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SCOTLAND’S forests are being treated and sprayed every year with hundreds of kilograms of a toxic pesticide blamed for killing bees and butterflies, The Ferret can reveal.

An 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 now 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 £1bn 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 because of evidence that they could endanger bees and other pollinators – but this didn’t 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 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.

“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.

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”.

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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. 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.”

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 pointed out that pesticide use by the majority of commercial forestry was regulated by the Forestry Stewardship Council, which was backed by environmental groups.

“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.

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.”

CASE STUDY: 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 May 14 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.

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.

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.

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency said it had supported other agencies in investigations. Jim Frame, unit manager for Argyll and Bute, added: “Sepa is satisfied that there is no evidence of significant harm to the environment.

“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.”

Minister should be told to 'draw in his horns' says leaked email

RURAL economy minister, Fergus Ewing, should get his cabinet colleague, Michael Russell, to “draw in his horns” and stop trying to ban toxic pesticides, according to a leaked email from a leading forester.

Raymond Henderson, head of forestry and partner at the £44m property firm, Bidwells, mistakenly copied to a critic what were meant to be private comments to a forestry industry colleague. The comments were subsequently shared with Ewing and Russell.

Russell’s immediate response was fierce, telling Henderson that his email was “offensive” and to “step away from the keyboard”. There is no record of any response from Ewing.

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The correspondence happened on April 26, and arose from disputes over the use of forestry pesticides on the island of Mull. Henderson emailed a colleague commenting on a bid by some in the local community, backed by Argyll and Bute MSP Russell, to curb pesticides because of the risks they posed.

“We have to hope that Fergus Ewing will get tired of seeing this nonsense and either back the industry up in a statement or get Mike Russell to draw in his horns and issue a statement that he now understands that use of approved chemicals is safe and legitimate,” wrote Henderson.

Unfortunately he clicked on “reply to all” and inadvertently copied his email to a local anti-pesticide campaigner, Rachel Watt, who then circulated it to Russell, Ewing and others.

Russell responded by telling Henderson his email was offensive. “No one will be 'getting me to draw my horns in' (as you put it) and I am sure Fergus Ewing, whom I have known well for years, will be very concerned to hear that a private land agent thinks he has the power to make that happen,” he emailed.

“I will not be bullied, hectored or talked down to, and nor I believe will my constituents. The days in which the land agent can browbeat lesser mortals for daring to question his absolute power are well and truly over.”

Russell added: “A final piece of advice, if I may. Step away from the keyboard and restrain yourself if you are considering replying to this. I think you would be wise to take some time to consider if your actions to date do anything to further the interests of your clients, your company or yourself.”

Henderson did not comment on his remarks about Ewing and Russell. “In this instance, one email has been taken out of context from the many that have gone before and indeed after, he said.

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