The outstanding merit of Silent Spring is such that 25 years after its launch, in 1988, the Institute of Biology held a symposium in London exploring Britain since Silent Spring: update on the ecological effects on agricultural pesticides in the U.K. The Head of GWCT’s Cereals and Gamebirds Research Project at the time, Dr Nick Sotherton, presented a paper(1) which commended Rachel Carson for having alerted the world of “direct poisoning of wildlife by pesticides, the bioaccumulation of residues within food chains, and the sub-lethal effects of pesticides on wildlife during the 1950s and 1960s”.
Rachel Carson (1907-1964) changed her studies from literature to biology, graduated in 1929 and attained an M.A. in Zoology from Johns Hopkins University, Maryland, Baltimore, in an era when there were few women in science.
In 1962 she contacted Lord Shackleton, the son of the famous Antarctic explorer, requesting him to write the introduction for her book. At the time, Lord Shackleton was echoing Rachel Carson’s concerns in the U.K. and showed great appreciation for the scientific evidence being provided by Dr John Ash of the Game Research Association, which has evolved over the years to become today’s GWCT.
Dr Ash’s reply to Lord Shackleton’s request.
Lord Shackleton’s reply.
The Game Research Association is specifically cited twice in this remarkable publication: by Lord Shackleton in his introduction (4th paragraph), and by Rachel Carson herself in her Chapter And No Birds Sing.
The then Prime Minister of the U.K., Sir Harold Macmillan, was the Association’s President (1961-1963), and Lord Porchester (an influential figure in horseracing, becoming Racing Manager for the Queen in 1969) was Chairman for the Association’s Council at this time. Prestigious staff indeed, which no doubt helped to direct Dr Ash’s research to Lord Shackleton’s attention, particularly as Sir Harold MacMillan stated in the Association’s Annual Report for 1962: “In 1962 wild stocks of both pheasants and partridges were healthy and plentiful, the weather at the critical period after hatching was generally better than usual, yet large numbers of chicks died in their first few days or weeks. Why?” He went on to say “A glance through the contents of this report – toxic chemicals, diseases, disturbances, natural mortality, predators and all the facts and figures of the National Game Census – gives an idea of the very wide and complex field of enquiry which demands attention from the Association,” and continued: “It is clear that the land and the use we make of it still provide the potential for more game but what we need urgently is more knowledge which the farmer, landowner or gamekeeper can apply to his own local conditions.”
The Research Report followed on from Sir Harold MacMillan’s foreword, and expanded on its heading Mortality to Game and Other Wildlife Caused by Agricultural Chemicals in 1962 over the ensuing nine pages. Dr Ash paid particular thanks to Mr A. Dunkley, the Head Keeper at Tumby, in Lincolnshire for “providing regular and informative reports on mortality and hatching success.” Indeed, Mr Dunkley’s data were included in Dr Ash’s 1961 report(2) to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) the predecessor of today’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). The entry from Tumby made grim reading and concluded: “two people carefully searched on 6 acres of woodland for 9¼ hours finding 197 bodies.”
The Game Research Association gathered other similarly sombre records from a further 28 sites across England, and one on Anglesey. These findings were subsequently embodied in the 1961 report by MAFF’s Research Study Group on Toxic Chemicals in Agriculture and Food Storage. Lord Shackleton cited these fearful records in his introduction to Silent Spring, in a paragraph which painted an awful picture of devastation in the U.K’s wildlife, and concluded with: “all went down before the indiscriminate scythe of toxic chemicals.” It was in the next paragraph that Lord Shackleton specifically mentioned the Game Research Association, alongside the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), as having been involved with MAFF in making a “voluntary agreement to refrain from using certain seed dressings.” Indeed the Game Research Association produced three reports in collaboration with the BTO and RSPB in 1962, 1963 and 1964, maintaining pressure from their scientific results to steer policy regarding usage of toxic chemicals. The 1962 report(3) ended with: “a continuing watch must be maintained on the effects of new chemicals which are continually being introduced).”
GWCT continues to do just that through a range of research projects, “aiming to get the results of its research embedded in policy and implemented in the countryside(4).” Scientific staff at GWCT continue to publish their findings in peer-reviewed journals, and many of these papers are concerned specifically with pesticides and their effects on fauna and flora in the U.K.
