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Keywords:

  • agriculture;
  • agri-environment policy;
  • biodiversity;
  • conservation;
  • Skylark Alauda arvensis;
  • Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella

Between 1988 and 2007, set-aside, a European Commission production control measure, took an average of 10% of arable farmland in the EU out of production each year. In 2007, the set-aside rate was set to 0% and the scheme was later abandoned altogether. By assessing associations of farmland birds with set-aside and quantifying the extent of set-aside loss, this study aims to assess the implications of set-aside loss for farmland bird conservation. During the lifespan of set-aside, a large number of studies assessed the biodiversity value of set-aside and other agricultural crops and habitats. Where possible we considered measurable benefits of set-aside. However, some studies did not specify the type of set-aside and in some cases set-aside fields were grouped with cereal stubble fields. In these cases, we took the pragmatic approach of assessing the value of generic stubble fields as a conservative minimum estimate of the value of set-aside fields. A re-analysis of data from 30 intensive studies demonstrates that farmland bird densities tended to be higher on set-aside than on either cereal or oilseed rape crops. Without mitigation, these are the two crops likely to replace most set-aside fields. We estimate that 26–52% of the farmland populations of key granivorous passerines were present on stubble fields, giving an indication of the proportion of birds likely to be present on set-aside fields within this broader category. An extensive survey of lowland farmland during winters 1999/2000, 2000/2001 and 2002/2003, repeated in February 2008, showed a doubling of the number of 1-km squares with no stubble and a halving of the number of squares with more than 10 ha of stubble. After set-aside abandonment, 72% of squares had no stubble in the important late winter period, confirming that many of the former stubble fields were retained as set-aside. A simple correlative model suggests that this could cause a small increase in the rate of decline of Skylark Alauda arvensis and Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella populations, assuming causal links between stubble area and demography. However, even if this assumption cannot be supported, these results clearly indicate that a significant proportion of some farmland bird populations will need to find alternative breeding and foraging habitats.