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Research on Threatened Species


(1) Centro Tecnológico Forestal de Cataluña (CTFC), (2) Estación Experimental de Zonas Áridas (CSIC), (3) Instituto de Investigación en Recursos Cinegéticos (CSIC), (4) Universidad de Lleida (UDL), (5) Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona (UAB), (6) Instituto Catalán de Ornitología (ICO)

Endangered birds and farming: new conservation strategy approaches

The sustainable development of farming and conservation of the associated bird life may call for new approaches that harmonise socioeconomic interests with nature conservation in a particular habitat, in a way that integrates conservation activities with farming practices.

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Farming and biodiversity
In many of the world’s regions, traditional farming systems possess consider­able biological value. As a result of farming’s expansion over thousands of years, the preservation of a large number of species currently depends on land dedicated to food production. This is particularly HIGHLIGHTSProfile: The Steppeahead project’s researchers
significant in certain regions, such as Europe, where agricultural systems occupy a large share of the land surface. These systems, the result of human action based on pastoralism and trad­itional farming practices, have arisen on land that has historically been farmed extensively, leading highly mixed landscapes able to support a wide variety of species.

However, over the last few decades, socioeconomic changes and developments in farming technology have exerted power pressure on these systems, resulting in a serious threat to the species occupying them, primarily due to a dual large-scale process of intensification and abandonment.

Intensification of farming has resulted in a loss of habitat quality for many biotic groups. / Photo: Carlos Cortés.

On the one hand, zones with greatest agricultural potential in many industrialised countries have been profoundly altered by changes in production systems. For example, increased mechanisation of farming, greater use of pesticides and fertilisers, increased average field sizes and the rise of monoculture across a farm or landscape. This set of changes, known as agricultural intensification and intended to obtain more output per hectare farmed, has at the same time produced a degradation of habi­tat quality for many biotic groups (vertebrates, flora, arthropods, etc.) and is today considered one of the main causes of biodiversity loss in many industrialised countries. In parallel with agricultural intensification, in many countries, zones with lower agricultural potential have suffered a process of abandonment of farming and stock rearing activities, linked to a process of The aim is to get back to the idea of farming systems as complex socioecological systemsmigration of rural populations to towns and cities. This rural exodus has caused a gradual change in forest habitats in formerly farmed areas, with a net loss of the quantity (area) of this kind of habitat. Unless the negative impacts of these two processes can be managed in time, farming systems in many regions of the planet will shrink or suffer greater degradation, resulting in an increase in the number of threatened species.

In Europe, in recent years birds have frequently been found to be one of the taxonomic groups hardest hit by changes in farmed environments. Many species have seen the habitats they need to breed and feed in these envir­onments altered or reduced and have suffered a significant decline in their populations and areas of distribution. These declines have been rapid, massive and often widespread, with populations that have lost as many as 80% of their members and distribution in less than 20 years. Today, 80% of species depending on these environments in Europe have an unfavourable conservation status. The ability to halt and reverse the effects of past, present and future changes in farming on biodiversity in agricultural systems will largely depend on European Union (EU) and national farming policies, market demand, and the importance society attaches to maintaining natural values in these highly humanised systems.

A rethink of the effectiveness of traditional biodiversity conservation measures and their socio-economic sustainability is called for. / Photo: Carlos Cortés.

Conservation strategies in highly humanised environments
To date, most policy and legis­lative mechanisms available for bird conservation in Europe’s extensively farmed landscapes have mainly been based on designating agricultural spaces in the NATURA 2000 network and envir­onmental compensating mechanisms. These measures have sought to preserve traditional practices and the most natural and commercially least productive –but environmentally most beneficial– habitats by means of compensation payments to farmers. In particular, the specific weight given to agro-environmental measures has been boosted by the gradual incorporation of decoupling and conditionality in the subsidies to farmers included in the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) strategy since its reform in 2003. This has meant that there has been a change in the way Europe supports its farming industry. Farmers no longer Regions with greatest agricultural potential have been profoundly altered by changes in production systemsreceive support simply for producing food. Direct aid in proportion to output has been eliminated, reducing the incentives for agricultural intensification, and the single payment system has been introduced, which is subject to meeting legal and management requirements regarding environmental protection, public health, animal welfare, and good farming and environmental conditions.

