The role of weeds in supporting biological diversity within crop fields


  • *This review is the published version of an invited paper presented at the 12th EWRS Symposium held at Papendal, Arnhem, the Netherlands, 24–27 June 2002.

: E J P Marshall, Marshall Agroecology Ltd, 2 Nut Tree Cottages, Barton, Winscombe, Somerset, BS25 1DU, UK. Tel: +44 (0)1934 844844; E-mail:


Summary Weeds are major constraints on crop production, yet as part of the primary producers within farming systems, they may be important components of the agroecosystem. Using published literature, the role of weeds in arable systems for other above-ground trophic levels are examined. In the UK, there is evidence that weed flora have changed over the past century, with some species declining in abundance, whereas others have increased. There is also some evidence for a decline in the size of arable weed seedbanks. Some of these changes reflect improved agricultural efficiency, changes to more winter-sown crops in arable rotations and the use of more broad-spectrum herbicide combinations. Interrogation of a database of records of phytophagous insects associated with plant species in the UK reveals that many arable weed species support a high diversity of insect species. Reductions in abundances of host plants may affect associated insects and other taxa. A number of insect groups and farmland birds have shown marked population declines over the past 30 years. Correlational studies indicate that many of these declines are associated with changes in agricultural practices. Certainly reductions in food availability in winter and for nestling birds in spring are implicated in the declines of several bird species, notably the grey partridge, Perdix perdix. Thus weeds have a role within agroecosystems in supporting biodiversity more generally. An understanding of weed competitivity and the importance of weeds for insects and birds may allow the identification of the most important weed species. This may form the first step in balancing the needs for weed control with the requirements for biodiversity and more sustainable production methods.