Scotland’s forests are treated and sprayed every year with hundreds of kilograms of a toxic pesticide blamed for killing bees and butterflies, The Ferret can reveal.
Our investigation has uncovered widespread use of the nicotine-based insecticide, acetamiprid, by the forestry industry, provoking concerns from experts and alarm from environmentalists who fear “creeping degradation” of nature.
Moves have already been made to curb the pesticide’s use on the island of Mull, and Scottish ministers are facing growing demands from wildlife campaigners for a country-wide ban – backed by veteran SNP minister, Michael Russell MSP.
The forestry industry, however, is vehemently opposed to a ban, arguing that acetamiprid is vital for killing pine weevils to protect Scotland’s £1 billion wood business. The industry is backed by another SNP veteran, the rural economy minister, Fergus Ewing MSP.
Acetamiprid is one of a group of manufactured neonicotinoid chemicals lethal to insects. A ban on all outdoor use of three neonicotinoids was agreed by the European Union in April due to evidence showing they could endanger bees and other pollinators – but this did not include acetamiprid, which can still be legally used.
Acetamiprid has been brought into “wide scale use” by the forestry industry in the last two years to replace another toxic pesticide thought to endanger wildlife, cypermethrin. It is now regularly used across Scotland to kill the weevils that infest, eat and destroy trees.
Forestry Commission Scotland told The Ferret that 196 kilograms of acetamiprid, branded Gazelle, were sprayed on 711 hectares of public woodland in 2017-18. The spraying covered four forestry districts: Scottish Lowlands, North Highland, Tay, and Cowal & Trossachs.
As well as being sprayed after planting, trees are also treated with acetamiprid before they are planted. The private forestry industry was unable to say exactly how much of the chemical it used, but evidence suggests it’s likely to amount to several hundreds of kilograms a year.
One of the UK’s leading pesticide experts, professor Dave Goulson from the University of Sussex, argued that acetamiprid tended to be applied at higher rates than the banned neonicotinoids because it was regarded as less toxic. In the presence of commonly used fungicides, it would also become as toxic as its banned relations, he suggested.
“There are huge knowledge gaps with regard to the safety of acetamiprid, but plenty of reasons to be concerned if it is being widely applied to forests,” he said.
“Like the other neonicotinoids that have been banned, acetamiprid is a neurotoxic insecticide that will kill beneficial insects such as bees and butterflies just as efficiently as it kills pests.”
Dr Chris Connolly, an independent expert on neonicotinoid impacts on bees previously at the University of Dundee, warned that acetamiprid mustn’t be allowed to persist in the soil. Chronic exposure would be toxic for insects, he said.
“It should not be allowed to contaminate any water bodies as aquatic insects are highly vulnerable. Any justified use should be accompanied by responsible monitoring of its persistence and impact.”
The insect campaign group, Buglife, called on forestry organisations to commit to a “voluntary ban” on acetamiprid. “Several neonicotinoid insecticides have caused huge damage to wildlife, particularly pollinators,” said conservation director, Craig Macadam.
“Acetamiprid has not been shown to be safe to wild bees, nor is there evidence that it does not pollute and damage rivers and streams when used in forestry. The risk of environmental damage must be clarified before acetamiprid is used in our forests.”
According to the Scottish Wildlife Trust, all pesticides can damage the environment. “We would encourage everyone involved in forestry to work to minimise their use of chemical treatments,” said the trust’s conservation director, Susan Davies.
Islanders on Mull concerned about the risks have been pushing for curbs on forestry pesticides. Helped by the Argyll and Bute MSP, Michael Russell, they have won promises to consult local people before pesticides are used from public and community forests – but not from private forestry firms.
Many of my constituents believe that the time has come to remove neonicotinoids from the environment, particularly where there is the danger of them leaching into water supplies, and that view will I think in time prevail. Michael Russell, SNP MSP
“I am glad that the voluntary ban on Mull which I was pleased to help facilitate at the request of the community, is being observed by the community owned forests and the Forestry Commission though I remain disappointed that the private sector has refused to join in,” said Russell.
“Many of my constituents believe that the time has come to remove neonicotinoids from the environment, particularly where there is the danger of them leaching into water supplies, and that view will I think in time prevail. There is also a justifiable concern regarding the safety of forestry workers in using the chemicals.”
Mull-based forester, Rachel Watt, stopped working with pesticide-treated trees 15 years ago because she was worried about the long term health effects. “No short medium or long term studies are done on contractors’ health,” she said.
She has launched a petition calling on Scottish ministers to ban pesticides in forestry, and for alternatives to be adopted. In August she convened a meeting in Perth for experts to discuss the use of natural wax or plastic barriers to defend trees against weevils.
Alternatives were widely used in Scandinavia, the Balkans and the rest of Europe, Watt said. Using powerful pesticides in remote and wildlife-rich areas was a “tragedy” for insects and aquatic organisms, she argued.
“It leads to a creeping degradation of ecosystems which may not show up immediately, but will have lasting negative effects,” she said. “More than anyone I want to see the industry I am part of rise to the challenge of cleaner, better forestry.”
Fergus Ewing, however, has argued that a ban on acetamiprid would be “inappropriate”. In a letter to Russell in June he said: “I therefore continue to support the judicious use of this chemical on restock sites where necessary.”
Ewing argued that if the pesticide was used in accordance with official advice it “would not pose an unacceptable risk to consumers, operators, bystanders or the wider environment”.
