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Europe and Central Asia

Why agriculture is the greatest threat to European biodiversity

By Christina Ieronymidou and Sanya Khetani-Shah, 12 Oct 2015

In Europe, farming has transformed the natural landscape over millennia. Today, around 40% of land area is under agricultural use, and it is estimated that more than half of European species use farmland habitats. So it is not surprising that agriculture has a profound influence on the biodiversity of Europe.

This is why it is shocking that EU Member States themselves have identified agriculture as the single greatest threat to biodiversity.

The numbers

The EU Farmland Bird Indicator reveals that populations of common farmland birds in the EU (such as the European Turtle Dove and the Goldfinch) have declined by 57% since 1980, with worse declines seen in the countries that have been in the EU the longest.

The EU State of Nature report shows that farming-related activities (modification of cultivation practices and changes in grazing regimes) are the most prominent pressures and threats to birds. For non-bird species covered by the Habitats Directive, agriculture is in the top two most frequently reported high-ranked pressures and threats. For habitats: fertilisation and changes in grazing by livestock are the most frequently reported high-ranked pressures and threats.

The same report also shows that more than half of bird species associated with agricultural and grassland habitats are in unfavourable conservation status in the EU (25% are Threatened and 28% are Near Threatened, Declining or Depleted), while the European Red List of Birds shows that this is the most threatened group of birds in Europe.

So what’s going on with agriculture in Europe?

Changes in land use, and agricultural expansion and intensification (see examples below) is now widely seen by the scientific community as the main cause of the decline in farmland bird species since the 1970s. In marginal or mountain areas, abandonment of farmland is the main culprit.

The main drivers of declines vary by region: northern and western Europe are affected by increased use of fertilisers and biocides, and changes in crops and crop rotations; in central and Eastern Europe, it is management intensity (using more funds, labour and innovative practices to increase crop yield and reduce time the land lies fallow. Fallow land is an important bird breeding ground.); in the Mediterranean: intensification and abandonment of farmland.

Aren’t there EU laws to stop this?

One of the major drivers of agricultural change is the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The CAP has resulted in the abandoning of traditional low-intensity farming (where land lies fallow between periods of cultivation) for more intense industrial-level agriculture, which has negatively impacted biodiversity.

Successive reforms of the CAP have sought to mitigate its impact on biodiversity, and had been moving towards measures that could actually make a difference, like linking the payment of agricultural subsidies with the implementation of agri-environment measures, which support environmentally-friendly farming practices. However, thanks to poor implementation, loopholes and lack of funding, their effectiveness suffers.

In a big setback, the 2014 ‘reform’ of the CAP delivered an essentially empty set of greening measures, both in terms of land coverage and environmental content. Scientists concluded that the new ‘greening’ rules would not drive the delivery of environmental public goods to any meaningful extent and would therefore not contribute to the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy.

But when we want to, we can get it right and make it work

The RSPB’s “Hope” Farm, a profitable, arable 450-acre farm in Cambridgeshire, UK, demonstrates that appropriate measures, including agri-environment schemes and wildlife-friendly farming practices, are not a hindrance to maintaining a profitable farm.

The farmland is a mix of crops, pastures, hedgerows and woodland. Good practice farming such as cutting hedgerows and ditches just once every three years (to protect bird nesting and feeding places), coupled with creation of insect- and seed-rich habitats have helped increase bird numbers and attracted new species to breed on the farm.

Since the purchase of the farm in 2000, breeding bird numbers have increased by 140%, and the numbers of skylark, linnet and yellowhammer (all of which are Declining in the EU) have tripled, showing that well-planned and well-implemented measures can be effective in halting or even reversing biodiversity declines.