Rachel Carson captures her readers’ attention in her first chapter of Silent Spring, with a fictitious and desolate scene. The ensuing chapter highlights the “Obligation to endure.” GWCT certainly adheres to this obligation, most notably through its long-running study in Sussex. In 1968, just six years after Silent Spring’s publication, the Game Research Association started the Partridge Survival Project “to investigate the poor survival of young partridges which required a wide understanding of the many factors involved(5).” This monitoring study over 3,000 acres of farmland on the South Downs in Sussex, now referred to as the GWCT Sussex study, holds one of the “longest-running data sets on the cereal ecosystem in the world. It is now accepted that this study of the grey partridge and its environment provides the best evidence of the indirect effects of pesticides on farmland birds(6).”
In 1998 Dr Julie Ewald, currently GWCT’s Head of Geographical Information Systems, explained to attendees of a conference organised by the Rachel Carson Council that: “In a recent proposal to MAFF, findings from the Sussex study were used to inform debate on measures to improve the bio-diversity of British Agricultural land.” Dr Ewald went on to conclude that “By influencing governmental farm policy in this way, information gained from the long‑term monitoring of the interaction between grey partridge numbers and agricultural practices in the Sussex study will benefit British wildlife that are dependent on the cereal ecosystem(7).” The Sussex study collected its 46th consecutive year of data this summer (2013).
In 1986, GWCT’s Director General, Dr Dick Potts, endorsed Rachel Carson’s warnings in his own book(8), citing Silent Spring in his list of scientific references. In his 6th chapter, Pesticides, Dr Potts records: “The real impact of the direct effects of pesticides came in the mid-1950s with the use of dieldrin, when about half of the total reported incidents of mortality involved partridges(9). Spring use of dieldrin seed dressings was subject to a voluntary ban in 1962 and incidents soon became much less frequent. The development of the research in Britain which led to this ban is described by Sheail (1985); the contribution made by the staff of GWCT was considerable.” The ecological relevance of the Sussex study continues, as is borne out in the most recent papers to come out of this work(10 & 11).
Silent Spring’s third chapter, Elixirs of Death, details the ghastly effects from a “seemingly endless stream of synthetic insecticides.” Some 20 years after Rachel Carson wrote this, in 1983, GWCT (then known as The Game Conservancy) established the Cereals and Gamebirds Research Project. The stark warnings from Silent Spring were shown to have been heeded by GWCT as Dr Sotherton explained that: “Previous research at the Game Conservancy has revealed unforeseen insecticidal action amongst many of the foliar fungicides used in cereals. Some fungicides were found to be relatively harmless to many groups of beneficial insects found in cereal fields, which are either the preferred food items of wild gamebird chicks or play a part in preventing outbreaks of cereal aphids, but others were found to be directly harmful to these insects, reducing their numbers considerably(12).” Since then, the British Crop Protection Council alone has published 80 papers by GWCT scientists.
In 1992 the grim message of Silent Spring’s third chapter was echoed by Dr Stephen Tapper in GWCT’s publication Game Heritage(13), when he writes of the distress from the “widespread and burgeoning use of farm sprays which have had a dramatic effect on the flora and fauna of cereal fields. The effects on wildlife have been profound and many are only just coming to light after years of research. The impact of some was sudden, such as the severe reduction of species like the peregrine falcon and sparrowhawk through the use of organochlorine seed dressings, like dieldrin, which built up in the food chain eventually killing these top predators. Less obvious, and to some extent undetermined, has been the way herbicides have reduced the floral diversity of farmland, which in turn has depleted insect numbers and the species which depend on them – including the grey partridge.”
