A new study warns that the last remaining habitat for several endangered birdspecies in Europe could reduce by up to 50 per cent in the next century asfarmers convert land to more profitable crops and meet increased demand forproducts such as olive oil and wine.

Low intensive agricultural practices created semi-natural agro-steppes thathold important populations of great bustards, little bustards, lesserkestrels, rollers and other at risk bird species. In the early 2000s severalof these sites were designated as Special Protection Areas (SPAs) for birdconservation and are part of the EU Natura 2000 network of priority areas forconservation.

Researchers at the University of East Anglia (UEA) and University of Lisbonassessed the effectiveness of Natura 2000, the world’s largest protected areanetwork, at conserving Western Europe’s agro-steppes over a 10-year period.The regions in Iberia studied hold approximately a third – or 14-15,000 – ofthe world’s population of great bustards, Otis tarda.

Agro-steppes are characterised by the cultivation of cereal in a low-intensityrotating system. These low yield farmlands are being converted predominatelyto permanent and irrigated crops, which dramatically changes the openlandscapes that provide resources for important bird populations.

Traditional olive groves and vineyards are occasionally used for feeding orresting by great bustards, little bustards or sandgrouses, but the modernversions of these and other permanent crops are intensively managed andinadequate for such birds.

If the current market pressure on agro-steppe habitat conversion ismaintained, it may decline 20 per cent by 2050 and 40 per cent by 2110.Declines will be more severe if the demand for products derived from permanentor irrigated crops continues to increase. For example, with high demand forMediterranean products such as olive oil and wine, agro-steppes within SPAsmay soon be the only areas left to be converted.

The findings, published in the journal Biological Conservation, suggest theNatura 2000 network may have helped prevent losses of approximately 36,000hectares of agro-steppe habitat in Iberia. However, of the 21 SPAs – four inPortugal and 17 in Spain – and surrounding areas surveyed agro-steppe arealosses occurred across all sites. They were 45 per cent lower inside Natura2000 compared to non-protected areas, although Natura 2000 sites still lostover 35,000 hectares of agro-steppe habitat in 10 years – an area that couldhold more than 500 great bustards.

João Gameiro, a PhD student at the Centre for Ecology, Evolution andEnvironmental Changes (cE3c), University of Lisbon, led the study, which usedaerial imagery to classify how agro-steppes have changed from 2004 to 2015. Hesaid: “The Natura 2000 network is the centrepiece of Europe’s biodiversityconservation strategy and has enabled an important comeback of a very diverserange of mammals and birds, including the great bustard and the lesserkestrel.

“However, it is important to consider why losses occurred even within theseprotected sites. This will compromise the positive outcomes of pastconservation efforts and, at the current rate of habitat conversion, agro-steppes could be reduced to 50 per cent of the present area during the nextcentury.”

The researchers suggest that weak enforcement of the restrictions imposed bythe protected area network, insufficient incentives to warrant the co-operation of farmers, and short-term habitat conservation measures, are likelyto affect the success of Natura 2000 sites in the protection of other keyhabitats throughout Europe, especially in human-dominated landscapes whereconservation may often compete with economic activities.

PhD co-supervisor Dr Aldina Franco, of UEA’s School of Environmental Sciencesand Centre for Ecology, Evolution and Conservation, said: “Although ecologicalrestoration has become a priority and a reality in Europe, we are still losingimportant priority habitats for conservation. This study highlights crucialinsufficiencies that need to be addressed to realize the full potential of thenetwork, halt biodiversity loss, and meet the goals of a new globalbiodiversity framework soon to be defined by the UN Convention on BiologicalDiversity.

“It is crucial to develop new agricultural methods and improve agriculturalproductivity to feed an increasing human population. This should reducepressure on the conversion of natural habitats into new agricultural areas.

“However, at the same time, we also need to allocate large areas of land toless intensive agricultural methods where human activities are compatible withthe persistence of wider countryside species and deliver a variety ofecosystem services and resilience. Finding this balance is a challenge forhumanity.”

The researchers also warn that the greater farmland conversions outsideprotected sites may transform the remaining agro-steppes into isolated‘islands’ restricted to protected areas, with low population connectivity.Maintaining connectivity is important for population viability and tofacilitate dispersal, which is particularly significant in light of climatechange.

They add that in agro-steppes and other human-dominated landscapes, farmersmay have to diversify their economic activities to remain economically viable,a process that should be funded by agro-environment financial methods.

‘Effectiveness of the European Natura 2000 network at protecting WesternEurope’s agro-steppes João Gameiro, Joao Paulo Silva, Aldina M.A.Franco, JorgeM.Palmeirim, is published in Biological Conservation on Friday July 10.

Image: Otis tarda_great bustard (2)_credit João Gameiro.JPG

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