Using long-term datasets to assess the impacts of dietary exposure to neonicotinoids on farmland bird populations in England
Over the last 20 years, a new group of systemic insecticides–the neonicotinoids—has gained prominence in arable systems, and their application globally has risen year on year. Previous modelling studies using long-term data have suggested that neonicotinoid application has had a detrimental impact on bird populations, but these studies were either limited to a single species or neglected to analyse specific exposure pathways in conjunction with observed population trends. Using bird abundance data, neonicotinoid usage records and cropping data for England at a 5x5 km resolution, generalised linear mixed models were used to test for spatio-temporal associations between neonicotinoid use and changes in the populations of 22 farmland bird species between 1994 and 2014, and to determine whether any associations were explained by dietary preferences. We assigned farmland bird species to three categories of dietary exposure to neonicotinoids based on literature data for species diets and neonicotinoid residues present in dietary items. Significant estimates of neonicotinoid-related population change were obtained for 13 of the 22 species (9 positive effects, 4 negative effects). Model estimates for individual species were not collectively explained by dietary risk categories, so dietary exposure to neonicotinoids via ingestion of treated seeds and seedlings could not be confirmed as a causal factor in farmland bird declines. Although it is not possible to infer any generic effect of dietary exposure to neonicotinoids on farmland bird populations, our analysis identifies three species with significant negative estimates that may warrant further research (house sparrow Passer domesticus, skylark Alauda arvensis and red-legged partridge Alectoris rufa). We conclude that there was either no consistent effect of dietary exposure to neonicotinoids on farmland bird populations in England, or that any over-arching effect was not detectable using our study design. The potential for indirect effects of insecticide use on bird populations via reduced food availability was not considered here and should be a focus for future research.