Research by Ana Sanz‐Pérez et. al. shows how managing the vegetation structure of fallow fields with agricultural practices commonly used by farmers increases the occurrence of endangered steppe bird species. This work features as our September cover image, taken by Jordi Bas. Read a summary of the research and explore the promotion of fallow management in our latest cover story. And don’t forget to scroll through the gallery for more of Jordi’s photos!

The European Union’s financial incentives, Agrienvironmental schemes (AES), are used to promote extensive agriculture and the presence of fallow lands. Despite these incentives, steppe bird populations are declining, questioning efficiency of AES.

Fallows and steppe birds

In our research, we argue that promoting fallow presence as AES suggest may not be sufficient to save endangered bird species, especially those with very specific requirements like steppe birds. A lot of research has focused on the key role played by fallow presence for bird conservation, but few studies analyse which fallow management alternatives increase habitat suitability for steppe birds. The vegetation that grows in unmanaged fallows might not be optimal (e.g. too high and/or dense) for these species. Therefore, what’s the optimal type of management, and is it appropriate for all species?

To answer this question, we took advantage of a local conservation measure existing in the Lleida plain (Catalonia, Spain). To compensate the environmental impact of an irrigation channel in dry extensive farmland areas, the presence of hundreds of fallows’ hectares is financially supported every year since 2011. In these fallows, we used an experimental set up and quantified over three years how both vegetation and steppe birds responded to different types of management (agricultural practices).

Steppe birds do well when farmers take care of them …

In our article, we demonstrate that presence of steppe birds was higher in managed fallows than in unmanaged ones. We show that our studied species respond differently to the type of agricultural practice, as they have different habitat requirements: ploughing increased the most the presence of the stone curlew, while it was shredding what increased the presence of little bustard.

Furthermore, our results reveal the reasons of the positive impact of management. Ploughing restricted vegetation cover and height favouring the ecological requirements of the stone curlew, and shredding restricted height favouring the ecological requirements of the little bustard. We argue that understanding the process by which agricultural practices increase bird presence is key to provide recommendations, because bird species respond to ecological requirements (for example, vegetation structure) and not to the practice itself.

… but how to promote fallow management?

Farmers usually prefer to avoid the excess of weeds on fallow fields and already apply the agricultural practices that we tested in our study. However, they often apply them too many times per year and during the breeding period, which results in the management being inappropriate for steppe birds. Therefore, adjusting the timing and type of management to bird requirements seems to be the way to enhance steppe bird conservation.

We encourage fallow field management just before the breeding period by applying a mosaic of practices (ploughing, shredding). This will result in a patchy landscape benefiting steppe birds with different habitat requirements. We also encourage the use tools to better channel the results from this kind of scientific work towards farmers and managers in order to diminish the information gap between farming and research.

We believe that management measures adapted to the farmland context and conservation aims, as the ones proposed in our article, are necessary to improve the cost-efficiency of generic conservation measures such as AES.

Read the full article, Fallow management increases habitat suitability for endangered steppe bird species through changes in vegetation structure in issue 56:9 of Journal of Applied Ecology.