Agriculture and biodiversity in the EU
Farmland made up 40% of EU-25 land area in 2005 (Agreste, 2008) and farming therefore plays a key role in providing habitats for a wide range of wildlife. Biodiversity has evolved around farming for centuries; the diverse range of habitats and species in traditional agricultural landscapes, have provided invaluable aesthetic values and public benefits like countryside character, and ecosystem services covering soil, water and air quality.
The drivers of farmland biodiversity decline
Sadly, the complete focus on commercial production in the past 50 years, partly driven by the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), has significantly contributed to a shift from extensively-managed croplands and pastures to intensive, large-scale, high-input and heavily mechanised farmlands. The loss of natural and semi-natural habitats across Europe threatens farmland biodiversity. The farmland bird index, which as an indicator of the health of European farmland ecosystems and wildlife as a whole, include common farmland birds like corn bunting, goldfinch, lapwing and skylark, have declined by almost 50% in the past 25 years (Pan-European Common Bird Monitoring Scheme, 2007).
Loss of natural and semi-natural habitats
In agricultural landscapes, permanent grassland, fallow, and landscape features like hedgerows, tree lines, wetlands and ponds, pockets of native vegetation/scrub, etc. provide valuable habitat diversity and resources for wildlife. Farmland birds use these farmed habitats to nest and feed themselves and their chicks, as crops provide seeds and host a variety of insects, other invertebrates and small mammals.
However, such natural and semi-natural habitats are the first to disappear when farming intensifies, and are replaced with large area of single-species crop. Together with intensive agricultural practices, the loss of habitats is responsible for wildlife decline across the EU (Donald et al., 2006; Reidsma et al., 2006).
In order to boost yield, farmers have been using intensive agricultural practices such as heavy use of pesticides and fertilisers, large-scale irrigation, multiple cropping and heavy machinery, leading to the degradation of agricultural and semi-natural habitats, causing declines in biodiversity across huge areas. Farmland birds declined severely across most of the intensively farmed European countries between 1970-1990, particularly the old Member States which have been under the CAP for a longer period (BirdLife International, 2004), This declining trend continued into 1990-2000, and is strongly correlated to farming intensity, with wheat yield being highly correlated with the negative trend of 19 significantly declining farmland species (Donald et al., 2006).
New EU Member States, on other hand, still contain relatively healthy populations of farmland birds due to their retainment of traditional farming systems. This form of farming is now under threat from intensification and development, as well as abandonment, with similar declines in the diversity and abundance of their farmland bird species are likely to follow.
Abandonment of farmland
Due to the modernisation of agriculture, farming activities increasingly focus on more fertile and accessible land, leading to a decline in traditional labour intensive practices and the abandonment of less productive agricultural land. Also, socio-economic reasons have caused a depopulation of rural areas; this phenomenon is getting more widespread in new Member States, particularly in mountainous regions and in so-called Less Favoured Areas (LFA). Farm abandonment has resulted in invasion of scrub and trees leading to a loss of farm habitats. Such loss of High Nature Value (HNV) farming has serious consequences on wildlife living in farm habitats, both in terms of abundance and species composition (Reif et al., 2008; Russo, 2006).
Climate change is the greatest emerging challenge people and wildlife face. Avoiding dangerous levels of change will require a reduction in emissions of CO2 of 80% by 2050 (based on 1990 levels). Farming is responsible for approximately 9% of EU greenhouse gas emissions (EC, 2008a), this compares with around 21% from the entire transport sector (while excluding indirect emissions such as those from production of animal feed outside the EU); reducing emissions through better farming practices and sustainable land management are needed to contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation.
Climate change will pose significant adaptation challenges to biodiversity and farmers as new climatic conditions evolve. Wildlife will be forced to adapt rapidly to a changing climate by coping with new climatic conditions. However, the expansion of intensive farmland has lead to habitat fragmentation and elimination of corridors and transitionary habitats, which wildlife needs to shift location to stay within climatically suitable conditions (Huntley et al., 2007). Moreover, extreme weather events and decreased water availability throughout Europe, particularly in southern Member States, will place serious stress on farming and wildlife. Homogenous landscape created by intensive farming will only further limit the ability of people and wildlife to adapt to climate change. (more on climate change)
Russo, D. (2006) Effects of land abandonment on animal species in Europe: conservation and management implication
AGRESTE (2008) European agriculture in figures. Available at: http://agreste.agriculture.gouv.fr/english_version_282/dossiers_555/index.html
BirdLife International (2004) State of the world’s birds 2004: indicators for our changing world. Cambridge, UK: BirdLife International. Available at: http://www.birdlife.org/action/science/sowb/pdf_contents.html
Donald, P.F. et al. (2006) Further evidence of continent-wide impacts of agricultural intensification on European farmland birds, 1990-2000. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environmental 116: 189-196.
European Commission (2008a) Agriculture and climate change. http://ec.europa.eu/agriculture/climate_change/index_en.htm
Huntley, B. et al (2008) A Climatic Atlas of European Breeding Birds. Durham University, RSPB, Lynx Edicions.
Pan-European Common Bird Monitoring Scheme (2007) State of Europe’s Common Birds, 2007. CSO/RSPB, Prague, Czech Republic. http://www.ebcc.info/wpimages/video/StateEuropeCommonBirds2007.pdf
Reidsma, P. et al (2006) Impacts of land-use change on biodiversity: As assessment of agricultural biodiversity in the European Union. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 114: 86-102.
Reif, J. et al. (2008) Agricultural intensification and farmland birds: new insights from a central European country. Ibis 150 (3): 596-605.
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