The natural environment in Europe is on the brink of collapse.
Two new studies published this week show how the number of farm birds in France has crashed, falling by an average of a third in the last 15 years alone, prompting scientists to warn that biodiversity in Europe faces “oblivion”.
Carried out by the National Centre for Scientific Research, the papers show that the wipe-out of these farmland birds is on “a level approaching an ecological catastrophe”. On average, numbers have fallen by a third, but some species have almost been eradicated. The researchers found that eight out of 10 partridges are now gone, while seven out of 10 meadow pipits have suffered the same fate.
“The situation is catastrophic,” said the National Museum of Natural History’s Benoit Fontaine, a conservation biologist who co-authored one of the studies. “Our countryside is in the process of become [sic] a veritable desert.”
The huge decline in farm birds recorded in France mirrors last year's discovery that over three-quarters of all flying insects in Germany have vanished in just three decades. It is thought that the aggressive use of pesticides, particularly neonicotinoids, over the last few decades is behind this crash in insect numbers, something that the researchers expected to be seen in other places around the world.
This dramatic decline in farm birds, therefore, is no coincidence.
The researchers suspect that the drop in insects has had a predictable knock-on effect on the birds that live in the agricultural landscape, as they struggle to find enough food to survive. “There are hardly any insects left, that's the number one problem,” said Vincent Bretagnolle, another of the study's authors.
This can be clearly shown by the fact that although generalist species such as wood pigeons and blackbirds are doing well in urban environments – and are in fact increasing in number nationally – those living in rural areas are actually declining. This clearly means that changing farming practices are to blame for this collapse in bird numbers.
Scientists have been warning for years that this is likely to happen, with little action being taken. With 45 percent of Europe covered in farmland, the scale of the problem is not to be underestimated. The intensification of farming, coupled with the massive step up in pesticide use over the last few decades, is threatening to create a second “silent spring”, the term coined by ecologist Rachel Carson when describing a similar decline in birds during the 1960s.
As more pieces are removed, the faster the environment will come crashing down unless rapid action is taken.