In 1999, in the third chapter of GWCT’s book A Question of Balance, Dr Tapper illustrates how “over the last 20 years, much of GWCT research has focused on quantifying the effects of game management on the wider flora and fauna(6).” Dr Tapper then expounds on GWCT’s work with field boundaries with: “Research to prevent the degradation of perennial grassy hedge bottoms and to promote the use of selective herbicides to control problem weeds has been led by game conservation scientists(14).” Dr Tapper continues “Grassy nesting banks are also chosen as over-wintering cover by a range of important beneficial predatory insects and spiders(15). In spring, they emerge from this cover and move back into arable crops. Many studies have now clearly demonstrated their importance in eating aphids and other crop pests, helping to prevent pest damage and reducing the need for insecticides. Partridge nesting banks have also been shown to be good nesting sites for species such as yellowhammers and lesser whitethroats(16).”
Dr Tapper then explains that GWCT research on hedgebanks led to the development of ‘beetle banks’. These raised strips of tussocky grass avoid the direct costs of replanting grubbed-up hedgerows and “quickly become excellent over-wintering sites for aphid-eating beetles and spiders.” Dr Tapper continues by encapsulating another farmland feature which evolved from GWCT research; “As the near ubiquitous use of herbicides and insecticides on modern cereals causes poor gamebird chick survival, we have experimented with cereal-field headlands (the outermost six metres of the crop). By spraying these areas only with selective products, we create insect- and weed-rich strips that provide food for wild gamebird chicks and thereby improve their rates of survival(17). These ‘conservation headlands’, as GWCT has called them, also benefit other, often endangered, species of farmland wildlife(18).”
Beetle Bank. P. Thompson. GWCT
Conservation Headland. P. Thompson. GWCT
Shortly before Silent Spring’s 50th Anniversary Dr Potts published his book Partridges: Countryside Barometer in the New Naturalist series, and re-iterates the portents from Silent Spring’s 4th chapter when he explains how on reaching the sea “the highly diluted insecticide (dieldrin) began to concentrate again (1956-1965) as it accumulated through marine food chains. Amounts were monitored in eggs of the shag on the Farne Islands and this showed a peak five years after the peak mortality on farmland.” Dr Potts starts his next paragraph with: “The important point here is that the grey partridge was the sentinel for a much wider problem of organo-chlorine dispersal around the globe.”
The introductory paragraph of Rachel Carson’s fifth chapter attests: “The thin layer of soil that forms a patchy covering over the continents controls our own existence and that of every other animal of the land. Without soil, land plants as we know them could not grow, and without plants no animals could survive.” In the same year as Silent Spring celebrates its 50th Anniversary, The GWCT Allerton Project attains its 20th Anniversary(19). This Project is based at the Loddington farm in Leicestershire, which was generously gifted to GWCT by Lord and Lady Allerton. The Professor of Soil Erosion and Conservation at Cranfield University, Jane Rickson, reports on this work: ”The practical research undertaken on the Allerton Project farm is helping to develop soil management practices that ensure our soils are fit for purpose, resilient to degradation processes and future-proofed to support sustainable land use for future generations.” Professor Rickson’s commendation is confirmed through eight scientific publications(20-27) from the Allerton Project Team specifically regarding research on soil, one of life’s fundamental elements as Rachel Carson describes so clearly.
Early on in Silent Spring’s 6th chapter, Rachel Carson writes that: “The earth’s vegetation is part of a web of life in which there are intimate and essential relations between plants and the earth, between plants and other plants, between plants and animals.” This theme was explored as early as 1958 in a GWCT scientific paper(28) published by the International Union of Game Biologists. The paper’s abstract states: “Post-hatching factors – e.g. weather, grass-cutting, predators, and possibly disease – appear to be of greatest importance in determining ultimate brood size. Unfortunately, some of these factors are not susceptible to quantitative measurement, and the assessment of their importance is further complicated by the way they interact.”
In Silent Spring’s chapter Needless Havoc, Rachel Carson expounds on the trail of suffering left from spraying toxic chemicals. The first paragraph concludes that: “we are adding a new chapter and a new kind of havoc – the direct killing of birds, mammals, fishes, and indeed practically every form of wildlife by chemical insecticides indiscriminately sprayed on the land.” GWCT scientists continue to stress the need for arable field margins where beneficial insects and plants can thrive without impinging on the crop yield. In GWCT’s 1989 Annual Review, Dr Nick Sotherton announced that: “The possible adverse ecological side effects of pesticide use have always been top priority in GWCT’s general vigilance on behalf of game.” Dr Sotherton added that: “One of the most important ‘imbalances’ has been the destruction and degradation of the network of permanent field boundaries around our managed fields, especially hedgerows. Increasingly these are becoming the focus of GWCT’s research. Apart from the value of hedges and the like as wildlife refuges (and nesting cover for gamebirds) they are also being taken over by problem weeds such as cleavers and barren brome. New research is seeking ways to remedy these problems and rehabilitate these valued habitats.”
