Following a recently published Research Article, Jennifer Smart explores this question and considers ways we can continue to work with the farming community to achieve conservation goals. Jennifer worked on this post with the British Ecological Society Policy team.

In contemporary landscapes, grazing by domesticated cattle and sheep has become an increasingly important aspect of grassland management. This is largely because natural processes such as fire, drought and grazing by wild animals that used to maintain grasslands are no longer prevalent. The farmers who own the cattle and sheep need to graze the animals in a way that maximises the success of their farm businesses, but this is rarely compatible with the grazing conditions needed for natural or semi-natural grasslands with high biodiversity or ecosystem services value. Where farming and conservation practises converge in this way, agri-environment schemes (AES) are designed to plug the financial gap and allow farmers to operate in a more ecologically sensitive way, while being compensated for the loss of income. However, AES are often criticised for a lack of monitoring or effectiveness.

We set out to answer the question, ‘Are agri-environment schemes successful in delivering conservation grazing management on saltmarsh‘? Saltmarsh is a globally important grassland ecosystem that occurs around the coast and is the interface between marine and terrestrial environments. It supports rich communities of plants, invertebrates and breeding, wintering and migratory birds, as well as numerous ecosystem services such as tidal defence, recreation, water quality and carbon storage. Grazing is important for the maintenance of these functions with over-grazing and abandonment of grazing linked to declines in biodiversity.

Sheep_in_salt_marsh_meadows_(25879658463)_Bernard Dupont
As natural processes typically involved in grassland maintenance decline in prevalence, grazing livestock become increasingly important. Photo by Bernard Dupont

What did our study do? We really wanted to know if saltmarshes were being grazed in a way that should benefit biodiversity and if sites with AES had better conservation grazing than those without AES. The first thing we did was review the literature to allow us to quantify what was optimal, sub-optimal or detrimental in terms of conservation grazing management. We considered five different aspects of management: presence, intensity, timing and type of grazing animal, and the desired impact on the habitat. This then allowed us to do two things. First, we scored each of our 213 saltmarsh sites in England against these aspects of conservation grazing and then we compared conservation grazing between pairs of saltmarsh sites that were close to one another but did and did not have AES options. Finally, we examined the AES documentation for each site to asked whether the wording relating to grazing management was specific or not and whether what was prescribed was optimal in terms of conservation.

What did we find? There is a large body of evidence that tells us what the characteristics of conservation grazing are (see Table S1 in our article’s Supporting Information). Despite this available knowledge, conservation grazing was not being achieved on English saltmarshes, with the worst-scoring aspects being timing of grazing and impact on habitat, although stock type and intensity of grazing was also suboptimal on average. Although sites that had been in AES for longer scored better and approached optimal levels of grazing intensity (at least in one of our three regions), overall, sites with AES were no more likely to be conservation grazed than sites without AES. Our examination of the AES documents suggests that prescriptions given to farmers who are grazing saltmarshes are either vague or specify suboptimal and even detrimental grazing practises from a conservation perspective.

We argue that the evidence for what constitutes conservation grazing on this globally important ecosystem exists, at least across Europe, but there is a real need for that evidence to be better translated into practise. Who knows what the future for AES are in the UK, especially with all the uncertainty around Brexit. If farmers are to be engaged in biodiversity conservation in important ecosystems like saltmarsh, they will be required to alter the number, type and timing of grazing to achieve conservation goals. Therefore, mechanisms to compensate farmers for changes to practises that affect their businesses remain critical.

Read the full article, Are agri‐environment schemes successful in delivering conservation grazing management on saltmarsh? in Journal of Applied Ecology.