Suffolk naturalists concerned by River Waveney ‘neonic’ pollution
- Credit: Archant
The River Waveney’s levels of pesticide pollution, revealed by the charity Buglife, have brought the neonicotinoid controversy into sharp focus. Some of Suffolk’s leading naturalists have told of their fears for the much-loved river’s wildlife.
Naturalists have described as “deeply troubling” the revelation that the River Waveney is the most neonicotinoid-contaminated watercourse of any in the UK that have been monitored for the presence of the highly controversial insecticide.
In the wake of a report issued by the invertebrate conservation charity Buglife, some of Suffolk’s leading nature experts told of their concerns over the “pervasive” and “damaging” chemicals that are often known as “neonics” and which are widely referred to as “bee-harming” pesticides.
Buglife’s report was based on the results of monitoring carried out in 2016 by the Environment Agency as part of Britain’s responsibilities under the EU Water Framework Directive.
Most of the huge controversy surrounding neonics in recent years has focused on their impacts on pollinating species. Neonics were banned from use on flowering crops in the EU in 2013, although Suffolk was one of four UK counties where such a restriction was lifted temporarily in 2015 to enable application on oil seed rape crops. An extension of the ban to cover all outdoor uses may follow soon following yet more evidence of the harm caused to pollinators.
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But Buglife has pointed out: “Aquatic insects are just as vulnerable to neonicotinoid insecticides as bees and flying insects, yet have not received the same attention because the UK Government has not responded to calls to introduce systematic monitoring.”
Suffolk Wildlife Trust chief executive Julian Roughton said that although the River Waveney was identified in the report to be “acutely polluted by neonics, there were fears that its contamination was “the tip of an iceberg” and that other Suffolk rivers could be similarly affected.
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“Buglife’s report last week was a shock even to those highlighting concerns about neonicotinoids,” said Mr Roughton. “The River Waveney is bordered by wetlands of international importance from its source – Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Redgrave and Lopham Fen – to the watery landscape of the Broads National Park. The revelation that this river carries levels of neonicotinoids well in excess of ‘acute pollution’ is deeply troubling.
“Neonicotinoids were developed as a less toxic alternative to other pesticides but are having a more pervasive and damaging effect than anyone imagined. When applied on flowering crops, such as oilseed rape, the chemical finds its way into nectar and pollen and harms populations of pollinators such as bees.
“They also present a threat when applied to non-flowering crops as much of the chemical is not taken up by the crop but leeches into the soil to be taken up by nearby wild plants or heads into water courses and ultimately rivers. Many freshwater invertebrates are sensitive to neonicotinoids - in laboratory tests mayflies and caddisflies start to die off at levels of pollution ten times less than those found at the worst peaks in the River Waveney.
“Invertebrates are the founding blocks of nature – pollinators for wild flowers and crops as well as food source for birds, bats, fish and other vertebrates. In countries as far apart as the United States, Japan, Holland and France there is evidence that neonicotinoids are impacting on birds both through direct poisoning of treated seed and indirect effects through reductions in insect populations.
“The Environment Agency (EA) is tasked with monitoring the health of our rivers for damaging chemicals but even now there is nothing on the EA’s website. We need the EA to take the lead and inform the public and Defra about the impacts of neonicotinoids in rivers.
“Thanks to Buglife we have been made aware that the River Waveney is ‘acutely polluted’ by neonicotinoids but we need assessments on all rivers. The fear is that the River Waveney is the tip of an iceberg and that every river in Suffolk with agricultural catchments is similarly affected.”
Referring to Rachel Carson’s famed book of 25 years ago, Silent Spring, he said the author then had accused the chemical industry of spreading disinformation and public officials of accepting industry claims unquestioningly.
He added: “It’s all too familiar. Silent Spring led to DDT being banned but it took two decades for birds of prey populations to recover. We need Defra to take action on neonicotinoids now.”
Suffolk’s official freshwater invertebrate recorder Adrian Chalkley described the findings of the Buglife report as “depressing but not surprising”.
He said: “As well as neonicotinoids we have microplastics coming through our sewage works along with antidepressants, birth control hormones and other medicines, recreational drugs etc - all flushed out of our bodies and down the loo. Then of course there are the fine sediments which seem to have also caused more problems in almost all of our East Anglian rivers in recent times.”
Waveney Bird Club chairman Steve Piotrowski, who is the author of The Birds of Suffolk, added: “The Buglife report raises some very serious concerns. The Waveney is an exceptionally rich river for many forms of wildlife and has great importance for many bird species.
“The very grave fear is that chemicals as pervasive as neonics will affect all living organisms - and the river’s birdlife is at the top of a food chain so are at very serious risk of population declines.”
Some naturalists have questioned whether neonic contamination of rivers could affect human health. Anglian Water said it operated to an “industry-wide model to understand levels of particular pesticides in watercourses.” Land uses were monitored and water samples were taken where there was “deemed to be any risk”.
However, it added: “We do not abstract water from the Waveney for drinking supplies.”
The Buglife report said neonics were “widely used” insecticides with three main applications in the UK - as a seed coating for field crops, as sprays for crops and domestic gardens, and as an externally applied arthropod parasite treatment for pets. The “most likely” source of the Waveney’s neonic levels was applications on sugar beet fields, it said.
NFU East Anglia environment adviser Rob Wise said the EA monitored water quality closely and the union was not aware of it raising any specific concerns about high levels of neonicotinoids in rivers.
“Farmers take their environmental responsibilities extremely seriously,” he said. “They have high levels of pesticide stewardship through schemes such as the Voluntary Initiative, which offers advice and actions designed to keep crop protection products out of water.
“There is much specific work being undertaken by farmers through the Broadland Catchment Partnership as well, including using new types of machinery in row crops such as sugar beet and potatoes, to minimise run-off into rivers.”