Old villages are hot-spots of farmland bird diversity

In this post Zuzanna Rosin discusses her paper ‘Villages and their old farmsteads are hot-spots of bird diversity in agricultural landscapes‘, published today.

The decline of farmland biodiversity is one of the major ecological and conservation problems in Europe. To date many efforts have been made to slow down the rate of this process, however, recent studies confirm ongoing negative trends. To counteract this decline, it is crucial to recognize farmland habitats benefiting biodiversity. Scientists and practitioners focused on the land-use and agricultural practices in crops while villages, being an economic and socio-cultural centre of farmland, have received much less attention in that context. Whereas today western European countryside is usually dominated by a high proportion of modern settlements mainly used only for living, central-eastern Europe still has a large number of old traditional villages and single old farmsteads conducting small-scale farming. However, due to large scale social and economic processes that started after the fall of communism in 1989, old farmsteads (linked to agricultural production) and homesteads (used mainly for living) are being replaced by modern homesteads that greatly differ in structure from the former ones.

Fig 1
This is how some Polish villages still look. Photo credit: Darek Świtała.

Because of its high heterogeneity, the village environment is attractive to many bird species. Old buildings have complex structures and a multitude of sites (e.g. old roof tiles, chimneys and beams) that are used for nesting by several species. Moreover, surroundings of old houses are highly heterogeneous, being composed of old deciduous and fruit trees (rich in cavities), shrubs (suitable for several open nesting species), garden plots and ruderal vegetation (foraging sites). Furthermore, ponds, farm animals and farm residues (e.g. grain, manure) associated with farmsteads provide a wide range of food and foraging microhabitats. All these favourable (micro)habitats are disappearing from the agricultural landscapes of central-eastern Europe due to several simultaneously progressing socio-economic processes: expansion of cities, trends of urban people moving to rural areas, farm modernisation and village abandonment. These changes may be one of the key factors contributing to the loss of farmland biodiversity in Europe, since new homesteads are structurally simplified, having the environs of the house homogeneous, poor in potential nesting and foraging sites, usually dominated by lawns with single shrubs or trees.

Fig 2
Typical new homestead with simplified surroundings of the house. Photo credit: Piotr Skórka.

In our paper we evaluated the importance of villages for breeding bird communities at three spatial scales (single rural property, village and landscape) in farmland of Poland. We found that at the single property scale, half of the recorded 33 bird species preferred old farmsteads, while only one species preferred new homesteads. Old properties had higher species richness and abundance than new ones, and farmsteads hosted a higher number of species than homesteads. Species declining in Europe were positively associated to old farmsteads (e.g. house martin Delichon urbica, house sparrow Passer domesticus), old homesteads (e.g. yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella, icterine warbler Hippolais icterina) and some to new farmsteads (yellow wagtail Motacilla flava). At the village scale, bird species richness and abundance strongly decreased with increasing proportion of new homesteads. At the landscape scale, the village showed clearly a distinct bird community composition with several species observed exclusively in this habitat (e.g. barn owl Tyto alba) and shared the highest average bird abundance compared to other environments (open fields, forest-field ecotones, forests and towns).

Fig 3
Tree sparrow (Passer montanus) and many other bird species prefer old rural properties over the new ones. Photo credit: Darek Świtała.

Our study discovers villages and their old farmsteads as an exceptionally important environment that may play a significant role in the conservation of farmland birds in central-eastern Europe. Having in mind that the number of new homesteads still increase at the expense of old rural properties, we may expect further decline of farmland biodiversity. Fortunately, there are some measures that can be applied in order to scale down the decrease of (micro)habitats associated to old villages. We propose following recommendations that may be relevant for conservation and policy: (1) in rural districts, there should be implemented educational programs developing the awareness of people that some simple practices, such as providing artificial nesting sites, planting native trees, maintaining orchards, etc., can benefit biodiversity, (2) villages and farmsteads should be included as part of EU conservation policies (promotion of bird-friendly architecture and surroundings of the house through the use of subsidies) and (3) changes in the structure of rural villages should be compensated by increasing the number of similar alternative habitats (e.g. mid-field trees, shrubs, ponds) in the surrounding landscape.

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