A new study warns that with farmers converting land to more lucrative crops and meeting the increased demand for goods such as olive oil and wine, the last remaining habitat in several species of endangered birds of Europe could decrease up to 50 per cent over the next century.
Semi-natural agro-steps that contain important inhabited bustard, medium bustard species, smaller bustards, rollers and other at-risk species have been created slow agricultural practices. A number of these sites were listed in the early 2000s as Special Bird Protection Areas (SPAs) as a part of the EU Natura 2000 network of priority conservation areas.
The role of Natura 2000, the world’s largest protected area network, in conserving western Europe’s agro-steppes, was studied over ten years researchers at the University of East Anglia (UEA) and at the University of Lisbon. Around a third, or 14-15 000, of the world’s largest Bustard population, Otis tarda, were studied in the Iberian regions.
In a low intensities rotating system, the agro-steppes are characterized cereal cultivation. Such low-yield farms are mostly converted into permanent and irrigated fields, which alter the open ecosystems that provide food for significant birds.
Traditional olive groves and vineyards are occasionally used for feeding or resting on large bustards, small bustards or sandgrouses, but modern versions of these and other permanent crops are intensively managed and insufficient for such birds.
If the current market pressure on agro-steppe habitat conversion is maintained, 20 per cent 2050 and 40 per cent 2110 may decrease. Declines will be more severe if the demand for products derived from permanent or irrigated crops continues to rise. For example, with high demand for Mediterranean products such as olive oil and wine, SPAs may soon be the only areas left to convert.
The findings published in the journal Biological Conservation suggest that the Natura 2000 network may have helped prevent losses of approximately 36,000 hectares of agro-steppe habitat in Iberia. However, of the 21 SPAs — four in Portugal and 17 in Spain — and the surrounding areas surveyed, agro-steppe area losses have occurred at all sites. They were 45 per cent lower within Natura 2000 compared to non-protected areas, although Natura 2000 sites still lost more than 35.000 hectares of agro-steppe habitat in 10 years — an area that could hold more than 500 large bustards.
João Gameiro, PhD student at the Center for Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Change (cE3c), University of Lisbon, led a study that used aerial imagery to classify how agro-steppes changed from 2004 to 2015.
Researchers suggest that the weak enforcement of the restrictions imposed the protected area network, the lack of incentives for farmers to cooperate, and short-term habitat conservation measures are likely to have an impact on the success of Natura 2000 sites in protecting other key habitats across Europe, particularly in human-dominated landscapes where conservation can often coexist.
Dr. Aldina Franco, co-supervisor of the UEA School of Environmental Sciences and the Center for Ecology, Evolution and Conservation, said: “Although ecological restoration has become a priority and a reality in Europe, we are still losing significant priority habitats for conservation. This study highlights the key gaps that need to be addressed in order to realize the full potential of the network
“It is crucial to develop new agricultural methods and improve agricultural productivity in order to feed and increase the human population, which should reduce the pressure on the conversion of natural habitats into new agricultural areas.
“However, at the same time, we also need to allocate large areas of land to less intensive agricultural methods where human activities are compatible with the persistence of wider rural species and provide a variety of ecosystem services and resilience. Finding this balance is a challenge for mankind.
Researchers also warn that greater conversion of agricultural land outside protected sites may transform remaining agro-steppes into isolated ‘islands’ limited to protected areas with low population connectivity. Maintaining connectivity is important for the viability of the population and for facilitating dispersal, which is particularly important in the light of climate change.
They add that in agro-steppes and other human-dominated landscapes, farmers may need to diversify their economic activities in order to remain economically viable, a process that should be financed agro-environmental financial methods.