It is in Silent Spring’s 8th chapter that Rachel Carson directly acknowledges findings from the Game Research Association (Game Birds Association now GWCT). From these reports of hideous carnage in the early 60s, GWCT scientists have continued to work tirelessly to reduce the need for such deadly chemicals by devising less toxic solutions. In GWCT’s newly-published Review of 2012, Dr John Holland reports(29) that: “The European Union has approved a directive to ensure that all users of plant protection products adopt the principles of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) by 2014. Encouraging the natural enemies of pests through the use of beetle banks is one IPM approach and has the benefit that the banks are an option in English and Scottish Agri-Environment Schemes (AES) and is therefore financially supported.” Dr Holland adds: “Here we reflect on the body of evidence, generated from four GWCT supported PhD studies, showing their value, and look at the potential alternatives,” and adds in conclusion that: “Beetle banks alone may not be sufficient to increase densities of natural enemies of pests because for effective and robust IPM, a range of predatory and parasitic species are needed, acting in different ways on all of the pests-life stages.” Notably, the following two key findings are highlighted from this research:
- “When beetle banks are used to divide large fields they increase nesting habitat, encourage the natural enemies of pests, support endangered wildlife such as harvest mice and decrease soil erosion.”
- “Other key agri-environment scheme habitats can supplement the range of natural enemies of pests on farmland.”
Before moving on to noxious effects in humanity through indiscriminate use of poisonous chemicals, Rachel Carson itemizes the toll on aquatic resources in her chapter Rivers of Death. In 2005, a celebratory occasion for GWCT in its 25th year as a wildlife charity and with 75 years of research into game management, an account(30) from Loddington started thus: “The Water Framework Directive is likely to have a significant effect on how land is managed. It aims to achieve “good chemical and ecological status” by 2015. What exactly this means is not yet clear; but it certainly will have implications for farming, the landscape, fishing, and wildlife conservation.” It continued: “Loddington is in the middle of the Eye Brook catchment, which gives us an ideal opportunity to investigate the relationship between farming and water quality.”
In the most recent GWCT annual Review (issue 44), Dr Stoate and the Allerton Project Ecologist, John Szczur, report on the progress of this research(31): “Concern about declines in numbers of fish and other aquatic wildlife, and targets for water quality set by the European Union Water Framework Directive (WFD), have been major drivers for attempts to improve rivers. The effect of farming on water; through sediment, phosphorus and pesticides from arable land, and through livestock entering watercourses, for example, is being addressed in a range of initiatives across the UK.” The article continues: “Although we have a reasonable understanding of how individual methods such as buffer strips, stream fencing and field corner wetlands perform, we have a remarkably poor understanding of how this suite of measures might move us towards WFD targets if applied at the catchment scale. The Water Friendly Farming project aims to assess to what extent WFD targets for water quality and wildlife can be met by applying scientifically sound and practically grounded measures to a real farmland landscape surrounding the Allerton Project farm at Loddington.” The conclusion reads that the findings to date “reaffirm those from their previous work that domestic sources of phosphorus, as well as agricultural ones, need to be addressed within river catchments.”
Loddington Pond Trials. P. Thompson. GWCT
In Silent Spring’s final chapter, Rachel Carson writes that: “The choice, after all, is ours to make.” Prior to and ever since Silent Spring’s first arrival, the scientists at GWCT have mirrored Rachel Carson’s cogent warnings. In the past 50 years, these scientists have studied both the ecological damage affirmed in this book, and many methods to both halt and repair it. It is to be hoped that through persistence of such worthy science with the continuing support and encouragement from respected members of society, spring will never be silent. In the words of H. W. Longfellow:
When the warm sun that brings
Seed-time to harvest, has returned again
‘Tis sweet to visit the still wood where springs
The first flower of the plain.
