Research highlights how farmers' agri-environment schemes could do more for wildlife

NEW research offers an explanation for why numbers of many countryside bird species continue to decline, despite Government financial support for farmers to improve their habitat through agri-environment schemes.

The team, led by Dr Mark Whittingham of Newcastle University's School of Biology and partners, suggest that current UK agri-environment schemes have worked well when targeted at the needs of such rare and localised species as corncrakes and stone curlews.

However, being able to reverse the declines of more widespread species such as skylarks and yellowhammers will depend on better matching of habitat management to the different landscapes in which these birds are found.

The new research, published in the current edition of the academic journal Ecology Letters, is based on a survey of 42 sites in England and Wales.

With the help of volunteer birdwatchers, researchers mapped the farmland environment at each site, and recorded the variety and number of nesting birds to see if there was any relationship between the two.

The team found there were variations from region to region, suggesting that agri-environment measures that were more carefully tailored to take account of this variation could be more successful.

Dr Whittingham, a BBSRC research fellow at Newcastle University, said: "Previous research shows that although these schemes have reversed declines of rare species found only in limited areas, they have yet to prove capable of doing the same for more widespread species found in a variety of landscapes."

"We believe the design and implementation of agri-environment schemes needs to be more sensitive to regional differences. A menu of management options which suits the needs of wildlife in Devon, for example, may not meet the needs of biodiversity in East Anglia," added Dr Whittingham, who carried out much of the work while a researcher at Oxford University.

UK farmers can apply for money to the Government to run agri-environment schemes on their land, which are set up to maintain biodiversity of species and also to enhance and maintain the countryside environment generally.

European agri-environment schemes received 24 billion euros in funding from 1992 to 2003 and in England 123 million has been spent on one scheme alone so far (the Environmental Stewardship scheme - Entry Level Scheme).

A typical scheme may involve farmers planting and maintaining hedgerows, limiting pesticide use, providing seed supplies for birds over winter, and leaving uncultivated margins around fields to provide habitats for flowers and insects.

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