'Catastrophe' as France's bird population collapses due to pesticides – Selvanuova

'Catastrophe' as France's bird population collapses due to pesticides

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Two recent studies point to an alarming fact: bird populations living in farmland have lost one-third of their numbers in 17 years.

Studies pointing to the effects on biodiversity of intensive agriculture and of massive use of pesticides are increasing. Two of them, recently carried out by the National Museum of Natural History on the whole of mainland France and by the CNRS (National Centre for Scientific Research), at the local level, draw a disturbing report: in 17 years, a third of birds have disappeared from the French countryside.

The situation is depicted as “catastrophic”, as the French countryside is turning into a “real desert", as the authors state. The bird populations are literally collapsing in the cereal plains, and this concerns all species. The red partridge, for instance, is almost extinct from the study area "Plaine et val de Sèvre".

Driven by a particularly strong naturalistic tradition, Britain began to follow the bird populations according to standardized and rigorous methods since the 1970s. France followed suit. It is in this tradition that the National Museum of Natural History initiated in 1989 a vast programme, the common bird monitoring scheme throughout France. Twice a year, in the spring, several hundred volunteer birdwatchers survey the birds they see and hear in the early morning in 4 square kilometers of urban, forest and country areas. Skylark, tree swallow, black tit, wood pigeon ... 175 common bird species are inventoried in all environments.

Since 1993, an intensive wildlife monitoring programme was set up in the area "Plaine & val de Sèvre" study area, which is mostly covered by arable land. Initially, this specific monitoring programme followed threatened cereal plains birds such as the Little Bustard and the Montagu’s Harrier. But since 1995, the scheme has involved approximately 100 bird species, because they have an intermediate position in the food chain, being almost all predators of insects but also, for some, predated by raptors. Wild plants, mammals and insects, are also monitored, thus giving a more thorough picture of the whole ecosystem.

The latest data from these research programmes are catastrophic: many bird species are in decline in all environments, and clearly in freefall on farmland. Common birds on farmland-dominated landscapes have lost 33% of their numbers since 2001.

The meadow pipit, for example, a passerine that feeds on invertebrates, has lost 68% of its population in 17 years, while the linnet, which feeds on invertebrates in the summer and on weed seeds in the winter, lost 27% of its population over the same period. In the “Plaine et val de Sèvre” study area, bird species once commonly found in farmland, such as skylarks or grey partridges, are literally collapsing, with respectively -50% and -90% declines in 25 years.

What is truly alarming is that all birds are declining in farmland landscapes, even the most generalist species, which are not decreasing for instance in forest landscapes. This means that the overall quality of the agricultural ecosystem is deteriorating.

The reasons for this decline are indeed to be found in the intensification of agriculture, landscapes becoming ever more homogeneous - fields of corn and wheat as far as the eye can see - and still massively sprayed with pesticides, despite national and EU plans to reduce pesticide use. On the one hand, areas dedicated to monoculture have steadily increased in France, leading to the destruction of environments favourable to birds and insects. On the other hand, pesticides are a harmful factor: the neonicotinoids, insecticides that contaminate the entire ecosystem, but also the glyphosate, the most used herbicide. Both contribute to the disappearance of wild plants and insects and therefore to the food resources of birds, especially in the spring. There are almost no more insects, that's the number one problem, and that’s not just a problem of France. Two recent studies have shown that Germany and Europe  have lost 80% of flying insects and 421 million birds in 30 years.

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So what to do? In the "Plaine & Val de Sèvre" study area, researchers have teamed up with farmers to experiment with alternative farming models based on agroecology and the potential of biodiversity.

There is no quick-and-dirty solution such as banning a single pesticide, but what could substantially revert this problem is a real change in the whole paradigm of conventional farming.

At Selvanuova we are doing our part: we apply organic agriculture, and we are also going beyond EU organic standards, by undertaking tangible actions for wildlife. We are conserving nature in a productive farm, and we would like to set an inspiring model for other farms.

So each bottle of our extra virgin olive oil makes a concrete contribution to nature conservation and biodiversity.

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