle, way under the radar, is Defra’s own Chief Scientific Adviser’s personal blog. This explores with objective examination (mind you, we all have a confirmation bias), the German study on the decline of insects in nature reserves, the value of scientific uncertainty and the morality of researching pesticides.

Uncertainty is a ‘dead hand’ on a politician’s catchy slogan. Mr Gove had to concur when I took him to task in an interview last year for saying “there are no tensions between productive farming and care of the natural world”, when the use of insecticides (selective, not drenched, obviously) is an obvious tension.

We must heed warning signs around overuse of insecticides and the lack of diversity in cropping, and be more inquisitive of those overplaying their hands.

This is not denying something is amiss, but a request to not fear disrupting the status quo in lobbying for government funds to seek new solutions – such as precision application, learning from organic practices, pushing for adaptive, integrated pest management – and making these solutions more mainstream in competition with the lazily prescriptive use of agro-chemicals.

I wrote a damning blog about dead dung beetles next to sheep poo on the hills above me the same day that the chemist who invented the wormer (avermectin) was awarded his Nobel Prize. Charismatic bees have their champions; it’s the less iconic ‘bugs’ we need to watch over, create habitat for, restrain chemicals from, and innovate around – otherwise we’ll all be buggered by the silence of the flies.


If you have any thoughts in response to the topics covered here, we’d love to hear your thoughts. Please get in touch with Knight Frank's Rural Team.

Rob Yorke: The countryside should not be a peaceful place - Knight Frank

No comments: