Birds benefit from agri-environment schemes
7 May 2010, by Sara Coelho
Twenty years of agri-environment schemes designed to protect biodiversity from intensive farming have succeeded in boosting bird species and population, according to a survey of Peak District farms.
Agri-environment schemes were put in place in the 1990s to promote ways to farm the land for food that are also friendly to natural habitats. One of the main goals of the programme was to protect wildlife and flora from intensive farming.
Despite the effort, there has until now been limited evidence that the schemes do indeed benefit biodiversity. 'Our aim was to assess if the agri-environment schemes enhance bird biodiversity or not,' says ecologist Dr Martin Dallimer from the University of Sheffield.
To do this, Dallimer and colleagues headed to the Peak District, a National Park and popular tourist destination. They walked through 29 farms and surveyed 346 fields, counting the different species and recording the number of birds.
Each field was also classified according to the kind of landscape around the field, if it belonged to an agri-environment scheme or not, and if the field was farmed intensively or kept some "semi-natural" characteristics.
Intensively farmed fields are easy to spot. 'They are fertilised, bright-green fields with only a few grass species selected by the farmer to enhance grazing,' says Dallimer. Semi-natural fields are still managed for food production, but they are fertilised less, grazing is not so intense and the vegetation is more varied.
The team reports in Biology Letters that they found 76 bird species during the survey, including 16 species typical of upland habitats, such as the curlew, and 36 species of conservation concern such as the lapwing.
They found that birds are more common in fields included in an agri-environment scheme, but this is especially true of areas surrounded by other fields covered by the scheme. More importantly for conservation, this was true for both upland specialist birds and species of concern.
The type of field is also important: 'intensively farmed fields have fewer birds,' says Dallimer. This is because these fields can receive high amounts of fertiliser to feed more sheep and cattle – conditions that don't suit the birds.
'We have demonstrated that fields surrounded by a greater proportion of land in agri-environment schemes have higher abundances of upland specialists and species of conservation concern,' says Dallimer. 'This shows that the scheme is indeed beneficial to biodiversity.'
M. Dallimer, K.J. Gaston, A.M. J. Skinner, N. Hanley, S. Acs, P.R. Armsworth. Field-level bird abundances are enhanced by landscape-scale agri-environment scheme uptake. Biology Letters, published online April 2010. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2010.0228
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