Garden pesticides are contributing to British songbird decline, study finds

Scientists urge people to stop ‘spraying gardens with poison’ and adopt wildlife-friendly practices

Gardeners who use pesticides are contributing to the decline of British songbirds, a study suggests.

Scientists have urged people to stop “spraying their gardens with poison” in order to halt bird decline and adopt instead wildlife-friendly practices.

The results of the University of Sussex study, which researchers call the first of its kind, published in the journal ​​Science of the Total Environment, found that gardeners who use pesticides can expect to see fewer birds.

The experiment, which surveyed 615 gardens in Britain, found 25% fewer house sparrows when glyphosate was used regularly. This is an ingredient found in commonly used herbicide brands such as Roundup or Gallup.

Slug pellets also seemed to have an impact on bird sightings; in gardens where metaldehyde slug pellets were used, house sparrow numbers were down by almost 40%.

Researchers drew on data gathered by the British Trust for Ornithology, which organises Garden BirdWatch – a citizen science garden bird recording scheme – and found that 32% of respondents used pesticides on their gardens, and that glyphosate-based herbicides made up 53% of those applications.

Prof Dave Goulson, of the school of life sciences at the University of Sussex, said: “The UK has 22 million gardens, which collectively could be a fantastic refuge for wildlife, but not if they are overly tidy and sprayed with poisons. We just don’t need pesticides in our gardens. Many towns around the world are now pesticide free. We should simply ban the use of these poisons in urban areas, following the example of France.”

The Royal Horticultural Society, the UK’s leading gardening charity, says the use of pesticides and herbicides should be avoided if possible and they should only be used, if ever, in small and targeted applications.

The research also found that those who adopted wildlife-friendly practices such as planting native shrubs and flowers, or digging a wildlife pond, saw more birds than those who did not.

Cannelle Tassin de Montaigu, a PhD researcher within the school of life sciences and an author of the study, said: “It’s encouraging to find that simple measures, such as planting native shrubs and trees and creating a pond, together with avoiding the use of pesticides, really make a measurable difference to the number of birds you will see in your garden.”

Gardeners are an important part of the fight against biodiversity decline; gardens cover an area of about 400,000 hectares (988,421 acres), bigger than all of our national nature reserves. Overall, the UK breeding bird population has fallen by 19 million since the late 1960s, and house sparrow populations have fallen by 70% since the 1970s, with the loss of 10.7 million pairs.

• This article was amended on 7 February 2023. An earlier version said that “gardens cover an area of about 400,000 hectares (988,421 acres), bigger than all of our national parks”. That should have said “bigger than all our national nature reserves”.


Helena Horton Environment reporter

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Angry birds: traffic noise makes robins more aggressive, study finds
Researchers think sound of vehicles can interfere with birds’ normal song when trying to warn off nearby rivals

Damien Gayle Environment correspondent

06, Dec, 2022 @10:00 PM

Article image
16 of Britain’s top 20 garden birds have declined in number, annual survey finds
RSPB’s 2021 Big Garden Birdwatch finds sparrow still most common species, while starlings, greenfinch and chaffinch struggle

Patrick Barkham

08, Apr, 2021 @11:01 PM

Article image
Pesticides stop bees buzzing and releasing pollen, says study
Researchers find neonicotinoid insecticides harm ability of bees to vibrate flowers and shake out pollen to fertilise crops

Damian Carrington

13, Dec, 2016 @6:01 AM

Article image
Pesticide use around world almost doubles since 1990, report finds
Agricultural chemicals drive falls of 30% in populations of field birds and butterflies, says Pesticide Atlas

Arthur Neslen

18, Oct, 2022 @4:55 PM

Article image
‘Brexit freedoms bill’ could abolish all pesticide protections, campaigners say
Bill would see 570 EU-derived environmental laws removed at end of 2023, with little time to replace them

Damian Carrington Environment editor

29, Sep, 2022 @2:14 PM

Article image
Hedgehogs now a rare garden sight as British populations continue to decline
More than half of people surveyed had never seen a hedgehog, once common in UK gardens

Damian Carrington

06, Feb, 2017 @6:01 AM

Article image
Bird populations in Panama rainforest in severe decline, study finds
Of 57 species sampled, 35 decreased in number by 50% over four decades, with climate crisis likely factor

Helena Horton

04, Apr, 2022 @7:00 PM

Article image
‘The R-word can be alienating’: How Haweswater rewilding project aims to benefit all
On the Lake District’s north-eastern fringe, two farmsteads are restoring the landscape with a commitment to conservation and providing jobs

Ben Martynoga

10, Mar, 2023 @6:01 PM

Article image
Down with grassy urban wastelands | Letters
Letters: Wiebena Heesterman turns down the offer of a perfect weed-free, insect-free lawn


27, Mar, 2018 @5:35 PM

Article image
Spoonbills rebound as UK farmers bolster tree cover and wetlands
Once common in England and Wales, the species was hunted to local extinction about 300 years ago

Helena Horton Environment reporter

03, Dec, 2022 @8:00 AM