Pesticides suspected of killing off city’s flowers, butterflies, birds and bees

In 1962, marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson published Silent Spring. It described the massive use of agricultural pesticides and the effects that this was having. Its title, drawn from a poem by Keats, was a chilling reference to a countryside devoid of birds. The book was attacked, even vilified, by the chemical industry but it led to the abolition of DDT and is today regarded as one of the most important environmental and scientific books of the last century.

Meanwhile, in my own small patch, a yellow corydalis was until recently in brilliant bloom on a local school wall. The vigorous plant formed a virtual cascade of lime-green leaves and bright yellow flowers and seemed to have been in almost continuous bloom for the past two years. It is gone now, as is the white campion that bloomed in a tree pit nearby. This is a common enough flower in the countryside but here, on a grimy city street, it was an echo of distant fields, of flowering meadows and dappled woodland edges. This too has withered and died, as have the nippleworts, the Herb Roberts and the sow thistles which surrounded it.

The cause was a council contractor, who walked the streets spraying herbicide. The compound in his backpack contained a purple dye so that both he and we could see exactly where he had been and, for the next week or so, it seemed that my corydalis and the other plants had been marked with the plague spot. Though their death was slow, it was now inevitable.

At some time or other, this scene is being enacted along every street in the capital and on almost every urban road across the country. The herbicide being used is almost always glyphosate, regarded as one of the safest such substances – a few dissenting papers notwithstanding. It is a “contact” herbicide, that is, it kills only that which it directly touches, being absorbed into the plant and spreading throughout its system. And it breaks down quickly when in contact with the soil.

Yet I cannot help but wonder about the effects, or unforeseen side-effects, of tons of a chemical being deposited along hundreds of miles of street and the impacts of this on the fragile fabric of our urban ecosystem.

The evidence that that fabric is unravelling is all around us. Our invertebrates are massively declining and so are the birds which feed on them. The once common sparrow, dependant on insect life to feed its young, has dropped by a massive 65 per cent. It is a disturbing indictment that this most familiar of all urban birds was, in 2002, added to the Red Data Book of threatened species.

Our butterflies are disappearing too and, in launching a national butterfly count recently, David Attenborough recalled how, only a few years ago, buddleia bushes in his garden would be alive with small tortoiseshells, peacocks and red admirals. Now he is excited to have a couple of butterflies visiting at all.

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And this last year has seen our honey bees decline by another 17 per cent despite conditions – a cold winter followed by a warm spring –being particularly favourable. Among our wild bees, the decline in our 18 species of bumble bee has been described by the Bee Conservation Trust as “catastrophic”.


In response to this, the Capital Bee Campaign has been launched, with the specific support of London’s Mayor. It is ironic therefore that the campaign calls on Londoners to stop using pesticides in their gardens while, over the garden wall, our local authorities are spraying it on every street.

I cannot, of course, claim any direct connection. But I do know that one of Carson’s main targets was the uncritical acceptance of safety claims for chemicals. And I do know that my corydalis and every other plant which once lit up our street scene is dead and that insects no longer busy around or feed upon them.

It seems to me that we need a new Rachel Carson to investigate and to do it before we have not only a silent spring but a sterile and monochrome city.