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Keywords:

  • biodiversity;
  • farming;
  • habitat management;
  • land use

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Why birds?
  5. A Special Profile: birds and agriculture
  6. Management relevance, new questions and testable predictions
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References

1. Around 10% of recent papers in the Journal of Applied Ecology have examined interactions between birds and agriculture. This statistic reveals the important role now played by ecologists in assessing the effects of agricultural development worldwide. It also reflects the position of birds as both indicators and targets of agricultural change: their patterns of behaviour, distribution, seasonal phenology and demography track closely onto the spatial and temporal scales of agricultural intensification.

2. Papers in this Special Profile illustrate how research in this sphere has shifted towards assessing the processes by which birds are affected ecologically by agricultural change. The works examine spatial patterns in extinction; assess long-term trends in bird abundance and agricultural practice; reveal how foraging and breeding performance in farmland birds varies between habitats; and evaluate the role of large-scale modelling in examining hypotheses about the influences of land management on birds. The final paper shows that birds can have intrinsically positive value in agricultural systems.

3. All the papers propose management prescriptions for agricultural areas that blend the microscopic – for example, how to modify local land structure to benefit birds – and the macroscopic – for example, by suggested inputs into land-use policy. Perhaps most pertinent is the key conclusion that agricultural change is multivariate, so that straightforward univariate effects on birds are unlikely. Restoration of impacted populations might therefore require holistic strategies that encourage appropriately scaled agricultural extensification. Success would be most likely if farmers, conservationists and other key players were engaged collaboratively in the process.

4. Current ideas about restoring farmland bird populations share a common assumption: if agricultural practice has reduced populations hitherto, then agricultural practice can restore the losses. We suggest that this assumption carries a range of predictions that now require testing through sustainable farm management – a situation ideally suited to ‘BACI’ style experiments.

5. We reiterate the need to expand work on other groups of organisms affected negatively or positively by agricultural management to allow a broader perspective of impacts or benefits.


Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Why birds?
  5. A Special Profile: birds and agriculture
  6. Management relevance, new questions and testable predictions
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References

Those of us following the applied ecological literature over the last few years cannot have failed to notice the large volume of work that has examined interactions between birds and agriculture. The Journal of Applied Ecology alone published 26 studies on this issue between 1998 and 2000, contributing 10% of our total output, and representing 10 countries on five continents (Table 1). Other journals have also carried large numbers of similar papers (e.g. Browne, Vickery & Chamberlain 2000; Chamberlain, Vickery & Gough 2000; Fewster et al. 2000; Soderstrom & Part 2000). The largest fraction has been from Europe, and the United Kingdom in particular, from where we have published 14 studies on birds and agriculture in the last 3 years. These statistics, in part, reveal the value placed by specialist ornithologists on publishing in prestige journals, like this one, that reach a wide ecological audience. But much more, they reveal the importance now afforded to the ecological effects of agricultural change not only in Europe – where the Common Agricultural Policy continues to be a major influence (Bignal 1998) – but throughout the populated world (Watson 1999). Perhaps more importantly, the whole thrust of these publications reveals the growing role of ecologists in assessing the effects of agricultural change worldwide, inputting in turn into land-use policy.

