Small but strong. Do we sometimes undervalue the benefits smaller woodlands bring to agricultural landscapes? Associate Editor Marney Isaac presents our first Editor’s Choice article of 2020, High ecosystem service delivery potential of small woodlands in agricultural landscapes, by Alicia Valdés and colleagues.

Diversified farming systems result in a heterogeneous landscape that supports a suite of ecosystem services. These include, but are not limited to, enhanced nutrient cycling, water quality, soil health and pest control. For example, riparian buffers within agricultural systems are generally understood to be key contributors to numerous services at site (e.g. reduction in nutrient transport to waterways) and landscape scales (e.g. bird and bee habitat for pollination). But what is less well known is if, or how, small forest patches represent critical pieces of habitat that link biodiversity with multiple ecosystem services, within diversified agricultural landscapes.

In the Editor’s Choice article, High ecosystem service delivery potential of small woodlands in agricultural landscapes, Valdés et al. tackle this issue head on by addressing the question: are smaller forest patches limited in the delivery of ecosystem services compared to larger patches? The researchers collected an impressive data set from over 200 woodlands across temperate Europe on six taxonomic groups (including invertebrates, plant, and fungi), and five ecosystem services, including pest control potential and topsoil carbon storage, as well as one disservice.

Ecology in action! Soil sampling with paper authors, Alicia Valdés and Karin Hansen. Photo by Guillaume Decocq

Valdés et al. show that the smaller woodlands delivered multiple services at greater rates (per area) than larger woodlands of similar age, and relate this notable finding to edge effects. The authors also argue that differential management strategies may be required as strong, and sometimes opposite, effects from environmental drivers control ecosystem service provisioning. Nevertheless, while small woodlands may differ from one another in size, isolation, and age (up to several centuries or older), their potential as a ‘safe haven’ for biodiversity and ecosystem services remains considerable. Based on the findings, the authors note two major takeaways: (1) smaller woodlands offer a bigger ‘bang for your buck’ in terms of ecosystem service provisioning, but (2) large and old woodlands still must be preserved in order to maintain biodiversity and ecological functions in agricultural landscapes.

Valdés et al. contribute key information underpinning the benefits of small woodlots to agricultural landscapes. And clearly make a case for the importance of small woodlands in landscape conservation and management. Yet, as Valdés et al. call attention to in their paper, unfortunately, smaller woodlands are rarely considered in public policies. The future management of smaller woodlands must be considered in relevant policy instruments and on-farm practice for sustainable and diversified farming systems.

The full Editor’s Choice article, High ecosystem service delivery potential of small woodlands in agricultural landscapes, is free to read for a limited time in Journal of Applied Ecology.