In 1958, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong, launched the Four Pests Campaign against rats, mosquitoes, flies and sparrows. This was part of his ‘Great Leap Forward’ strategy and the objective of the ‘Four Pests Campaign’ was to improve the health and hygiene of the Chinese population.
Each ‘pest’ had its own campaign and The Great Sparrow Campaign or Kill Sparrows Campaign, was intended to improve crop yields, which, it was thought, were being depleted by ‘sparrows’ feeding on them. The message was simple: kill the ‘sparrows’ and you will all have more food to eat. Whatever the focus of the campaign, I imagine the result was that all small birds associated with rural China ended up in the firing line: Tree Sparrows, House Sparrows, buntings, pipits, larks, you name it.
Above: Tree Sparrows thrive in traditional farmland – untidy for want of a better word rather than manicured. Paul Sterry/Nature Photographers Ltd
A malnourished rural population was motivated and galvanised into action. The instructions handed down from the ruling party were to shoot birds, destroy eggs and kill young birds in their nests. In addition, whole communities were encouraged to work together (tens of thousands in some areas) to create noise and disturbance that would keep the birds in the air until they died of exhaustion or dehydration. Pots and pans were banged together, people ran at birds as soon as the landed, and large sticks were waved about the air, all with the celebratory mood of a nation that was moving towards better times.
Such was the success of this campaign that China eliminated ‘sparrows’ (and presumably other passerine farmland birds as well) within two years. However, once the rejoicing had settled down the people could see that far from greater crop yields, the crops were being destroyed at a far greater rate and on a much greater scale.
Above: The House Sparrow – another species in Mao’s sights. Paul Sterry/Nature Photographers Ltd
What was happening? Insects were eating the crops.
It was only then that someone pointed out that the diet of sparrows was about 75% insects and 25% grain. Without predators the insects were rampaging through the countryside wreaking havoc on crops, which ultimately contributed to the Great Chinese Famine; this claimed the lives of an estimated 20 million people, or many more, depending on the source you refer to.
The Chinese people had managed to upset the ecological balance of nature and for that they paid the ultimate price.
Above: A significant proportion of the world’s Little Buntings winter in China. Being superficially sparrow-like and feeding on seeds (as well as insects) they were presumably the object of persecution during the ‘Kill Sparrows Campaign’. Paul Sterry/Nature Photographers Ltd
This story is never far from my mind and came to the fore on a blustery day in late June when I visited the coastal RSPB reserve at Mersehead on the Solway Firth. The wind was so fierce that a walk around the reserve was more like a physical workout than bird watching but away from the gusts and just a few hundred yards from the visitor centre was a small population of Tree Sparrows (Passer montanus). I had only seen Tree Sparrows on a few occasions before and knew that they were most easily identified by the dark spot on their cheek. I also knew that they were in decline in the UK, and like so many other birds that feed on both seeds and insects, they were being squeezed out of their natural habitat by a food system that favours synthetic chemicals and profit margins over wildlife.
Above: A Tree Sparrow at RSPB’s Mersehead Reserve – one of the lucky ones in contemporary British farming. Andrew Cameron/Nature Photographers Ltd
The story came to mind again last week when I read the October edition of British Wildlife magazine. There was an article on insect decline, a topic that greatly interests me although I’m no scientist. What struck me was a comment about organic farming: ‘It may also be that, if all agriculture was organic, pests and diseases would increase, as currently most organic farms are situated close to neighbouring farms that suppress these with pesticides.’ I’m sure the author is far more qualified than I am to comment on such matters, but I would have thought there would be a positive correlation between reduced pesticide use and increased bird populations, specifically birds that feed on insects, such as the humble sparrow? Wouldn’t these birds, if allowed to thrive, fulfil a valuable role in managing the insect pests?
I was also alarmed to read another article on organic farming in the journal Nature. The conclusion of which was: ‘There are undoubted local environmental benefits to organic farming practices, including soil C [carbon] storage, reduced exposure to pesticides and improved biodiversity. However, these potential benefits need to be set against the requirement for greater production elsewhere.’ The argument and logical extension here seemed to be that organic farming yields would lead to starvation because we simply couldn’t produce enough food to support the obesity crisis.
Sometimes I despair when, in Britain, it seems like we are mounting our own, unspoken Four Pests Campaign, failing to appreciate the consequences of our actions, occasionally in the full knowledge of what will happen. Nowadays of course it’s not just four ‘pests’ being targeted, it’s many more. With this kind of thinking it won’t be long before we’re advised that we’ll be better off without any wildlife at all. So if I was a sparrow my advice to my fellow passerines regarding humans would be ‘save yourself, kill them all‘.