Table 1.  Recent papers on birds and agriculture in the Journal of Applied Ecology in chronological order
RegionBirds involvedType of studyJournal reference
BrazilFrugivoresCompared communities between contrasting agro-forestryGaletti & Aleixo (1998)
BritainGeneral farmland birdsAssessed population trends among ecologically similar speciesSiriwardena et al. 1998;
CaliforniaWaterbirdsAnalysed bird use of fields flooded to speed straw decompositionElphick & Oring (1998)
BritainSkylark Alauda arvensisCompared territory size and breeding between land usesPoulsen, Sotherton & Aebischer (1998)
IndiaRainforest bird communityAssessed community and population in shifting cultivationShankar Raman, Rawat & Johnsingh (1998)
SpainRed-billed chough PyrrhocoraxAssessed foraging habitat in different land uses, habitats and cropsBlanco, Tella & Torre (1998)
pyrrhocorax   
BritainRedshank Tringa tetanusAssessed changes in density with changes in grazing intensityNorris et al. (1998)
BritainSkylark Alauda arvensisCompared bird and invertebrate density between land uses;Wakeham-Dawson & Aebischer (1998)
experiments on grazing exclusion 
BritainFarmland and other birdsAssessed large-scale habitat useGregory & Baillie (1998)
GreeceShort-toed eagle Circaetus gallicusAnalysed habitat use and prey distributionBakaloudis, Vlachos & Holloway (1998)
FranceWildfowlAnalysed bird numbers and agricultural changeDuncan et al. (1999)
N. IrelandCurlew Numenius arquataAssessed interaction between predator numbers and agricultureGrant et al. (1999)
SpainDiurnal raptorsAssessed nest-site selection and land useSanchez-Zapata & Calvo (1999)
BritainWood pigeon Columba palumbusAssessed avoidance of pesticide-treated seedMcKay et al. (1999)
BritainReed bunting Emberiza schoeniclusAssessed long-term demography and agriculture changesPeach, Siriwardena & Gregory (1999)
BritainSkylark Alauda arvensisAnalysed abundance and land useChamberlain et al. (1999)
AustraliaRed-capped robin Petroica goodenoviiAnalysed density and phenology in relation to landscape structureMajor et al. (1999)
BritainFarmland birdsAnalysed demographic processes involved in population changeSiriwardena et al. (2000)
SpainBooted eagle Hieraatus pennatusAssessed nest selection and land useSuarez, Balbontin & Ferrer (2000)
BritainFarmland birdsCompared abundance between land usesHenderson et al. (2000)
BritainFarmland birdsCompared trends among birds and food plantsSmart et al. (2000)
FranceGrey partridge Perdix perdixAnalysed demographic processes in population changeBro et al. (2000)
DenmarkGrey plover Pluvialis apricariaCompared time budgets and habitat selection between land useWhittingham, Percival & Brown (2000)
BritainThrushes Turdus spp.Analysed pattern in breeding performanceParadis et al. (2000)
TheoreticalAnyModelled effects of dispersal and fragmentation effectsBaillie et al. (2000)

Estimates vary, but probably around one-third of the earth's exploitable surface is now dominated by agriculture. In Europe, this value is often much higher, and Denmark (64%), Britain (75%) and Ireland (81%), for example, have around two-thirds or more of their total surface in ‘agricultural utilization’ (see Ostermann 1998). Of course, large surface cover alone might not have prompted such intense research activity into the ecological consequences, nor raised concern among so many conservationists. Indeed, the quality of much of Europe's protected space – national parks and other areas set aside for landscape or nature conservation – is widely recognized as being the result of an agrarian heritage (Ostermann 1998). This is true also of many biologically rich environments outside protected areas (e.g. Webb 1998). One clear lesson is that, as skilled agents of land management, biologically rich agricultural systems in future will require good farmers as much as good conservationists.

Instead, unease among many conservationists has arisen from large changes in the management of agricultural land over the last few decades. Policy, incentives, technology and economics have acted in concert to cause rapid and major change. In Britain, for example, intensification has been reflected in the increased use of agro-chemicals, and widespread switching on lowland farms to crops such as oilseed rape, while spring-sown cereals, root crops, hay crops and periods with bare fallow have all declined (Chamberlain et al. 2000). Although the exact details differ, similar stories characterize other areas of Europe, with the economic and agricultural consequences spreading outwards in complex ways to affect agriculture on more marginal areas, such as the uplands (e.g. Zervas 1998). Beyond Europe, not only intensification but also increased conversion to semi-natural habitat, continue as necessary consequences of population growth and global patterns of trade (Watson 1999). With large fractions of some species' populations occupying agricultural land, and many characteristic assemblages of organisms represented, the risks to biodiversity are real.

The possible ecological effects of changing agricultural practice or land conversion are many. Some arise as a direct consequence of structural or composition changes to vegetation and the associated faunal communities (Hansson & Fogelfors 1998; Hald 1999; Sternberg et al. 2000). Others are mediated more subtly, for example through the changing phenology of crops. In addition, a wide array of indirect influences arise, for example through changing predator–prey dynamics or the chemical influences of agro-chemicals on species composition. There are also knock-on effects on other ecosystems, for example downstream (Painter 1999; Manel, Buckton & Ormerod 2000) or in adjacent bordering areas (Jansen & Robertson 2001). Moreover, the major re-structuring of land surfaces that accompanies agriculture is one of the principal ways through which the remaining semi-natural habitats are fragmented, with consequences for species' populations and dispersal (Hargis, Bissonette & Turner 1999; Anciães & Marini 2000; Palomares 2001).

