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East Anglia: Devising a strategy for our crucial pollinators

06:00 13 April 2014

Plants providing sources of pollen and nectar for pollinators, courtesy of the Campaign for the Farmed Environment.

Plants providing sources of pollen and nectar for pollinators, courtesy of the Campaign for the Farmed Environment.

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Fears over food security loom large with an ever-expanding global population demanding more from farmers year on year, writes CLA east rural adviser Maisi Jepson.

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Maisie Jepson – CLA East Rural AdviserMaisie Jepson – CLA East Rural Adviser

With pressure mounting on growers to produce more on the same land using less resources, attention has turned to the crucial and often underappreciated role pollinators play in helping produce enough food for the world.

Pollinators include all species that visit flowers, such as bees, wasps and butterflies, and move pollen between them. This ensures fertilisation and the production of seeds and fruits.

Insect pollination is responsible for an estimated 35% of world crop production. In the UK, insect pollination contributes approximately £400million a year to the nation’s economy.

However, it has been well documented in recent years that pollinators have been on the decline. This worrying trend has been attributed to higher intensity land-use such as farming, but it is important to note the effects of housing developments and road building. Given that these changes are generally considered to be in the public interest, we all need to realise our part in their declines, and help to counteract them.

The launch of the Government consultation on 6 March followed a roundtable discussion between the CLA and Defra Minister Lord de Mauley to discuss the Association’s thoughts on the subject earlier in the year. Its aims include raising public awareness and providing an overview of where current gaps in knowledge are, and how these can be rectified.

There is a need to better understand trends in pollinator populations and behaviours, such as how they interact with other species and their impact upon crop production. One of the first things to research is the effect of neonicotinoids and other pesticides on pollinators. Policy-makers must ensure decisions are scientific and evidence based, and that by banning one product they aren’t favouring something worse. We have seen many examples where products have been banned or removed by the European Commission as a result of insufficient or no field data, leaving growers with little option but to use alternative products.

Ultimately, the vision is to see pollinators thrive and continue to provide benefits for food security, and the wider environment. To this end, the Strategy also looks to build partnerships, raise public awareness, improve understanding, and think globally.

When the public thinks of pollinators, there’s a tendency to focus on domesticated honey bees. They do pollinate and provide us with honey, so we should do as much as we can to protect them – but our entire focus should not just be on them. Researchers at the University of Northampton suggest that as honey bees aren’t native to the UK and haven’t evolved alongside our native flora they could harm biodiversity through competition and pollinating invasive plant species. As the recent declines in honey bee populations haven’t been shown to affect crop yields, it seems likely that native pollinators are playing a far more substantial role than previously thought.

So, we need to help native pollinators: this means providing pollen and nectar sources for as much of the year as possible (predominantly March to October). Farmers have been doing this through environmental stewardships schemes and the Campaign for the Farmed Environment, but these practices could also be extended to golf courses, roadsides and private gardens. The Royal Horticultural Society has produced lists of plants that are beneficial to insect pollinators (found on their website). These have been separated into months so gardeners can ensure a full season’s complement of nectar and pollen sources.

Flower-rich grasslands are the most important habitat for many of our rare bumblebees. Usually these include clovers, vetches and trefoils, which are an important source of pollen to feed to their young.

By addressing plant biodiversity, insect pollinators will benefit along with crop and wild fruit yields, which will consequently help the birds and other fauna. Strengthening food webs in this way will help to make animal communities more resilient to environmental change.

Consideration of pollinators should become second nature in all of us and providing for them ought to become as common as feeding the birds.

The consultation closes on 2 May; all documents and the response survey can be found here: https://consult.defra.gov.uk/plant-and-bee-health-policy/a-consultation-on-the-national-pollinator-strategy.

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