BACKGROUND TO THE VIDEO:
In 1962 Rachel Carson (1907-1964), an American marine biologist and conservationist, published Silent Spring a groundbreaking expose of the damage caused to birds and the environment in general by the use of synthetic pesticides. The book is often credited with leading to the birth of the modern green movement. It was met with fierce opposition by chemical companies, it spurred a reversal in US and European pesticide policy, which led to nationwide bans on DDT and other pesticides, and it inspired a grassroots environmental movement that led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Yet over 50 years later the issues exposed by Carson are still very much with us and the danger of a silent spring is more acute than ever. Around 41% of the land surface of Britain is sprayed with pesticides. Around 70% of the countryside is farmed intensively with spraying, hedge removal and use of artificial fertilisers.
In 1997, the BBC produced an excellent documentary on the effects of pesticides and intensive farming methods on Britain's birds. Entitled 'Nature Special: Another Silent Spring?' you can view it below by following the youtube links. It features Chris Mead from the British Trust for Ornithology whose studies reveal the devastating rates of decline of British farmland birds. Between 1972 and 1996 the rates of decline were:
Skylark = down 75%, Tree Sparrow = down 89%, Turtle Dove = down 77%, Bullfinch = down 76%, Spotted Flycatcher = down 73%, Lapwing = down 62%, Reed Bunting = down 61%, Linnet = down 52%, Swallow = down 43%, Starling = down 53%.
Since these figures are from 1996 the situation by now will be even worse. Between 1980 and 2009, the overall farmland bird population has decreased from 600 million to 300 million, implying a loss of 50%. As the video makes clear, when Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring pesticides such as DDT were so toxic that they killed birds directly. This no longer happens however the modern generation of pesticides produce the same results indirectly by eradicating the insects, grubs and plant seeds on which the birds feed. The chicks are starved. Moreover intensive farming methods, such as removing hedges and removing stubble before the winter, add to the problem.
All of this is made worse by the EU's Common Agricultural Policy which needs further reform so that it moves away from subsidising production towards subsidising conservation. Fortunately in 2010, the EU announced that 31% of the 5 billion euro that was earmarked to deal with new (mainly environmental) challenges in agriculture would be spent on protecting and promoting biodiversity in the European countryside. This money is part of the EU rural development policy, which is supporting agri-environmental projects throughout the Member States. I remain skeptical about how far this will be seriously implemented however we will see.
BBC NATURE SPECIAL: ANOTHER SILENT SPRING? Part 1
BBC NATURE SPECIAL: ANOTHER SILENT SPRING? Part 2
BBC NATURE SPECIAL: ANOTHER SILENT SPRING? Part 3