New challenges are only now on the horizon. While conventionally driven changes in crop varieties have probably impacted on farmland biodiversity (Beringer 2000), switches to genetically modified crops will carry many unknowns. Impacts on birds will be difficult to address through field-scale trials, so that modelling approaches are under development (Freckleton & Watkinson 1998; Lintell-Smith et al. 1999; Watkinson et al. 2000). They indicate that scale is a critical issue, but also show that we need to understand how different agricultural practices affect weed numbers, and consequently the availability of weed seeds for seed eating birds.

Why birds?

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Why birds?
  5. A Special Profile: birds and agriculture
  6. Management relevance, new questions and testable predictions
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References

While many groups of organisms, and many ecological processes, have been affected by agricultural change, there is little doubt that birds have been among the major foci of research activity and conservation concern. Why, when so many other organisms will also have been strongly affected, should this be?

Ornithologists indicate, with much justification, that birds are popular and charismatic organisms, attracting much public interest. This is well illustrated by the large array not only of amateur ornithologists, but also of governmental, non-governmental and academic organizations, with special interest in birds. This convergence of interest is illustrated by the multi-authored papers in this Special Profile (see also Table 1). But far beyond popularity, a range of more explicitly scientific features emphasize the simultaneous position of birds as both major targets, and major indicators, of agricultural change; the UK government, for example, now accepts bird populations as indicators of the ‘quality of life’. Their diversity provides valuable comparisons of processes affecting ecologically similar or contrasting species, illustrated here for example by the work on two closely related buntings (Bradbury et al. 2000; Brickle et al. 2000). Birds – by virtue of their conspicuous nature – are easily researched. More importantly with respect to the agricultural issue, their patterns of behaviour, distribution, seasonal phenology and demography track closely onto the spatial and temporal scales of agricultural change. Foraging, nest-site selection or breeding performance reflect features within the patchwork of agricultural habitats (Bradbury et al. 2000; Brickle et al. 2000). The pattern of events in the annual farming calendar interact with key events in their own lives such as breeding or migration (see Bird, Pettygrove & Eadie 2000; Chamberlain et al. 2000). Their populations or communities vary in ways that reflect local, regional or international variations in land use or management (Manel, Buckton & Ormerod 2000; Milsom et al. 2000). The effects of year-to-year drift in their demography means that their population trends match the march of agricultural change (Gates & Donald 2000). Perhaps most importantly of all, the availability of well-organized and geographically extensive data on bird populations over time has drawn our attention to the major environmental changes that have occurred on agricultural land. When coupled with equally valuable long-term monitoring of land use, these data have special importance in illustrating how ecological trends and agricultural practices are so closely linked (Chamberlain et al. 2000; Gates & Donald 2000). While other taxonomic groups share some of these characteristics, few others have been researched with such co-ordination and profit: ornithologists working on birds and agriculture reveal just how much can be achieved when individuals and institutions combine their research resources around key themes.

A Special Profile: birds and agriculture

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Why birds?
  5. A Special Profile: birds and agriculture
  6. Management relevance, new questions and testable predictions
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References

This Special Profile of seven papers on the theme of ‘birds and agriculture’ further emphasizes the importance that the Journal of Applied Ecology accords to understanding the ecological effects of global changes in land use. Together, these papers provide a state-of-the-art perspective on this major issue from ornithologists and associated researchers.

Increasingly, ecologists and policy specialists involved with birds and agriculture have called for a shift from work identifying trends among birds towards greater understanding of the processes involved (McCracken & Bignal 1998; Siriwardena et al. 1998). We wholly concur with this need. However, the exact processes changing vertebrate populations are seldom easily resolved. On the one hand, the complex nature of real environments mean that there can be many competing explanations of population trend even where demographic pattern is clear (e.g. Paradis et al. 2000). On the other hand, even where the ultimate causes of change seem clear, a range of demographic responses are possible, and the results often debated over long periods (e.g. Sibly, Newton & Walker 2000). Under these circumstances, single definitive studies of how birds respond to agricultural intensification have been elusive, and instead there has been a steady evaluation of accumulating evidence.

