Report calls for urgent action to halt insect decline

“If we don’t stop the decline of our insects there will be profound consequences for all life on earth”. A new report released by Wildlife Trusts calls for reduced pesticide use and making parks, gardens and farmland more insect-friendly in order to halt catastrophic insect population decline.

The Marsh Fritillary is one of the UK's most endangered butterflies
The Marsh Fritillary is one of the UK's most endangered butterflies

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Marsh Fritillary is listed by the Butterfly Conservation as one of the UK's most endangered butterfly species due to habitat loss and climate change

Tansy Dando

Reduced pesticide use and the reversal of habitat loss are needed to halt the drastic decline in insect populations, says a new report by an alliance of Wildlife Trusts in the South West.

The report, ‘Insect declines and why they matter’, highlights the severe impact of insect population loss on birds, bats, and fish, as well as the cost to society due to lost revenue and broken ecosystems. Shocking statistics show we are currently living through the largest extinction event on earth since the late Permian epoch (250 million years ago).

Written by invertebrate expert and Professor of Biology at the University of Sussex, Dave Goulson, the insect report calls for a stop to the use of pesticides and the construction of a nature recovery network to halt further decline in invertebrate population.

“Insects make up the bulk of known species on earth and are integral to the functioning of terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems, performing vital roles such as pollination, seed dispersal and nutrient cycling,” said Professor Goulson. “They are also food for numerous larger animals, including birds, bats, fish, amphibians and lizards. If we don’t stop the decline of our insects there will be profound consequences for all life on earth.

“And it’s not just our wild bees and pollinators that are declining – these trends are mirrored across a great many other invertebrate species. Of serious concern is the little we know about the fate of many of the more obscure invertebrates that are also crucial to healthy ecosystems.”

 “This unnoticed apocalypse should set alarms ringing”

Since 1970, the abundance of insects has fallen by over 50 per cent, while pesticide and insecticide usage on crops has doubled over the past 25 years – according to the report, around 17,000 tonnes of poison is spread across the UK’s landscape each year.

Though many of these pesticides are associated with intensive farming, domestic usage is also destructive to the environment. The report states: “Numerous insecticides, fungicides and herbicides are freely available from garden centres, DIY stores and even supermarkets.”

These chemicals, marketed as a quick-fix, are creating a long-term ecological disaster and have a knock-on effect impacting the whole ecosystem. 

Pesticides are not the only pollutants contributing to insect decline – the release of other damaging chemicals, microplastics, heavy metals, such as mercury from mining, and even light pollution can have a long-lasting effect. 

Habitat loss is also a key issue contributing to insect decline. With increasing urbanisation, once abundant insect habitats are being cleared to make way for farmland, roads, housing estates, factories, lorry parks, golf courses, shopping centres and a multitude of other land uses. This has led to many important insect populations having to rely on small, often isolated, islands of habitat.

It’s not too late

Though the report paints a daunting picture of the impact of insect decline, it reminds that it is not too late to halt the damage. At this critical juncture, the Wildlife Trusts are asking the public to show their support and pledge to take action for insects at home by reducing their own use of pesticides and to change their gardening habits to provide havens for insects and wildlife. 

Aside from individual action at home, the report calls for more action by government, industry and the agricultural sector. 70 per cent of the UK’s landscape is used for farms and three quarters of the crops used by humans require insect pollination, a service estimated to be worth between $235 billion (£183 billion) and $577 billion (£449 billion) per year worldwide. 

Making this land use more wildlife-friendly and sustainable is vital to reduce any further damage to the ecosystem and recent studies from France show a 40 per cent reduction in pesticide use can be achieved without damaging farm profits

Managing gardens, parks and urban areas in a more insect-friendly manner and reintroducing biodiversity is also important. 80 per cent of the UK’s population now live in urban areas – new parks, trees and green roofs can offer insects plentiful habitats, as can planting diverse meadow land full of wildflowers instead of keeping short-mown lawn in public spaces.

Making sure the amount, type, and frequency of pesticides used across these sites is vastly reduced is another key step. The report suggests pesticide reduction could be achieved if the UK Government established stronger incentives for change and to set and enforce ambitious, national reduction targets for damaging pesticides, as well as providing legal action through an Environment Act designed to protect the natural world.

Josie Cohen, Head of Policy and Campaigns for Pesticide Action Network UK, said: “Reducing pesticide use is a challenge that society can no longer ignore. We applaud the Wildlife Trusts and others for highlighting that routine overuse of pesticides is harming wildlife and the ecosystems that underpin our health and prosperity. 

“If the UK Government is serious about its commitment to ‘leave the environment in a better state than we found it’ then it urgently needs to adopt measures which drive a massive decrease in pesticide use. We need an ambitious pesticide reduction target accompanied by a package of support for farmers to help them transition to non-chemical alternatives.” 

Dr Gary Mantle MBE, Chief Executive of Wiltshire WT and sponsor of the report, added: “This unnoticed apocalypse should set alarms ringing. We have put at risk some of the fundamental building blocks of life.  

“But as this report highlights, the main causes of insect declines are known and we can address them; insects and other invertebrates can recover quickly if we stop killing them and restore the habitats they require to thrive. But we all need to take action now in our gardens, parks, farms, and places of work.”

You can download and read the full ‘Insect Declines and Why They Matter’ report on the Wildlife Trusts’ website.