Changes in farming patterns and a new psychology are needed for the recovery of Britain’s beleaguered pollinator population. This was the main conclusion of the two scientists leading an All-Parliamentary Group discussion ‘Pollinators vs Intensive food production-can we have both?’ at Westminster last week.
Both highlighted the increasingly marked geographical split-livestock and grassland concentrated in the West and arable crops in the East-and the decline in mixed farming, plus agri-environment schemes that can be too demanding of farmers. It’s estimated that pollinators are worth £400 million to the UK food industry, but there are only enough honeybees to pollinate 25% of crops; although bees dominate the headlines, wild-insect pollinators are in just as much trouble.
‘I do believe we can have both,’ says Richard Pywell of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), citing a mix of factors responsible for the decline of pollinators: habitat loss, pesticides, pathogens, disease and the loss of wild-flower species. ‘Farmers need to treat pollinator habitat as a crop, especially in the east of England. We need to be able to demonstrate a direct link between pollinator habitat and yield, with agri-environment packages simplified to improve farmer uptake.’
‘We’re missing a trick with commercial plants for the pharmaceutical industry, such as poppies,’ adds John Holland, the GWCT’s head of farmland ecology. ‘Peas and beans also present a huge opportunity [for encouraging pollinators] and fruit crops would be a way of getting flowers back into the countryside. And we’re importing tons of soya that we could be growing ourselves.’
Dr Holland adds that some agri-environment schemes aren’t performing as well because they’re too time-consuming. ‘They’re a sticking plaster rather than the solution. We need greater rewards for the more difficult ones.’
The CEH has data-currently being peer-reviewed-that shows that it’s possible to take land out of production to encourage pollinators and still see an increase in profit. Philip Merricks, who farms the Elmley Nature Reserve in Kent, suggests that agriculture needs ‘almost the role of a social scientist. The farmers that are best at productive agriculture are also the ones with the best headlands. No farmer wants to do a bad job.’
Prof Pywell agrees that a shift in mindset is needed: ‘Farmers have been led to believe that you can put in a bee strip and walk away. We’re trying to train them that they’ve got to farm it.’
Baroness Byford, an arable farmer in Leicestershire, comments that creating pollinator habitat is harder for those no longer operating a mixed farm. ‘We’re lucky to be able to rotate-with rape, beans and so on-but forthcoming changes to CAP [Common Agriculture Policy] insist on farmers growing three different crops and, if you’ve only got 150 acres, this is a joke.’
There are still major gaps in pollinator research. In reply to a question from Newbury MP and landowner Richard Benyon, Dr Holland explained that there is currently no methodology for investigating the link between rising badger numbers and the decline in bees, partly because bees’ nests are hard to find.
Prof Pywell added that there is a lack of evidence about the effects of neonicotinoids on bees-the reason Defra stalled on backing the European ban. ‘I feel any policy decisions need to be made on best evidence and there is no clear-cut evidence,’ he comments. ‘Until we get food trials done, I don’t think we can come down either way. Laboratory studies may show the effects [of neonicotinoids on bees], but then you go out into the field and there’s no evidence.’
Tomorrow (April 3), the Wildlife Trusts will publish a report that says wildlife-rich grasslands are declining dramatically. The charity is launching a petition that calls on Defra to reward farmers fully through CAP for protecting important grassland and to consider awarding SSSI status to some (www.wildlifetrusts.org).
* Follow Country Life magazine on Twitter