Taking action against the use of pesticides in your local area

Director and founder of Pesticide-Free Scotland, James Byrne, explains why and how you can take action against the use of pesticides in your local area.

Why pesticide-free action is needed

There are 41 different kinds of pesticide (including herbicides, insecticide and fungicides, molluscicides) that are used in towns and cities, and 11 of those are either proven, possible or probable human carcinogens. They also can have significant ecological impacts and carbon footprints. Recently, scientific reports highlighted that within a few decades 1 million species could be threatened with extinction, including 40% of the world's insects. The current widespread loss of insect diversity is alarming, and there is an urgent need to tackle the causal factors in this decline which include habitat loss and the use of pesticides.

I read an article by the Ferret, a fantastic online investigative news outlet, on the number of pesticides being used by Councils in Scotland and I was shocked into action. I also learned more about the human health impacts and the opposition to their use by major workers unions. The article highlighted a small number of councils were cutting back on their use, but the majority were not. My council, Stirling Council was one of those that wasn't and defended this decision by maintaining pesticides could "deliver substantial benefits for society" and argue that banning glyphosate would risk public spaces becoming "more unkempt and less aesthetic".

Red-tailed bumblebee

Red-tailed bumblebee ©Jon Hawkins - Surrey Hills Photography

Starting the campaign and finding alliances

I talked to Pesticide Action Network (PAN) UK who were very helpful with advice and materials which I passed onto my councillors. Then, one Sunday night months later, after a glass of wine, I was emailing my Councillors (again) imploring them to reduce pesticide use in Stirling when I thought I needed to be more pro-active. Therefore, I created the twitter account @PFreeStirling, and I pinched infographic from PAN UK as my profile picture. I just started tweeting local councillors, MPs etc., using the evidence and resources on the PAN UK website.

I started to build up an alliance with PAN UK and with other local groups such as 'On The Verge'. I convinced one of the UK's leading scientists, Prof Dave Goulson to become PFS President – this structure made us seem more official. I asked a friend of mine, Springwatch presenter, Iolo Williams, to lend this support to the campaign.  Alyn Smith, Stirling's MP, also supported the campaign following a productive meeting with myself and our local Green Councillor, Cllr Tollemache. I had momentum!

Dark green fritillary

Dark green fritillary ©Les Binns

How I sustained it and built momentum in the community

The campaign was mostly top-down – during coronavirus, building community support was limited so I played to my strengthens, campaigning. We put in a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the Council requesting information on pesticides usage, spend, even how many times the cut the grass and how much that cost.

I talked to some of the world's leading pesticide-free technology companies Rootwave (Rootwave Pro), Weedingtech (Foamstream) and Kersten (mechanical weeding machines). They were willing to offer the Council demonstrations and trails. This was important. I could highlight the problem and suggest a solution.

I drafted an open letter to the CEO and Leader of the Council (and local press) signed by myself and Prof Goulson. This highlighted reasons why the Council should reduce pesticide use, including the ecological and human health reasons and legal and moral duties, including:

  • The Sustainable Use of Pesticides Directive,
  • The Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act
  • The Scottish Pollinator Action Plan Strategy 2017-2027.
  • Opposition from workers unions
  • Waitrose, B&Q and Dobbies garden Centres delisting glyphosate-based products, including Roundup, because of being implicated in more than 50,000 cancer lawsuits in the US.
  • The Precautionary Principle
  • Pesticide free alternatives

At the same time, the Council had been running a ‘climate conversation survey’ which both ‘On the Verge’ and Pesticide-Free Stirling encouraged our supporters to respond to. On the Verge also created a petition which garnered a lot of support, and again we urged our supporters to sign.  

We sent out a press release which attracted local media attention which caught the councillors eye. The letter got a reply from the Council, who offered to work with me and PAN UK to look at ways to reduce their use of pesticides.

Roadside wildflowers

Roadside wildflowers ©Paul Hobson

What we have achieved and overcoming challenges

Pesticide-Free Stirling worked very constructively with the ‘On the Verge’ Stirling and Councils Senior Land Manager, Bruce Reekie and Councillors Alasdair Tollemache, Danny Gibson and Jim Thomson. 

Very recently, at a meeting of the Environment and Housing Committee, the Council discussed a petition by ‘On the Verge’ about better land management for wildflowers and pollinators. They agreed that the Council would create a new Pollinator Strategy to help wildlife and nature flourish by early 2021. They send out a press release which stated that the “strategy will remodel the way the Council manages greenspaces in order to help wildflowers flourish and support the lives of bees and other pollinators. The plans will cover greenspaces across the Council area, including parks, amenities, cemetery land, road verges and grass sections throughout the city of Stirling.” It stated that among the proposed key action plans are:

  • Grounds maintenance rationalisation – including a business case for cut and collect grass cutting
  • Naturalised areas – principally reduced/altered maintenance grass areas through the use of wildflowers/trees
  • Pesticide use - option for reducing/eliminating pesticide use
  • Verge maintenance – proposals to amend verge maintenance to enhance biodiversity
  • Annual bedding – exploring options including use of wildflowers, hardy annuals and perennials.

Therefore, the Council decided to roll the two proposals from ‘On the Verge’ and Pesticide-Free Stirling. We were over the moon. We will continue to work with the Council to create the new Pollinator Strategy. We hope to convince the Council to have a standalone pesticide policy in part because pesticides don’t only harm wildlife but people also..

Following the success, the campaign has transitioned to Pesticide-Free Scotland. Using Twitter, we garnered support from across Scotland including from other members of the public, campaigners, environmental scientists, public health researchers and environmental organisations. We will write to all Scottish Councils and offer support to other local active groups. Pesticide-Free Scotland will also aim to advocate the Scottish Government on domestic, municipal, and agricultural use of pesticides in Scotland. Pesticide-Free Scotland is hoping to obtain some funding to employ an officer to carry on the momentum and are currently seeking funding. 

Marmalade hoverfly © Chris Lawrence

Marmalade hoverfly © Chris Lawrence

Key lessons learnt for others who want to take action

My top tips and advice for someone trying to do the same in their local area would be:

  1. Do your research on the pesticide usage of the Council (using an Freedom of Information request) and pesticide alternatives? 
  2. Build support via residents (if you can get children and schools asking for it, even better), other local groups, councillors and MPs to advocate for pesticide reform.
  3. Get local press onside and interested in the topic of pesticide usage – even use letters to the editor.
  4. Ask PAN UK for a Pesticide-Free logo personalised for your area.
  5. Write to the Chief Executive and Leader of the Council about pesticides usage, legal obligations, precautionary principle, alternatives and offer demonstrations and trails of pesticide-free alternatives
  6. Hold discussions with the Council's Head of Land Management Services, PAN UK and other important stakeholders. 
  7. Continue steps 2, 3 and 6.

My final advice would be not to give up, we are on the right side of history, every action no matter how small builds momentum. Every email, letter, tweet to your elected officials builds that momentum. Tell your neighbours, friends, schools, workplace etc. why pesticides are poison. Talk to the chaps at PAN UK and other campaigners on PAN's forum for help, advice and inspiration. Remember, if not you, who?

If you want to take action in your local area to help go pesticide-free then check out PAN UK resources here, and The Wildlife Trusts Action for Insects community action guide here for further ways you can help insects.

James Byrne

Blog by James Byrne, Director and founder of Pesticide-Free Scotland