To add to this accumulation, the search for cause–effect links between birds and agricultural change in Europe is now taking several forms (see also Table 1). For example, following previous classic assessments in this Journal of population trend or survival (Siriwardena et al. 1998; Peach, Siriwardena & Gregory 1999), one of the studies here addresses the long-term risks of local extinction among farmland species: Gates & Donald (2000) show how losses have been more likely in less suitable habitats, and least likely in traditional lowland arable locations. Moreover, extinction risk for any one species was less when other farmland species were present, probably because overall habitat suitability for all of them was greater. In a conceptually similar paper, Chamberlain et al. (2000) seek evidence of cause–effect links between farmland bird abundance and agriculture by illustrating how both have changed through time. Bird numbers tracked the effects of changing agricultural practice, with occasional lagged responses. In what is likely to become yet another classic study in its genre, Chamberlain et al. (2000) show how agricultural trends have been truly multivariate: we can have no guarantee that birds have responded univariately to individual agricultural factors. This observation is of great management relevance (see below). Finally, among the papers considering processes, Bradbury et al. (2000) and Brickle et al. (2000) compare the breeding performance and foraging of buntings on contrasting farmland habitats in ways that allow them to test hypotheses about what happens when such habitats are lost. The results of these dominantly autecological studies clearly follow expectations.

We should remember, of course, that not all the effects of agricultural practice on birds are negative, and some practices attract large numbers of birds to special feeding opportunities. Such is the case in the Californian waterfowl example provided here by Bird, Pettygrove & Eadie (2000). More novel is their illustration that birds in large numbers can have positive benefits to agriculture – in this case by aiding the decomposition of straw in rice fields. With great perspicacity, Bird, Pettygrove & Eadie (2000) take us to the view that bird communities and agriculture can coexist in a win–win situation. There are likely to be other examples where birds, by virtue of their predatory activity or physical bioturbation, provide similar ecosystem services while benefiting from farmland habitats.

All of the studies in this Special Profile involve issues at large spatial scales – in keeping with the large proportion of papers published on this topic by this Journal (Ormerod, Pienkowski & Watkinson 1999; Ormerod & Watkinson 2000). But it is that very issue – of scale – that has prompted some researchers on birds to address the broader conceptual dimension involved. In this Special Profile, Manel, Buckton & Ormerod (2000) question the extent to which surveys, so often the mainstay of large-scale ornithological research, can satisfy the needs of hypothesis testing about large-scale factors such as the conversion of semi-natural habitats to agricultural land. Along with many contributors to this Journal, the study by Manel, Buckton & Ormerod (2000) continues to emphasize the value of distribution models for birds, at least when supported by validation and processes studies. Milsom et al. (2000) also use this approach here to positive applied effect by illustrating how the management of grazing marshes affects the distribution of lowland waders. Along with farmland passerines, this group has also shown dramatic population declines in parts of Europe, so that this contribution is timely.

Management relevance, new questions and testable predictions

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Why birds?
  5. A Special Profile: birds and agriculture
  6. Management relevance, new questions and testable predictions
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References

