Banned poison used to prey on birds
Swooping across the sky, the last rays of sunset catching on their tail feathers dip-dying them golden for a brief moment, the red kite is an iconic bird of prey. After years of persecution due to being perceived as vermin, the red kite was brought back from the brink of extinction in the late 20th century. However, not everyone sees birds of prey as a beautiful and essential part of the food chain. Birds of prey such as the red kite, and others, are often illegally killed by gamekeepers.
On the 12th November, the RSPB launched an appeal for information regarding the death of three birds of prey in East Anglia. In April 2013 a breeding pair of marsh harriers were found dead near to the RSPB's Nene Washes Nature Reserve, Cambridgeshire. A month later, in Old Leake, Boston, Lincolnshire a lifeless red kite was discovered. All had been poisoned: post-mortem examinations showed traces of a lethal and banned pesticide, aldicarb.
What is aldicarb?
Aldicarb is a pesticide, which was primarily used to kill nematode worms on the roots of plants. It was featured on Pesticide Action Network's 'dirty dozen' campaigns to get the world's most hazardous pesticides eliminated and its use was banned in the UK in 2006.
It disrupts nerve impulses, with a similar method of action (acetylcholinesterase inhibition) to nerve gases such as sarin. Death is caused by paralysis of the muscles that control breathing, leading to suffocation. Even a small amount is enough to kill a large bird of prey. It has high toxicity in a wide variety of mammalian species (including humans).
It's classed by the World Health Organisation as an 'extremely hazardous' and persist in the environment for months after its use, dissolving easily in water, causing build-up in waterways and poisoning drinking water.
Aldicarb was formerly produced by Union Carbide, the controversial chemical company implicated in the Bhopal disaster, one of the world's largest industrial disasters. At the time of the disaster the chemical plant was making carbamates such as aldicarb, which leaked into the environment.
So why target birds of prey?
Those who kill birds of prey often do so to protect the lucrative shooting and hunting industries. Birds such as buzzards or hen harriers are predators of grouse and pheasant, potentially affecting this profitable pursuit. In the past gamekeepers have been prosecuted after being caught with poisoned bait but there have been no prosecutions for using the pesticide to kill birds of prey.
The RSPB is concerned about the number of poisoning incidents. Grahame Madge, of the RSPB, said “there are a number of random cases coming to light that could do with being investigated more thoroughly. A joined-up approach is needed.”
The Natural Environment and Rural Communities (NERC) Act
Additions to the UK's NERC Act would ensure that poisons such as aldicarb, are no longer available for widespread use. However, section 43 of this Act is currently blank and needs populating by the government. Currently, those who are caught with pesticides are being charged with possession rather than under any wildlife crime.
Pressuring the government to tighten the law in this area, and raising awareness of this issue, will be key to strengthening NERC.
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