Riparian field margins: can they enhance the functional structure of ground beetle (Coleoptera: Carabidae) assemblages in intensively managed grassland landscapes?


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  1. In Europe and North America, there is growing concern that biodiversity declines associated with agricultural intensification will adversely impact the functioning and sustainability of agricultural ecosystems. Enhancing habitat heterogeneity in agricultural landscapes promotes biodiversity and, whilst erecting fences adjacent to watercourses is widely advocated as a means of mitigating diffuse pollution, associated biodiversity benefits have been largely overlooked.
  2. A range of riparian margins and their adjacent grassland fields were investigated to determine the effects of riparian management on the diversity and functional structure of carabid assemblages. Carabid assemblages of fields and open margins (i.e. unfenced watercourses) were more diverse and species rich than those of fenced margins.
  3. The functional structure of carabid assemblages in fenced margins differed from grassland fields and open margins. This disparity was greater in wide margins (i.e. fences erected over 5·4 m from watercourses) than narrow margins (i.e. fences erected within 2·6 m of watercourses). Wide margins had the highest relative proportions of carabids which had pushing body forms, were flightless, very small in size and Collembola specialists. During early summer, wide margins also had the highest proportion of carabids that overwinter as adults.
  4. The taxonomic and functional structure of carabid assemblages was more sensitive for detecting impacts of agricultural management than measurements of diversity. It is likely that this also applies to other taxa, thus emphasising the need to consider a wide range of assemblage attributes when investigating agricultural impacts on biodiversity.
  5. Synthesis and applications. Fenced riparian margins, particularly those over 5·4 m wide, harbour carabids with poor dispersal ability which are vulnerable to habitat fragmentation. While lack of management benefits sedentary species, a wider range of taxa (e.g. pollinators, foraging birds and flowering plants) are enhanced by management to obtain a more open vegetation structure (e.g. restricted grazing or mowing). It is important that management practices are implemented at a sufficiently fine spatial scale to allow recolonisation of species with restricted dispersal from adjacent undisturbed habitats. Wide riparian margins have the potential to enhance taxonomic and functional diversity at the landscape scale. Management actions must, however, be carefully balanced to ensure that they promote a wide range of taxa without unduly interfering with the margin's ability to mitigate diffuse pollution.