Complex landscapes and complex decisions for farmland conservation

In this post, discover how farmland birds and agri-environmental schemes went from dissertation topic, to British Ecological Society Annual Meeting talk, to published paper for one early career researcher. Gergana Daskalova (University of Edinburgh) describes the evolution of Population responses of farmland bird species to agri‐environment schemes and land management options in Northeastern Scotland.

Farmland birds: decades of decline and mixed benefits of agri-environmental schemes

The continental-scale declines of farmland bird populations were one of the first signs of the ways in which accelerating land-use intensification is reshaping terrestrial ecosystems around the world. Once common and widespread, many species have gone locally extinct, or are persisting in smaller, more vulnerable, populations. Agri-environmental schemes (AES) are the main conservation tool aiming to reverse the decline of farmland birds. Over 30 years since their inception, AES have delivered mixed benefits for farmland biodiversity, ranging from successful recovery of target species to no observed changes in populations following AES implementation. With growing evidence for the importance of landscape heterogeneity in moderating AES effectiveness but little knowledge of AES performance in complex landscapes with diverse crop regimes, we set out  (in collaboration with the RSPB’s Centre for Conservation Science) to investigate long-term AES performance in the fields of Scotland. Findings from the study were published in Journal of Applied Ecology.

Reed bunting - Gergana Daskalova
Creating water margins enhanced the abundance of reed buntings.
Photo: Gergana Daskalova.

Key findings

Overall, the breeding populations of the five farmland bird species we studied remained stable across our monitoring period from 2003 to 2015, however there were indications that skylarks might be declining, and tree sparrows and yellowhammers increasing. These population trends, however, were apparent on both farms with agri-environment schemes, and conventional ‘control’, farms. We did not detect a significant association between AES and avian abundance or population trends, which could be due to a lack of additionality of AES in complex landscapes, increases on conventional farms due to spill-over effects from AES farms, land-use legacy, and/or poor selection and implementation of AES management options. Nevertheless, within AES, there were specific land management options that were beneficial for the farmland birds we studied. We found that species-rich grasslands, water margins and wetland creation enhanced breeding bird abundance, highlighting the importance of relatively undisturbed herbaceous or grassland vegetation and farm- and field-scale targeting of management within AES.

How do our findings fit in with land-use change effects on populations around the world?

Land-use change is considered  the greatest driver of change in populations and ecological communities across the world’s terrestrial biomes. AES implementation represents one of the many different types of land-use change Earth’s biota is experiencing. AES effects on farmland biodiversity have varied, depending on how well scheme design is suited to the target habitats and species, and on how well the schemes are carried out by farmers. These mixed results feed into a larger context of heterogeneous population and biodiversity change around the world. At sites around the globe, some populations are increasing, others are decreasing or remaining stable, and a key next step is to disentangle the drivers behind this complex picture of ecological change over time on a global scale (more information here).

Skylark - Gergana Daskalova
Skylarks nest in short vegetation strips and benefit from the creation of undisturbed herbaceous strips of land. Photo credit: Gergana Daskalova.

The journey behind the paper

Our farmland bird study is the product of my undergraduate dissertation at the University of Edinburgh. I I remember the feeling of handing in my dissertation and missing it immediately. Thankfully that was not the end, and my dissertation soon came back into my life in the form of an ever-evolving manuscript. Farmland birds and agri-environmental schemes mark many of my academic “firsts”– my first presentation at a big ecology conference, my first experience with the peer review process, and now my first publication. Our paper is the product of years of bird monitoring by the RSPB; reading, writing and coding on behalf of our whole team, and also the product of the support and encouragement I got along the way. The first question I received after my farmland talk at the BES Annual Meeting started with a statement (of course!) – the person congratulated me for presenting my undergraduate research. I felt “like a real scientist”, and I remember being so happy throughout the entire meeting. In December, I attended my third BES Annual Meeting, and I’m excited for many more. As we walk into the gigantic rooms full of ecological excitement at a conference, I think it’s important to remember and channel the power of believing – in early career researchers, in ideas, in collaboration to bring those ideas to life.

Read the full open access article, Population responses of farmland bird species to agri‐environment schemes and land management options in Northeastern Scotland in Journal of Applied Ecology.

Follow Gergana on Twitter: @gndaskalova

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