Cotswolds Ecosystem in Danger – Part 1 – Pesticide Use

Pesticide Sign – Source: jetsandzeppelins is licensed under CC BY 2.0

According to a report by The Eco Experts, 15% of species in the UK are at risk of extinction. This includes 43% of birds and 12% of invertebrates, such as spiders, honey bees and ants. While 12% may sound fairly low, especially with the UK having 403 species of invertebrates, many of those at risk are pollinators whose loss could cost the UK £690 million a year. Despite the clear threat and danger that nature across the UK faces, business as usual continues amongst local councils’ harmful pesticide use that weaken, destroy and maim wildlife right in front of us and threatens our Cotswolds ecosystem.

Pesticides include weedkillers such as ‘Roundup’, which kill plants. While they are often used in towns and cities as a means of ensuring pavements are clear and safe, and in agriculture to ensure crops do not lose space and nutrients from competing weeds, their use leads to far more disastrous results for insects and wildlife, limiting the range of food or habitats available to them. 

A recent petition, led by Dave Goulson, a Professor of biology at the University of Sussex who is involved with the Pesticide Action Network, sought a ban on the use of pesticides within urban areas, both by councils and private individuals. Such is the extent of concern across communities that over 30,000 people signed it, including 129 people in the Cotswolds and 130 in West Oxfordshire. This prompted the government to respond, but this statement from DEFRA (Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) was hardly going to change things:

“The UK Government’s priority with regards to pesticides is to ensure that they will not harm people or wildlife, or pose unacceptable risks to the environment. To this end, we operate a strict system for regulating pesticides.”

Even if the government operates ‘a strict system for regulating pesticides’, this does not end their harmful use and their deadly impact on wildlife. 

Councils’ pesticide use

In West Oxfordshire, town councils’ use of pesticides is chaotic, with no district-wide co-operation or strategy between councils, and concerns around pesticide use and its impact on wildlife are not reflected in open space or environmental strategies. 

Although Witney Town Council has set a strong example through ending the use of glyphosate-based pesticides in 2014, Burford town council with a 22 times smaller population of 1,330 people continues to use ’Roundup’ every year to kill weeds. Carterton takes it to another level, having half the population of Witney, but it spends just under  £1,000 on pesticides every year. 

Chipping Norton, a centrepiece town of the Cotswolds, sets a £5,000 budget (see page 20 of this paper) aside annually for dealing with weeds, which includes use of herbicides. Only 7% of this budget is actually used, though it still means £711 is spent on weedkillers a year.  

It is common for town councils, including Burford, to be ignorant of the broad definition of pesticides, leading to the conclusion that ‘Roundup’ and other weedkillers do not count. Unfortunately, this is not the case. 94% of pesticides used by councils are herbicides like ‘Roundup’. The Pesticide Action Network defines pesticides as; 

“…designed to kill pests. They include a wide range of compounds including herbicides (designed to kill plants), insecticides, fungicides, rodenticides, molluscicides and nematicides, but also include plant growth regulators, defoliants and desiccants. They are mainly used in the growing of agricultural crops, but are also used in our towns, cities, homes and gardens.”

While agriculture is the biggest culprit for pesticide use, it is also the area in which reductions are hardest to achieve, especially in the short term, without the risk of food shortages. Urban use of pesticides, notably by councils, is far easier to limit and offers a more immediate means of staving off the obliteration of insects and wildlife across the UK, including in West Oxfordshire.

In the long term the government needs to draw up a serious strategy for eradicating the use of pesticides, whether in our towns and cities or on our farms and the production of our food.

Accepting weeds as part of nature

In the meantime, through councils halting their unnecessary prescribing of pesticides to their weed ‘problem’, they can offer their towns as vital sanctuaries for nature. At this moment accepting weeds may seem bizarre and wrong, but if we cannot accept nature being ‘untidy’ and all around us, not just in ‘neat reserves’, we have to ask ourselves if we are serious about tackling the climate and ecological crisis.

Allowing weeds to exist in certain areas will give opportunities for wildlife to feed itself and avoid the unrelenting war being waged upon it day-in-day-out in the farm fields across the Cotswolds and West Oxfordshire. Where weeds must be removed for people’s safety, this is possible, in spite of fears raised by recent reports of weeds tripping, for example an incident leading to hospitalisation in Brighton allegedly as a result of the council going pesticide-free.

In Brighton and Hove, the council admitted that the substantial growth of weeds was an issue due to ‘covid-related staff shortages and a summer ‘growth spurt’. However even the councillor who publicly complained about the weeds, noted that he did not wish to see glyphosate return to the streets.

Ending pesticide use

The ease with which town councils in West Oxfordshire and the wider Cotswolds can become pesticide-free has been raised by Scott Probert. Probert voluntarily drew up a Pollinator Strategy for Cirencester in 2016 where the town council spent £622 on herbicides in 2019, writing that;

“Most – if not all – of [council] pesticide use is unnecessary: cost effective and safe non-chemical alternatives exist and are already being used in towns all over the world. In fact Paris has been ‘pesticide-free’ for over a decade.”

Solutions include the use of hot water, biodegradable foam, and of course what many troubled amateur gardeners may grumble about, hand-weeding. Beyond this, the acceptance of weeds is important. They are crucial in a whole-system ecosystem, providing food, nutrients, and habitats for insects. These insects in turn not only pollinate our crops but are also food for birds, allowing bird populations to thrive without fear of either being poisoned or starved.

With this in mind, it should be blatantly clear that here in the Cotswold Area of outstanding natural beauty, with a supposed offering of flourishing nature, quaint villages, rolling hills and abundant wildlife, we should be leading the charge to end pesticide use in our towns and communities. Change has to begin in our homes and on our streets. It is not about rewilding or nature conservation, it is about investing in a more worthwhile and nature-driven future. 

So here I call upon all town councils (parish councils may follow too) in the Cotswolds (including West Oxfordshire) to pledge to end the use of any pesticides, especially herbicides within the next two years.

That may seem like an unrealistic and tough deadline, but if there is genuine will to face up to the climate and ecological crisis, taking pesticides off the streets of our communities should not require mountains to be moved, just a simple love for nature. 

A request for comment on the use of pesticides was made to the town councils for Carterton, Cirencester, and Chipping Norton, but no response has been received. Burford Town Council was also requested for a comment and I submitted a report recommending that the council make Burford pesticide-free and ‘begin this process as soon as possible’.

Their response at the last council meeting on October 7th, which I attended, was that they already had a number of environmental priorities including making Burford plastic-free and campaigning for the clean-up of the river Windrush, thus they would postpone any decision on becoming pesticide-free for the time being.

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