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Analysis, occurrence and effects of flubendazole in moorland river catchments

Dr Paul Kay (SoG), Dr Richard Ansell (SoC), Prof Jeanette Rotchell (Chemistry, Hull)

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Moorland areas are very important worldwide and are found, for example, in the British Isles, Russia, Canada, Scandinavia, New Zealand, Tasmania, Japan and South America (Holden et al., 2007). The need to conserve these environments is exemplified by the fact that many have been given national and international conservation designations to protect habitats and priority species. In addition to biodiversity, they are internationally important for water supply, carbon storage, agriculture, forestry and tourism (Thompson et al., 1995; Holden et al., 2007; Curtis et al., 2014). Sport shooting is a popular human activity on moorlands and, in England and Wales alone for example, it is estimated that 0.28 million ha of upland are managed as grouse moorland (Grant et al., 2012) primarily for shooting.

Man-made chemicals have recently (since 2000) started to be used on grouse moors to maintain grouse populations because parasitic nematode worms (Trichostrongylus tenuis) reduce their breeding success. This is done either via medicated grit or dosing of captured birds (Newborn and Foster, 2002). The use of grit containing the anthelmintic (worming) chemical flubendazole is widespread (Ceballos et al., 2012) and its addition to moorlands for birds to eat (Figure 1) may release flubendazole into the environment as could excretion of unabsorbed residues by the birds; 50 % of the administered dose is excreted unchanged (Kreuzig et al., 2007; Weiss et al., 2008). Whilst specific data are lacking on the extent to which grouse grit is applied to the moors, it has been suggested that this happens at a landscape scale in some areas (Grant et al., 2012) but the impacts on the environment are currently unstudied (Watson and Moss, 2008; Grant et al., 2012). During preliminary work, we have already found flubendazole at high concentrations in Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, UK. Soil samples spread across three different grouse moors contained concentrations ranging between 150 and 850 µg kg-1 dry soil. This is of the same order of magnitude as peak concentrations of veterinary medicines found in agricultural soils following manure application (Kay et al., 2004). These agricultural concentrations are significant enough to have driven the development of policy to better manage the presence of veterinary medicines in the environment (EC, 2001) and it is expected that the proposed work would lead to further development of this policy, specifically risk assessment procedures, for moorlands.

Figure 1. Grouse grit medicated with flubendazole applied on a moorland which was monitored in preliminary work. The grit is the white substance on the soil and in the grey plastic tray.

This project will provide a robust dataset describing the presence of flubendazole in moorland catchments.

Only a few previous studies have attempted to measure flubendazole in the environmental (e.g. Kreuzig et al., 2007) and none of these have dealt with organic-rich moorland soils and water which pose particular analytical challenges given that the peat and organomineral soils found on moorlands are excellent adsorbents of organic compounds. The increased levels of organic matter limit extractability and it is necessary to remove naturally occurring organic molecules like lignins, pigments and phenols in order to reduce interferences during analysis. We have already found that molecularly imprinted polymers (MIPs) work better than commercially available extraction cartridges for analysing flubendazole. MIPs have previously proved to be very valuable for the selective extraction of test substances from samples (Horvat et al., 2012). This project will optimise the MIP for selectivity, binding strength and capacity and transfer the analytical method to our recently purchased Liquid Chromatography-Time of Flight-Mass Spectrometry (LC-TOF-MS) instrument, which should afford further increases in sensitivity. The method produced would be the state of the art for analysis of flubendazole (and other anthelmintics) in organic-rich environments.

No work has been undertaken previously to quantify the effects of flubendazole, or other anthelmintic chemicals, in moorland environments, although the limited research in other areas (e.g. agricultural catchments) indicates that impacts will occur to important terrestrial and aquatic species at the concentrations measured in our preliminary work (Oh et al., 2006). Given the designation of many moorland environments as important national and international conservation sites it is therefore highly pertinent to address this research gap and controlled laboratory experiments will provide these data. This will allow the use of flubendazole on moorlands to be managed better, if need be, to limit any impacts on the environment, the ecosystem services provided, and meet national and international environmental management policies.


The overall aim of the project is to understand whether the use of flubendazole to medicate grouse in moorland catchments is leading to the presence of this emerging pollutant in soil and water and having impacts on terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. The specific objectives are to:

  1. Improve the analysis of flubendazole in moorland soils and water using molecularly imprinted polymers
  2. Measure the occurrence of flubendazole in moorland soils and water
  3. Characterise and quantify the biological effects of flubendazole on soil and water organisms

Potential for high impact outcome

Emerging contaminants in the environment is currently a particularly hot topic which makes this project of potentially very high impact. There is also considerable debate as to whether current grouse moor management regimes are environmentally sustainable. We therefore expect publication in top journals and considerable media interest.


The successful candidate will benefit from inter-disciplinary training in analytical chemistry, hydrochemistry and ecotoxicology as part of water@leeds and the Aquatic Toxicology group at Hull. Training at Leeds deals fully with the elements described in the Joint Research Centre statement on skills training for research students. PhD students take modules provided by the staff development unit (e.g. starting your PhD, small group teaching) and a 15-week faculty-training course (covering elements such as planning, critical reading and writing, oral presentations, writing research papers). Students present results and receive constructive feedback from peers in a Research Support Group, from colleagues in water@leeds, and at a university postgraduate research day. An additional important part of the training will be to attend national and international conferences to present results and gain feedback. The student will be encouraged to write and submit papers for publication during the project.

Student profile

Suitable candidates will have, or be close to gaining, a good degree (1 or 2.1) or MSc in a suitable discipline, such as geography, environmental science, chemistry or biology. A background in hydrology, water management, chemistry and hydroecology would be useful, although experience will be developed during the course of the project.


Ceballos, L. et al. (2012). BMC Vet. Med., 8, 71

Curtis, C. et al. (2014). Ecol. Indic., 37, 412

EC. (2001). Directive 2001/82/EC

Holden, J. (2007). Earth Sci. Rev., 82, 75

Horvat, AJM et al. (2012). TrAC, 31, 61

Grant, M. (2012). RSPB Research Report 43

Kay, P. et al. (2004). Environ. Toxicol. Chem., 23(5), 1136

Kreuzig R et al. (2007). Clean, 35(5), 488

Newborn, D. and Foster, R. (2002). J. Appl. Ecol., 39, 909

Oh SJ et al. (2006). Environ. Toxicol. Chem., 25(8), 2221

Thompson, D. (1995). Biol. Conservation., 71, 163

Watson, A. and Moss, R. (1998). Grouse. Collins, London

Weiss K et al. (2008). Chemosphere, 72, 1292

Related undergraduate subjects:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Environmental science
  • Geography