In addition to its history of publishing papers on birds and agriculture, the Journal of Applied Ecology has a history of illustrating how ecological science informs environmental management and policy. This is particularly true with respect to agriculture (e.g. Bignal 1998; Ovenden, Swash & Smallshire 1998). These Special Profile papers each raise major management issues that are both microscopic – for example how to modify local land structure – and macroscopic – for example in relation to land-use policy. At the micro-scale, the recommendations are about how to attract or benefit bird populations by modifying local farm- or plot-scale features, such as grazing, flooding or field margin management (Bradbury et al. 2000; Brickle et al. 2000; Milsom et al. 2000). At the macro-scale, several workers point to issues ranging from subsidy and fiscal support for sensitive management (Bradbury et al. 2000), set-aside and cropping patterns (Brickle et al. 2000), to the identification of areas appropriate for conservation incentives or designation (Gates & Donald 2000). In Europe, science input into policy of this type is particularly timely now, with the next review of the CAP due in roughly 5 years. Perhaps most pertinent of all is the key conclusion from Chamberlain et al. (2000): if single agricultural factors cannot be held responsible for effects on bird populations, then conservationists might profitably consider holistic strategies that encourage whole-farm, or broad-scale, agricultural extensification. Agri-environment schemes often move part way towards this end, but whether this is sufficient to restore whole bird communities requires fuller appraisal (Ovenden, Swash & Smallshire 1998). Moreover, because funding available for agri-environmental schemes in some European countries is still considerably less than the CAP permits, the number of farms able to participate is currently small.

Intriguingly, all these notions of positive agricultural management for birds are rooted in a common assumption: if farming and agricultural practice has been responsible for reduction in bird populations hitherto, then farming and agricultural practice should be able to restore the losses. Within this assumption, however, are several key questions: Can there be reversal in land use and land management? Will habitats and food resources revert dynamically to former conditions? Will bird populations then change in expected ways? Will population and community pattern among birds indicate population and community pattern among other groups of organisms (e.g. Joyce, Holland & Doncaster 2000)? Although supported by evidence from studies on set-aside (Henderson et al. 2000), investigations of organic farming (Wilson et al. 1997) and from scarce species such as cirl bunting Emberiza cirlus L. (Ovenden, Swash & Smallshire 1998; Wotton et al. 2000), these questions still require further examination. This is particularly true at large spatial scales, and with respect to previously abundant and widespread farmland species for which assessments of viable population sizes are still few. We suggest that, with so much evidence now accumulated on how intensification affects many birds negatively, demonstrations of the positive value of extensification and restorative techniques is one of the key needs. Not only is this a situation ideally suited to ‘BACI’ style (= before-after-control-intervention) experiments, but also it benefits from what is now an enviably well-described set of baseline ornithological conditions. Inputs from researchers on other taxa into any such experimental approaches would ensure that costs or benefits for a wider array of taxa than birds were appraised. Increasingly wide-scale agro-environmental policy, if sufficiently bold to encompass and encourage real environmental benefit, make investigations of this type a real possibility.

Acknowledgements

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Why birds?
  5. A Special Profile: birds and agriculture
  6. Management relevance, new questions and testable predictions
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References

Our thanks are due, as always, to Dr Gillian Kerby and Penny Baker, who ensured that this group of papers was compiled and produced to the Journal's highest standards.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Why birds?
  5. A Special Profile: birds and agriculture
  6. Management relevance, new questions and testable predictions
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References
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  • Painter, D.J. (1999) Macroinvertebrate distributions and the conservation value of aquatic Coleoptera, Mollusca and Odonata in the ditches of traditionally managed and grazing fen at Wicken Fen, UK. Journal of Applied Ecology, 36, 3348.
  • Palomares, F. (2001) Vegetation structure and prey abundance requirements in the Iberian lynx: implications for the design of reserves and corridors. Journal of Applied Ecology, 37, in press.
  • Paradis, E., Baillie, S.R., Sutherland, W.J., Dudley, C., Crick, H.Q.P. & Gregory, R.D. (2000) Large-scale spatial variation in the breeding performance of song thrushes Turdus philomelos and blackbirds T. merula in Britain. Journal of Applied Ecology, 37 (Suppl. 1), 7387.
  • Peach, W., Siriwardena, G.R. & Gregory, R.D. (1999) Long-term changes in overwinter survival rates explain the decline of reed buntings Emberiza schoeniclus in Britain. Journal of Applied Ecology, 36, 798811.
  • Poulsen, J.G., Sotherton, N.W. & Aebischer, N.J. (1998) Comparative nesting and feeding ecology of skylarks Alauda arvensis on arable farmland in southern England with special reference to set-aside. Journal of Applied Ecology, 35, 131147.
  • Sanchez-Zapata, J.A. & Calvo, J.F. (1999) Raptor distribution in relation to landscape composition in semi-arid Mediterranean landscapes. Journal of Applied Ecology, 36, 254262.
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