Bumper Crop

Critics have argued that “wildlife-friendly farms,” which aim to conserve plants and animals on croplands, don’t do much for biodiversity. But a new study in Biology Letters suggests that these measures can work as long as they’re tailored toward specific species.

The expansion of agriculture, fueled by skyrocketing food demands, is contributing to biodiversity declines. Wildlife-friendly farming has become a popular strategy to address the problem in Europe, where some programs pay farmers to improve habitat conditions for species on their land. But doubts remain over whether these practices actually help wildlife, particularly rare species.

The authors examined England’s Entry Level Stewardship Scheme, a program that offers two types of guidelines for wildlife-friendly farming. The “general” guidelines are fairly easy to follow; the “evidence-based” guidelines draw on scientific research to help certain species.

The team compared plants, birds, and bees on croplands that followed the general practices, evidence-based practices, or neither. Farms that carried out the evidence-based suggestions had higher species richness, and the researchers found 10 to more than 100 times more rare species per area sampled than on the other farms. The general guidelines were “remarkably unsuccessful,” the authors write, and only slightly improved plant and bee diversity.

Plants and bees, which can’t move to other habitats as easily as birds, appeared to benefit the most from the evidence-based practices. “Our results provide the first unequivocal support for a national wildlife-friendly farming policy and suggest that this approach should be implemented much more extensively to address global biodiversity loss,” the team writes. Roberta Kwok | 6 June 2012

Source: Pywell, R.F. et al. 2012. Wildlife-friendly farming benefits rare birds, bees and plants. Biology Letters doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2012.0367.

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