The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust manages research projects in a variety of disciplines encompassing expertise from its scientists in biology, botany, entomology, and ornithology, covering a broad range of environment from moorland, heathland and farmland to wetlands and other riparian territories, which aim to restore and conserve wildlife and its habitat, and to provide a sustainable source of game for future generations. The applied science carried out by the Trust often provides a basis for elements in conservation schemes run by Natural England or Scottish Natural Heritage, and can be directly applied by farmers and gamekeepers across the UK. GWCT scientists have produced over 900 scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals since 1929, and with other work published in books and chapters of books, and also in unpublished Ph.D. theses by doctoral students, the total number of scientific articles currently runs at over 1,700.
Full details of the work published by the GWCT can be found on its website: www.gwct.org.uk
(1) Sotherton, N. W. (1988). The Cereals and Gamebirds Research Project: Overcoming the indirect effects of pesticides. In : Harding, D. J. L. (ed.) Britain Since Silent Spring : Update on the Ecological Effects of Agricultural Pesticides in the U.K. Proceedings of a Symposium of the Insitute of Biology, Institute of Biology, London.
(2) Ash, J. A. (1961). A Brief Summary of the Results of the Investigations Carried Out by the Game Research Association on the Mortality of Game and Other Wildlife Associated with the Use of Toxic Seed-Dressings in the Spring of 1961. Report to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Research Study Group onToxic Chemicals in Agriculture and Food Storage.
(3) Cramp, S., Conder, P.J. & Ash, J. S. (1962). Deaths of Birds and Mammals from Toxic Chemicals January-June 1961. 2nd Report of the Joint Committee of the BTO & RSPB on Toxic Chemicals, in collaboration with the Game Research Association, Sandy, Bedfordshire.
(4) Review of 2012, (2013). Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, Fordingbridge. p6.
(5) Fleming, R, P.,Col., Chairman. 8th Annual Report (1968): 4. The Game Research Association, Fordingbridge.
(6) Tapper, S. C. (ed.) (1999). A Question of Balance – Game Animals and Their Role in the British Countryside. The Game Conservancy Trust, (now Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust), Fordingbridge.
(7) Ewald, J. A., Aebischer, N. J. & Potts, G. R. (1998). Increasing pesticide use: impacts on wildlife based on 30 years of monitoring. In: Proceedings of the Wildlife, Pesticides, and People Conference, chapter 15: 1-16. Rachel Carson Council Inc., Fairfax, Virginia, U.S.A.
(8) Potts, G. R. (1986). The Partridge: Pesticides, Predation and Conservation. Collins, London.
(9) Ash, J. S. (1965). Mortality of game birds and other wildlife caused by agricultural chemicals. In: 1965 National Game Council of Ireland Report: 25-28. National Game Council of Ireland.
(10) Potts, G. R., Ewald, J. A. & Aebischer, N. J. (2010). Long-term changes in the flora of the cereal ecosystem on the Sussex Downs, England, focusing on the years 1968-2005. Journal of Applied Ecology, 47: 215-226.
(11) Ewald, J. A., Potts, G. R. & Aebischer, N.J. (2012). Restoration of a wild grey partridge shoot: a major development in the Sussex study, UK. Animal Biodiversity and Conservation, 35: 363-369.
(12) Sotherton, N. W. (1984) The Cereals and Gamebirds Research Project. In: Annual Review for 1983, 15: 76.
(13) Tapper, S. C. (1992). Game Heritage: An Ecological Review from Shooting and Gamekeeping Redords. Game Conservancy Ltd, Fordingbridge.
(14) Boatman, N. (1993). Selective control of Bromus sterilis in field boundaries with Fluazifop-P-butyl. In: 1993 Brighton Crop Protection Conference – Weeds: 387-392. British Crop Protection Council, Farnham.
(15) Sotherton, N. W. (1984). The distribution and abundance of predatory arthropods overwintering on farmland. Annals of Applied Biology, 105: 423-429.
