The path to increased biodiversity could be in a ‘wildlife motorway’

Biodiversity is a buzzword at present and increasing it will form a key part of the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). In the coming years, policies will be made to improve biodiversity in agriculture and this is a key point that Daire O’hUallacháin picked up on in a recent episode of Teagasc’s The Tillage Edge Podcast.

The agro-ecologist stated that, in the past, the focus has been on quantity, but into the future the quality of habitats needs to be measured.

He also said that ineligible habitats on farms at present, such as ponds, also need to be included in order to keep these habitats on farms and improve their quality.

Speaking about biodiversity in tillage land, he noted that approximately 5-7% of the total area of land on tillage farms supports biodiversity and this is similar to grassland farms.

He added that all agricultural land can play an important role to support biodiversity and that a key element of biodiversity is variety, as different habitats provide homes for different wildlife, so a mix of tillage and grassland is important.

He used an example of over-winter stubble being an important source of feed for birds over the winter time. He described how if tillage land area reduced or disappeared some species would be at risk.

“There are numerous species that we have that have evolved to live or feed in tillage landscapes, so certain farmland birds such as the yellow hammer or the grey partridge feed and nest almost exclusively in tillage systems.

Also, some of our more colourful plant species that you often see on road verges such as corn flower or corn marigold are associated with tillage systems, but it should also be noted that some of these species have evolved to exploit more extensive mixed-tillage and grassland landscapes that would have been more common maybe 40 or 50 years ago.

“Therefore, the intensification and specialisation of tillage systems has resulted in a decline of the species, as we’ve seen with yellow hammer or grey partridge, or on some occasions the extinction of a species as we’ve seen with a bird, in recent years, called the corn bunting.”

Globally, Daire explained that approximately one million species are currently threatened by human or anthropogenic activity and one of the big reasons for this is land-use change or intensification of land use.

The different agricultural systems rate similarly on biodiversity levels

According to Daire, recent studies by Teagasc indicate that the median percentage of habitats on a tillage farm is about 5% to 7%.

He explained that this is pretty standard across intensive agriculture – be it intensive tillage or intensive grassland.

He noted that some habitats are more dependent on tillage systems such as field margins or bird-cover crops.

Where we are seeing a difference between intensive systems and between tillage and grassland systems is in relation to the quality of some of these habitats.

“The quality of some of the dominant habitats on tillage systems, such as field margins, are lower than those on intensive grassland and then generally for intensive systems altogether – the main habitat being hedgerow – we’re also seeing that the quality here is frequently low on our intensive systems.”

The reasons for this are mixed and can be put down to intensive management, but also to neglect.

Biodiversity doesn’t like things that are over-managed. Biodiversity likes things that are a little bit ragged around the edges.

“So therefore if you have hedgerows that are getting an opportunity to grow and to flower it’s providing food resources and nesting resources for birds and bees and species like that,” Daire explained.

Is policy a problem?

Daire stated that he thinks policy has played a part in the low-quality of habitats.

“The most significant driver I would think, in this case, is policy. CAP and EFAs [Ecological Focus Areas] and other policies we’ve had in recent years have neglected to address habitat quality. The focus has often been on habitat quantity, but there has been very little focus on habitat quality.

You would hope that future iterations of CAP will start addressing habitat quality.

“For example, through results-based payments, where you pay or you incentivise farmers on the quality of the habitat they have as opposed to merely just having the habitat present.”

Providing wildlife with motorways

Daire also explained how it is important to connect the different habitats.

He described how wildlife corridors are “features that connect one habitat to another” such as hedgerows or field margins. He described these corridors as wildlife motorways.

“It’s important for wildlife to be able to move from one habitat to another to exploit various food resources or to ensure genetic diversity, and typically most species are unable or unwilling to travel across large open spaces, like a large tillage field or a large grassland field, so therefore prefer to use the cover of a wildlife corridor.

The advantage of a wildlife corridor is that it’s a habitat in itself, but it also acts as a kind of a wildlife motorway connecting different habitats to one another.

Can farmers benefit from biodiversity?

Improving biodiversity on farm can have positive effects on farming systems. Increasing pollinator numbers and natural predators can all help to improve the integrated pest management strategy on a farm.

“There are various advantages to biodiversity and to these wildlife corridors or wildlife margins. By having a high-quality hedgerow or a high-quality field margin you can have floral resources that are providing food for bees and pollinators and these pollinators play an important role for horticultural crops or for rape crops, so you’re providing a pollination service.

Also these wildlife corridors or these habitats can support bio-control agents, beetles for example, and this could be a very important element in future iterations of agri-environment schemes, where we’re seeing a more significant drive for integrated pest management – for example as was mentioned under the Farm to Fork strategy.

Daire added that there’s an advantage to having field margins that are dominated with wild flowers.

“This can act as a barrier to stop undesirable species from encroaching from the hedgerow into the main field where the farm activity is ongoing.”

Promoting the biodiversity activity on Irish farms and efforts to increase biodiversity also form part of the marketing campaigns for these products as consumers become more environmentally conscious.

Looking to the future

Under the new CAP, Daire stated that a habitats target of 10% has been talked about and he hopes to see a drive for habitat quality rather than quantity.

He suggested that results-based measures would see farmers improve habitats on their farms and stated that Ireland is a front runner in this regard as farmers in the BurrenLife and in the Bride (Biodiversity, Regeneration in a Dairying Environment) projects have already been assessing habitat quality and biodiversity levels on their farms.

For example, farmers in the Burren who increase species numbers in their hay meadows can measure an increase in biodiversity on their farms. In these projects, farmers have assessed these increases themselves and have been conservative in their estimates.

He also wants to see ineligible habitats included under new policy, such as ponds, to ensure that these habitats are protected.