Stop force feeding countryside, says charity

Allowing nutrients used to fertilise farmland to enter the wider environment is equivalent of force feeding the countryside, says the RSPB, and it's time that we allowed Mother Nature to start dieting.

With nitrogen levels double what they were before the industrial revolution and phosphorous having tripled, there is a real danger of the fat of the land turning into morbid obesity and causing lasting damage to our ecosystems.

These huge rises have been caused by the increased use of inorganic fertiliser on farms, the burning of fossil fuels by cars and industry and by the presence of household detergents in sewage.

The RSPB has published a report which pulls together evidence from a number of scientific studies to map out the impact of nutrient pollution on wildlife.

It warns that we are “altering the fertility of the countryside” by continuing to allow huge amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus to enter the environment. The number and variety of plants and animals is changing as a result and many species are under pressure.

A spokesman for the RSPB told edie that while it might seem counter intuitive, a more fecund countryside was not necessarily good for nature.

“That’s the obvious logic and in the short term you can find that certain species do well. But in the long term it’s invariably damaging because what you’re doing is upsetting nature’s balance.

“Certain species out-compete lots of others so you end up with less species, less biodiversity and completely altered habitats.

“Intensive use of fertilisers means you can grow more crops for more of the year but the problem is that that changes the way land is managed and that can end up destroying bird’s nests and taking away vital habitats.

“In the aquatic environment run-off causes problems, with algae thriving so that you get huge blooms of it.”

And while algae might be the foundation of the food chain, he said, its unnatural success comes at the expense of other species, with fish driven away due to lack of oxygen as it chokes the water and knock on effects all the way up the food chain.

The spokesman said there were now many cases of good practice where farmers had taken steps to combat the problem and the RSPB and other environmental groups would like to see the widespread adoption of these more sustainable agricultural techniques.

“The damage has been done but it can be undone, though that will take a lot of time and the proper effort,” he said.

“Farmers have done a great deal lately to protect soil, water and wildlife and we want to see them to further reduce the impact of fertiliser run-off.

“It’s a case of so far, so good – we can reverse this, but we need to take out the nutrients so that habitats can hopefully recover.”

Use of nitrogen in agriculture has fallen dramatically since its peak in the 1980s and water treatment plants now filter out more pollutants than ever before.

The report concludes: “Strong causal links exist, in a number of cases, between nutrient pollution and knock-on effects on the food chain of wildlife, including birds.

“Damaging pollution of the countryside will continue unless action is taken to reduce the amount of inorganic nutrients reaching the environment from all sources.

“Knowledge and technologies exist to improve nutrient management in all sectors. Government needs to develop the right mix of policies to put these skills into practice, including better regulation, incentives and advice.”

Sam Bond

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