Skip to main content

A microcosm approach to the detection of the effects of herbicide spray drift in plant communities

Journal of Environmental Management


It is often difficult to measure and predict the impacts of toxic chemicals, such as herbicides, on natural communities. This is especially true under conditions of spray drift when the amount received by the organisms downwind from the sprayer may be at sub-lethal doses. Laboratory experiments are either artificial, or have not been generally carried out over long enough time periods, to be realistic. Field experiments are often difficult because of the high variability inherent in natural populations. Here an intermediate microcosm approach was used, where standardized artificial communities (eight dicotyledons with and without a grass) were tested. The artifical communities included species typical of British woodland margins, hedgerows and field margins; communities with a high conservation interest, yet potentially under threat from spray drift. The microcosms were placed downwind of a sprayer and exposed to one of the following herbicides: glyphosate, mecoprop and MCPA. This approach ensures that the communities were standardized at the start and have been exposed to realistic doses of herbicide. The experiments reported here were carried out for at least three years with exposures to herbicides repeated each year. The effects of differential herbicide exposure downwind of the sprayer were measured on species yield, flowering performance, seed production, seed viability and invasion by new species. Responses were extremely variable, but all species showed some effects in some years. Some patterns emerged. For example, one group of species appeared to be more successful near to the sprayer. This was particularly true of the grass when exposed to MCPA and mecoprop. The performance of most species was reduced under the sprayer, and there was a general recovery with increasing distance downwind. A few species showed increased performance in the intermediate downwind zone (2-4 m) and this may be due to a hormonal effect on growth processes, or an effect of reduced interference from other community members. Generally there were few effects on seed production or seed viability. An important result was that most effects were confined within an 8 m zone, as there were few significant differences between plants exposed at 8 m and those untreated. Although damaging effects were found in the immediate downwind zone from the sprayer, the restriction of effects to 8 m suggests that a buffer zone of this size would be adequate to protect sensitive habitats from most deleterious impacts on community processes. (C) 1997 Academic Press Limited.

Author(s): Marrs, RH; Frost, AJ

Journal: Journal of Environmental Management

Year: 1997