Although the joint strategy has been often been presented as being the most appropriate for the conservation of biodiversity in farming systems, the results seem to suggest that it has been insufficient, in general terms, to reverse or offset the negative trends affecting many biotic groups observed in recent decades. This calls for a rethink of the effectiveness of traditional biodiversity conservation measures and their socio-economic sustainability. Efforts to preserve the uses and practices of the past, on the basis of economic incentives alone, do not seem to be able of themselves to maintain and ensure the viability of the system over the long term, particularly bearing in mind current socio-economic pressures and the new emerging technological opportunities. Economic incentives linked to conservation may mean these envir­onmentally interesting production systems are only attractive thanks to the persistence of aid, with the upshot that if these external payments disappear, the agricultural practices they are artificially maintaining will do so too.

The Sustainable development of farming and conservation of the associated birdlife may therefore call for new approaches seeking to harmonise socioeconomic interests and nature conservation in these systems, by making conservation activities an integral part of farming practices. It should not be forgotten that farmed landscapes are more dependent on human activity than other systems. Therefore, more than ever, conservation actions should be aimed at preserving the socio­economic system supporting the habitat of species of interest and not so much at maintaining forced conservation measures that are often divorced from the reality of the farming system in which they are supposed to be implemented. In short, in these systems the conservation biology of the future needs to integrate the social and economic reality of these environments and the human activities taking place in them to ensure they are sustain­able over time, confronting the challenge of the intrinsic dynamic of humanised landscapes and giving up, in part, the conservatism underlying the traditional paradigm of conservation, based on the existence of stable unspoiled natural systems.

Now is the time to ask ourselves whether it is possible, realistic or even desirable to try to conserve the biodiversity of these environments by focusing solely on maintaining more or less strict control over the traditional farming practices and uses or whether other alternative activities could also safeguard their biodiversity. Thus, new approaches are therefore being proposed for their conservation based on their active change and adaptation. From this viewpoint, conservation strat­egies should aim to stimulate and help farmers find new activities or ways of obtaining direct benefits from the conservation of nature, facili­tating an active process of social transformation. These new activities should maintain the structure and function of traditional farming systems, but at the same time allow for the socio-economic development of these environments. The aim is therefore to get back to the idea of farming systems as complex socioecological systems, in which socio­economic and natural realities are closely intertwined, and where the only way to be able to achieve sustainable development is by addressing these two realities jointly again. It is therefore necessary to develop methodologies that allow the environmental, economic and agricultural consequences of these new activities to be evaluated, offering perceptions of different farming scenarios to facili­tate decision-making.

New decision-making methods
As we have seen, the farmed environment is a highly dynamic and variable system over the short-to-medium term. Managing the impact that changes in farming can have on the environment and birds requires the development of methods allowing the impact of these changes to be predicted even before they are applied. This is one of the lines of work in the Steppeahead project funded by the Fundación CSIC and Banco Santander. This is a multidisciplinary project in which biologists (Catalonia Forestry Technology This method aims to bring farming practices into conservation studies from the outsetCentre and the Institute of Hunting Resources), agronomists (University of Lleida) and economists (Barcelona Autonomous University) are taking part. Its aim is to develop new approaches that will make it possible to improve the conservation of threatened species in highly humanised farmed landscapes.

