Europe and Central Asia
2 Sep 2015

Migrant birds losing breeding grounds to poor farm management

“Species and habitats depending on agricultural ecosystems are doing worse than general assessments” states an EEA report. Photo: Pierre Commenville
By Trees Robijns

When you read the words “summer holidays”, you probably associate them with travel, the beach, bucolic landscapes and relaxation. If migratory birds that breed in Europe before flying off to warmer places in the autumn – like swallows or Montagu’s Harrier – could speak, their responses would be very different.

Farmland is a very important habitat for migratory birds: Up to 65% of species use it at some stage during their life cycle. But what these birds encounter here does not sound very relaxing. “Species and habitats depending on agricultural ecosystems are doing worse than general assessments” state the EEA’s ‘State of the Environment in Europe’ report.

With widespread intensification of landscapes and farm management with an industrial character, dramatic decline in the quality and quantity of grasslands and loss of space for nature, Member States have also reported agriculture to be one of the main threats to migratory birds and BirdLife International has identified expansion and intensification of agriculture as the main threat to almost 80% of globally threatened and Near Threatened migratory land and waterbird species. All this is happening despite numerous efforts to improve the situation.

Against the doom and gloom stand the Birds and Habitats Directives. These policies have proven their worth and importance in protecting species, but they need to be implemented better, especially on farmland. On the other hand, another piece of legislation: the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is more of a hindrance than a help.

The CAP was recently reformed, ostensibly to make it more environment-friendly (and justify the huge investment of public money going into it). At the heart of the reform is the so-called ‘greening’, officially introduced this year. It asks farmers to respect three measures: grassland protection, crop diversity and keeping 5% of the farms in nature-friendly use (ecological focus areas), such as hedgerows and flower strips.

To incentivise farmers to follow these environmentally beneficial practices, 30% of the income support they receive from the EU is now conditional on the farmers implementing these measures.

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If well implemented, these could make a huge difference for our migratory species and farmland birds in general by improving the quality of European farmland. However, overviews by the European Commission show Member States are implementing these measures unevenly, by making use of the staggering array of options, derogations and loopholes introduced into the legislation. So it seems unlikely they will achieve any environmental success from it. 

For example: Almost all Member States chose to allow the growing of nitrogen-fixing crops in ecological focus areas instead of dedicating this measure to natural, undisturbed features like landscape elements. When a landscape is dominated by crops, what we need is not more crops, but more space for nature without spraying of pesticides or other disturbances that is needed for wildlife.

Only around half of the Member States chose to designate a significant amount of grasslands in Natura 2000 sites as environmentally sensitive, thereby granting them extra protection. It is worrying that the other half of these environmentally sensitive grasslands is thereby left without decent protection from potentially harmful farm management.

BirdLife hopes therefore that the European Commission’s upcoming biodiversity mid-term review demands a strong evaluation of the biodiversity outcomes from the CAP and charts a path for correcting at least the most glaring forms of abuse. Without a radical change of course, our migratory guests will continue to find an ever less welcoming landscape when summer comes.

Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.