In August Ewing announced that £550,000 was to be spent researching alternative ways of tackling weevils to reduce chemical use. “We need to develop further innovative and successful solutions to tackle this serious pest,” he said.
The Scottish Government pointed out that Ewing had backed the European Union’s restrictions on neonicotinoids. “The Scottish Government expects all organisations to act responsibly in the use of any chemicals in the environment,” said a spokesperson.
If the pesticide was used in accordance with official advice it would not pose an unacceptable risk to consumers, operators, bystanders or the wider environment.
The government’s Forest Enterprise Scotland (FES) pointed out that the European Union had some of the world’s strictest rules on pesticides and in March had approved the use of acetamiprid until 2033. “Our default position on the use of chemicals on the national forest estate is not to use them unless necessary,” said FES acting head of land management, Jo Ellis.
“The chemical is used to tackle the Hylobius weevil which is probably the most serious pest of newly planted trees on restocking sites and costs the UK £5 million in damage each year. If we didn’t use this protective measure the losses to the forest industry would be massive – around 50 per cent of planted trees would be lost.”
According to Ellis, where pesticide use was unavoidable young trees were pre-treated in an off-site tree nursery or building. This could be combined with later post planting treatment via a hand sprayer to individual trees.
“All these treatments are carried out in a way that minimises environmental impact and our usage is well within the limits set in the UK by the Health and Safety Executive,” she said.
Confor, which represents the private forestry industry, stressed that acetamiprid had been introduced because it had a lower impact than its predecessor pesticide, cypermethrin. Acetamiprid had been used extensively in horticulture and agriculture for years, and was only sprayed on trees “once or twice” in 35-45 years.
Confor’s technical director, Andrew Heald, said that acetamiprid had been “in wide scale use for two planting seasons in the UK”. But he insisted that it was only applied “in small quantities” in a targeted way.
He pointed out that the forestry and wood processing industry supported more than 25,000 jobs in Scotland. “It is committed to finding cleaner, greener, cost-effective solutions to control weevils,” he said.
“Weevils are the biggest threat to all of Britain’s trees – productive forestry and native woodlands. They eat and destroy young trees and without an effective and reliable method of control, woodlands and forests can be destroyed.”
Heald highlighted that pesticide use by the majority of commercial forestry was regulated by the Forestry Stewardship Council, which was backed by environmental groups. “The proposal for a voluntary ban is unworkable,” he said.
“Where acetamiprid is applied it is because without it, it would be impossible to run a commercial forestry operation at all. It is effectively a proposal for voluntary redundancy.”
Heald argued that some of the alternatives used abroad did not work with serious infestations. He also criticised experts for failing to understand how forestry differed from agriculture.
“Young conifer crops do not produce pollen or nectar so there is a very low likelihood of bees or butterflies coming into contact with them,” he said.
Dr Ben Woodcock from the UK government’s Centre for Ecology & Hydrology thought that the risks from using acetamiprid in forestry were less than in agriculture. “Banning acetamiprid will not mean that no pesticides are used,” he said.
“Sensible use is important, and in this case the risk of a ban without good evidence of a negative effect may shift the risk of pesticide use to something that may be more toxic.”
It was “not impossible” that acetamiprid may be having an impact, but he was wary about making a “sweeping statement” of concern. “Specific and targeted studies would need to be undertaken to identify real risks, rather than just assuming they are there,” he said. “To my knowledge these do not exist.”
Fears about contaminated water supplies
Rachel Watt does not like pesticides. She avoids them in her work as a forester, so she was upset to find them in her private water supplies at Pennyghael on the island of Mull.
“I was shocked to discover banned fungicides and hazardous neonicotinoids in the streams that supply my water,” she said. “The levels may be low, but the point is these toxins shouldn’t be there at all.”
With fellow islanders, she sent away samples on 14 May 2018 to be tested at a laboratory. The results came back, she said, showing traces of two prohibited fungicides, carbendazim and picoxystrobin, in her water inlet and in the nearby river Liedle. Low concentrations of neonicotinoid insecticides were also detected – midacloprid in the river Liedle and acetamiprid in a tributary.
“I’m worried for the health of my children and grandchildren when they come to stay, and concerned about whether my water is safe,” she said.
“I’ve complained to the local authority, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) and others, but no-one really seems to be able to deal with the problem.”
I’m worried for the health of my children and grandchildren. Rachel Watt
Watt pointed out that she was surrounded by forests, and had worked in them for 35 years. “Toxic chemicals are widely used by the forestry industry,” she added. “They should not be leaking into our watercourses and polluting our environment.”
Argyll and Bute Council said that it had not been given full details of the water sampling. “Despite this, we have engaged with various authorities and regulators based on the reported results and they all agree that the trace levels found in the water fall well within acceptable levels and do not pose a risk to health,” stated a council spokesperson.
Sepa said it had supported other agencies in investigations. “Sepa is satisfied that there is no evidence of significant harm to the environment,” added the agency unit manager for Argyll and Bute, Jim Frame.
“Even in samples where the pesticides might have been present, the reported levels were significantly lower than concentrations which may cause harm to freshwater ecosystems.”
Raymond Henderson, the land agent from Bidwells who manages the forestry site at Pennyghael for the owner, said: “Forestry works were carried out professionally and all guidelines adhered to. The chemicals used are fully approved and all safeguards are in place.”
Letter from Fergus Ewing to Michael Russell
This story was also published in the Sunday National on 9 September 2018.