One of the project’s aims is to develop a set of working methods with which to evaluate different possible farming scenarios in relation to the environmental and socio­economic characteristics of a particular region, based on their capacity to provide a habitat for viable populations of threatened species. This methodology aims to pass on farming practices to the starting point of conservation studies, developing indices that, based on the changes in the landscape they induce, make it possible to evaluate the extent to which these practices are suitable (or not) for the conservation of a particular species. The work of Butler, Vickery and Norris (2007) is one of the inputs to the development of these indices, based on the assumption that species’ ecological requirements can be summarised in terms of three components: food resources, nesting habitats and feeding habitats. Thus, a particular farming system may be suitable for a species only if these three components are present. These indices therefore aim to establish a link between the language of conservationists and farmers, thereby smoothing the way for the explicit integration of farming practices in conservation strategies.

New activities should maintain the structure and function of traditional farming systems. / Photo: Judit Moncunill.

Traditional conservation studies have often been based on a static, typological view of the habitat, in which landscape units are defined in terms of human perceptions (e.g. types of vegetation, land use, etc.). However, there is no reason why these habitat categories should match those perceived by species. This limits the effectiveness of conservation strategies based on them. Thus, applying a more functional or mechanistic approach, based on species’ environmental requirements, such as those being developed in this project, can prove more effective. What is more, this kind of approach can allow processes tobe taken into account that may be difficult to detect at first sight but which can have significant impacts on species, such as ploughing or the use of pesticides and artificial fertilisers.

By the same token, this functional view of the habitat increases the number of possible alternatives for species conservation,
as it allows different landscape units to be taken into account, as would be defined from a purely human perception, can be perceived by species as a single habitat. A clear example of this is given by the work of Davison and Fitzpatrick (2010), centring on the conservation of the Florida scrub jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens), an endangered bird that is highly specialised in scrubland areas. Contrary to what conservationists had believed, this work showed that regenerated pasture was perceived by the species as a habitat of the same quality as areas of natural vegetation (previously considered the only habitat suitable for the bird), revealing that the habitat definitions used had meant opportun­ities for conservation of species had been overlooked.

The functional view of the habitat increases the number of possible options for species conservation. / Photo: Carlos Cortés.

Conservation of endangered bird species in highly humanised environments has not always been approached from a multdisciplinary and mechan­istic viewpoint. However this is an approach that integrates information about the farming practices applied and the species’ environmental requirements, enabling a priori determination of the capacity of a given farming scenario to provide a habitat for a viable bird population. Nevertheless, developing methodologies that make it possible to translate between agricultural and environmental dynamics is essential in order to be able to analyse the implications of human activities on the bio­diversity of these systems in a global and holistic way. The objective of the Steppeahead project is to address this challenge. Although the project cannot solve all the problems facing endanger species that live in these habi­tats, it does aim to make progress on the development of new approaches that aim to increase the effectiveness of the proposed conservation activities, enable links to be established between the realities of farming and the conservation of these systems, facilitating decision-making, in a rapidly changing world. Conservation biology is often regarded as the biology of threatened species. However, for the Steppeahead project, conservation biology is the challenge of integrating the biology of threatened species into the reality that surrounds them.

Profile: The Steppeahead project’s researchers

The members of the Steppeahead project and authors of this article are a multidisciplinary team with experience in ecology, agricultural science and the socio-economics of Mediterranean farming systems. Lluís Brotons, Gerard Bota and David Giralt are specialists in the conservation biology of birds in agricultural environments at the Biodiversity Area of the Catalonia Forest Technology Centre (Centre Tecnològic Forestal de Catalunya, CTFC). Beatriz Arroyo belongs to the Wildlife and Game Fauna Ecology and Conservation Group at the CSIC Institute of Hunting Resources Research (Instituto de Investigación en Recursos Cinegéticos, IREC). François Mougeot and Fabián Casas are members of the team at the CSIC’s Arid Zone Experimental Station (Estación Experimental de Zonas Áridas). Carlos Cantero and Judit Moncunill belong to the Sustainable Agriculture for Arid and Semi-arid Farming Systems Group in the Department of Plant Production and Forestry Science at the University of Lleida (UDL). Lourdes Viladomiu is a member of the research group on Rural Development at the Applied Economics Department of the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB).

Published in No. 09

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