(16) Stoate, C. & Szczur, J. (1994). Nest site selection and territory distribution of Yellowhammer (Embiriza citronella) and Whitethroat (Sylvia communis) in field margins. In: Boatman, N. D. (ed.) Field Margins – Integrating Agriculture and Conservation: 129-132. BCPC Monograph No. 58, British Crop Protection Council, Farnham.
(17) Rands, M. R. W. (1985). Pesticide use on cereals and the survival of grey partridge chicks: a field experiment. Journal of Applied Ecology, 22: 49-54
(18) Sotherton, N. W. (1991). Conservation Headlands: a practical combination of intensive cereal farming and conservation. In: Firbank, L. G., Carter, N., Darbyshire, J. F. & Potts, G. R. (eds) Ecology of Temperate Cereal Fields: 373-397. British Ecological Society Syposium, Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford.
(19) Stoate, C., Leake, A. R., Jarvis, P. & Szczur, J. (2012). Fields for the Future. The Allerton Project – A Winning Blueprint for Farming, Wildlife and the Environment. Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, The Allerton Project, Loddington.
(20) Jordan, V. W. L. & Leake, A. R. (2004). Contributions and interactions of cultivations and rotations to soil quality, protection and profitable production. In: Jellis, G. (ed.) Proceedings of 2004 Home Grown Cereals Authority Conference: Managing Soil and Roots for Sustainable Production: 4.1-4.10. Home Grown Cereals Authority, London.
(21) Jones, C.A., Basch, G., Baylis, A.D., Bazzoni, D., Biggs, J., Bradbury, R.B., Chaney, K., Deeks, L.K., Field, R., Gómez, J.A., Jones, R.J.A., Jordan, V.W.L., Lane, M.C.G., Leake, A.R., Livermore, M., Owens, P.N., Ritz, K., Sturny, W.G. & Thomas, F. (2006). Conservation Agriculture in Europe: An Approach to Sustainable Crop Production by Protecting Soil and Water? SOWAP (SOil and WAter Protection), Bracknell.
(22) Leake, A. R. & Jarvis, P. E. (2006). Practical on-farm measures to reduce soil erosion and water pollution. In: The BCPC International Conference – Crop Science & Technology 2006: 45. British Crop Protection Council, Farnham.
(23) Leake, A. R. (2007). Soil management for the benefit of invertebrates. In: Winspear, R. (ed.) The Farm Wildlife Handbook: 92-95. Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Sandy.
(24) Leake, A. R. (2007). Soil management initiative. In: Linger, H. & Critchley, W. (eds) Where the Land is Greener – Case Studies and Analysis of Soil and Water Conservation Initiatives Worldwide: 81-84. World Overview of Conservation Approaches and Technologies (WOCAT), Bern.
(25) Leake, A. R. & Lane, M. (2009). Soil and Water Protection Project (SOWAP) – so what? In: Zlatić, M., Kostadinov, S. & Bruk, S. (eds) Global Change – Challenges for Soil Management from Degradation through Soil and Water Conservation to Sustainable Soil Management. Conference Abstracts: 213. University of Belgrade, Faculty of Forestry, Belgrade, Serbia.
(26) Leake, A. R. (2010). Different soil cultivation systems and their implications for nutrient planning and energy use. International Fertiliser Society Proceedings, 676: 1-16
(27) Chambers, B., Goulding, K. & Leake, A. R. (2011) Simply Sustainable Soils. Six Simple Steps for Your Soil to Help Improve the Performance, Health and Long-term Sustainability of Your Land. Asda and LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming), Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire.
(28) Blank, T.H. & Ash, J.S. (1958). Factors controlling the brood size in the Partridge (Perdix perdix) on an estate in South England. In: Transactions of the 3rd Congress of the International Union of Game Biologists, Aarhus: 39-41. International Union of Game Biologists, Copenhagen).
(29) Holland, J. M. (2013). Rediscovering beetle banks. In: Review of 2012: 48-49. Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, Fordingbridge.
(30) Stoate, C. & Roberts, D. (2006). The eye brook and its rural catchment. In: Review of 2005: 20-21. The Game Conservancy Trust, Fordingbridge.
(31) Stoate, C. & Szczur, J. (2013). Water friendly farming for the future. In: Review of 2012: 58-59. Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, Fordingbridge.