UK government approves bee-killing pesticide
23 January 2023. The UK government has approved thiamethoxam a chemical so potent that one teaspoon is said to be able to kill 1.25 billion bees.
In the summer of 2021 I walked 500 miles around the coast of England as part of an arts project called Beach of Dreams. The first few days were on the coast of Suffolk, occasionally looping inland through the rich farmlands. At that time the fields were at peak production.
Passing through a thin hedge we came into a vast area filled with carrots. It must have been sixty acres, the size of a small farm in itself. The footpath went across diagonally and I let the others forge ahead, something had caught my eye in the soft rich soil between the rows. It was a trail of tiny deer hoof prints. They were no bigger than the marks your fingertips would leave, but unmistakeably deer. I sat down, pulled a carrot, and brushing the dirt off, munched on it, feeling a bit like Peter Rabbit in Mr MacGregor’s garden, half-expecting a shout, “Hey YOU! Get orf my land!” But it never came. There was complete silence – at least when I’d finished eating. This seemed odd. Not a single insect to be heard. No bees or beetles. Not even one butterfly. This carrot field had been ruthlessly sprayed with herbicides and pesticides, probably several times. The only species thriving here, apart from the carrot, was one small deer.
Muntjac were first introduced to Britain from India, and later China, by the Dukes of Bedford in 1893. They were intended to be a pleasant rarity that guests might enjoy on his lordship’s estate, at a place called Woburn about 100 miles west of where I stood.
The Dukes had a history of befriending foreign rarities: in 1509 a Dorsetshire lad named John Russell had assisted two shipwreck survivors who turned out to be Phillip the Handsome and Joanna the Mad, European royalty. As a result of this service he became a favourite of Henry VII and later Henry VIII.
Woburn Abbey around that time was a Cistercian monastery managed by Abbot Robert Hobbes, who fell foul of Henry, refusing to acknowledge him as head of the church. In 1538 Hobbes was hanged, then cut down while living. His entrails were removed and burned, then he was decapitated and cut into quarters. Legend is that one quarter was nailed to an ancient oak in Woburn park. A lot more than one monk was slaughtered, however. In those days the monasteries were the only source of medicine, education and charity for most of the population. Henry did not just knock down monasteries, he destroyed the welfare state. The substantial lands were given to the man who had rescued the royal shipwreck survivors, the man who would soon become the Duke of Bedford.
I stood up and started walking again. The group were now far ahead and I didn’t want to be left too far behind. The next field was asparagus and once again, there were no weeds, no insects, only muntjac prints, plus one other species, perhaps Chinese Water Deer? That was another species that Woburn brought in as a curiosity only to see it escape and proliferate. Or perhaps the Sika (introduced from Asia to a number of British aristocratic parks in the 1860s ) or the Fallow (introduced by the Normans). Deer, of course, were for hunting, but only by aristocracy. Hunting by other people is called poaching.
Carrots, incidentally, were not introduced by the Dukes of Bedford. They are an Asian root vegetable that probably came first to Spain via the Moors, then fell into the hands of the 17th century Dutch who bred them into a nice consistent orange hue, hence perhaps that country’s enduring love of the colour. Asparagus was probably brought to Britain by the Romans.
Now I could hear voices, but it was not my walking group. It was a gang of agricultural workers heading out towards the carrots. There was about a dozen, mostly men, mostly smoking, all talking. They were going to march past me, but I stopped them with a loud, “Dober Dan.” It was a guess, but they stopped, faces splitting into smiles. Unfortunately that was about the full extent of my Bulgarian. The only woman among them them spoke a little English. “We come every year for three months to pick.”
“Is it good work?”
“Yes, good work. Make plenty money.”
“Where are you from in Bulgaria? Sofia? Plovdiv?”
She laughed. “We are not Bulgarians. We are Ukrainian and Russian.”
Some of them were drifting away now. They wanted to get on with the job. My English speaker seemed to feel the need to explain this last statement. “The Bulgarians are in another group. And the Lithuanians and Poles – they are another. They work together. And we Ukrainians and Russians work together. We understand each other.”
And with that, they marched away through the asparagus.