Wildlife Trusts call for urgent action for insects, as new report reveals true impacts of unnoticed invertebrate apocalypse

A new report, Insect Declines and Why They Matter, commissioned by a group of Wildlife Trusts in the south west has revealed conclusively that drastic declines in insect numbers look set to have far-reaching consequences for wildlife and people. 

The new report, authored by invertebrate expert Dave Goulson, Professor of Biology at the University of Sussex, highlights the real and lasting knock on effects of the declines on insect eating birds, bats, and fish, and also the cost to society in terms of the millions in lost revenue and broken ecosystems.

In parallel to revealing the urgency of the problem, the report however also highlights a clear path to reversing the worrying rate of decline and suggests measures that could take the nation off the route to what is an imminent ecological disaster. The Trusts believe that with a coordinated and concerted action from government, local authorities, food growers and the public, insect populations can recover and thrive once more so they can fulfil their incredibly important roles in the ecosystems that support all life. (see Appendix A).

Prof Goulson, author of the report, says: 

“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. 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 of 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.

What we do know however is that the main causes of decline include habitat loss and fragmentation, and the overuse of pesticides. Wild insects are routinely exposed to complex cocktails of toxins which can cause either death or disorientation and weakened immune and digestive systems.”

In a sobering warning the report concludes: “The consequences are clear; if insect declines are not halted, terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems will collapse, with profound consequences for human wellbeing.”

Wildlife Trusts across the Country are calling for a new Environment Bill to secure the creation of a far reaching and resilient nature recovery network to reverse the decline of insect populations and all wildlife.

The group are also supporting the introduction of an ambitious and legally binding pesticide reduction target for the UK; a crucial step in safeguarding invertebrates. A number of other countries in Europe already have such targets and are making significantly more progress than the UK towards achieving the urgently needed transition away from routine use of harmful chemicals in urban green spaces, gardens and farmland.

In addition, the Trusts are asking the public to show their support by pledging 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. 

The report highlights the main reasons why our pollinators and other insects are dying

Habitat loss. The report says:

“Over the last century, natural and semi-natural habitats have been cleared at an accelerating rate to make way for farming, roads, housing estates, factories, lorry parks, golf courses, shopping centres and a multitude of other human endeavours…[Today] many important insect populations [only] persist on small, highly fragmented and isolated islands of habitat.”

Pesticides. The report says:

“c.17,000 tons of poison [is] broadcast across the [UK’s] landscape each year.”

Much of this is associated with intensive farming, but the report also highlights the destructive capacity of domestic usage, where “numerous insecticides, fungicides and herbicides are freely available from garden centres, DIY stores and even supermarkets.” 

Ian Barrett, Chief Executive of Avon Wildlife Trust says:

“This report shows the vital role that insects play in our natural systems and just how much we stand to lose if these shocking declines in their numbers continue. Healthy soils, food crops and clean watercourses are amongst the many things that depend on healthy insect populations and we will all suffer if we lose them. Our work across Avon restoring wildflower meadows, running our wildflower nursery and looking after woodlands, wetlands and urban wild spaces is vital in supporting our region’s dragonflies, bees, butterflies and other insects. Now is the time for renewed action – there are things that everyone can do to help reverse this decline and allow our insects to flourish.”

Steve Garland, entomologist and Chair of the Wildlife Trusts policy setting body for England says:

“As a child, I was excited and inspired by an abundance of wonderful insects and developed a lifelong love of wildlife as a result.  It saddens me that young people are now missing out on this and I want to do something about it.  I really believe that the catastrophic decline of insects can be reversed by drastically reducing the use of chemicals in the environment and creating strong Nature Recovery Networks to give them space to live and thrive in safety.” 

The group of Wildlife Trusts are joined by other experts in their call for urgent action:

 Josie Cohen, Head of Policy and Campaigns for PAN UK says:

“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.” 

Matt Shardlow, Chief Executive of Buglife says:

“Recent declines are part of a long-term loss of diversity and abundance caused by habitat fragmentation. The very latest research shows that quality habitats are so isolated that most invertebrate species are failing to move north to keep track with the climate envelope in which they can survive. Restoring networks of habitats for insects is now a number one priority and it is excellent that so many Wildlife Trusts are already working to create a network of B-Lines. We have the solutions that should enable our children to again experience ‘moth snowstorms’.”

- ENDS –

Notes to Editors:

The report brings together the current scientific research studies from around the world. Some of the key findings of this synthesis of data include that we may have lost 50% or more of our insects since 1970, while 41% of the Earth’s remaining five million insect species are now ‘threatened with extinction’.

In the UK:

  • 23 species of bee and flower-visiting wasp have gone extinct in the UK since 1850
  • The geographic ranges of many bumblebee species have more than halved between 1960 and 2012.
  • Numbers of butterflies fell by 46% between 1976 and 2017, with declines running at 77% in ‘habitat specialist species’ such as Marsh Fritillaries and Wood White butterflies.
  • The abundance of larger moths such as the Garden Tiger dwindled by 28% between 1968 and 2007, with Southern England experiencing a 40% drop in numbers.

The report’s author Professor Dave Goulson is Professor of Biology at the University of Sussex. He specialises in the ecology and conservation of insects, particularly bumblebees. Prof Goulson is the author of over 280 peer-reviewed articles, and several books including the Sunday Times bestselling A Sting in the Tale (2013) and The Garden Jungle (2019). In 2006 he founded the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. For more go to http://www.sussex.ac.uk/lifesci/goulsonlab/

Click here to view the report. 

Appendix A

 ‘Insect declines and why they matter’ makes clear that the restoration of healthy insect populations remains achievable, but that steps must be taken without delay. The report sets out a series of key actions to restore insect life which are targeted at national government, local authorities, the business and food production sectors, as well as individual citizens. These include:

  • Actions for government, regulators and industry, the report says: A truly sustainable food and farming Act is needed which “secures long-term funding for wildlife friendly agriculture, establishes strong regulatory standards and is an integral part of an overarching Environment Plan”. There should be “targets for major reductions in the routine use of insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and fertilizers”. In addition: “nature-rich building developments should be standard; providing real, measurable gains for wildlife to ensure that all new developments make a demonstrable, positive contribution to nature’s recovery.”

 

  •  Actions for local authorities, the report says:

“Phase out the use of pesticides in urban areas…plant fruit trees and sow nectar rich wildflowers in urban greenspaces and other areas, providing food for pollinators and people…reduce mowing of road verges and roundabouts.... all new road verges should automatically be sown with wildflower mixes.”

  • Actions for farmers and land managers, the report says:

“There’s a growing body of research, field labs, and farmer to farmer innovation to access and contribute to. Use pollinator friendly seed mixes, leave arable crop stubbles over winter…manage hedges and field margins for wildlife [and] be willing to seriously trial alternative approaches [to pesticides, herbicides, etc] to tackle weed and pest challenges.”

  • Actions for the public, the report says:

“Stop using pesticides in your garden or allotment… maintain a healthy, active soil with plenty of [home-made] compost…mix flowers with vegetables to attract beneficial wildlife, such as caterpillar-eating birds and aphid-eating insects.…. buy locally grown, pesticide free fruit and veg.”

The following Wildlife Trusts are taking action for insects right now - visit their websites to find out how you can get involved:

 Avon, Birmingham & Black Country, Cheshire, Cornwall, Cumbria, Devon, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Hampshire & Isle of Wight, Kent, Leicestershire & Rutland, London, North Wales, Sheffield, Somerset, Suffolk, Surrey, Wiltshire

… And many more local Wildlife Trusts and partner organisations will be joining them in Spring.

ENDS