The Natura 2000 network is the backbone of nature conservation in the EU, and agri-environment schemes (AES) are an important tool to protect biodiversity on European farmland. A recent study, which investigated the effectiveness of AES in relation to grassland birds in Poland, found that AES were not associated with species richness of target species, and proposed a number of reasons for this. The researchers recommend that AES management regimes should be diversified and customised to provide optimal habitat for a wider range of bird species.
Farmland biodiversity in central and eastern European countries has, until recently, been relatively well preserved, and has avoided the large-scale decline in species richness and abundance observed in northern and western Europe. Recently, however, biodiversity in central and eastern European farmlands has also started to decrease sharply, due to rapid economic transformations that are changing the region’s agricultural landscape.
Agri-environment schemes (AES) and Natura 2000 together are two of the most important initiatives in halting biodiversity decline in Europe. AES aim to protect the environment in agricultural landscapes, while Natura 2000 is a broader network of protected habitats. Special Protection Areas (SPAs) under Natura 2000 are designed to protect the most suitable areas for birds, in order to reach a favourable conservation status for all species listed in Annex 1 of the Birds Directive. There are over 5 400 SPAs in Europe, covering more than 12% of the land area of EU Member States. The two initiatives sometimes overlap, and it is important to understand their interactive effects in order to maximise their benefits for biodiversity.
This study investigated the relationships between the two initiatives and Polish grassland bird fauna. Over €280 million was spent on agri-environment measures for grassland birds in Poland between 2007 and 2014.
During this period there were two types of AES that focus on the protection of birds in Poland: within and outside Natura 2000 areas. Under the current Polish Rural Development Programme (2014–2020), AES to protect birds are restricted to areas inside Natura 2000 SPAs, on the basis that this generates the best results in terms of grassland bird diversity. Under the rules of the previous programme, to qualify for payments, a farmer had to prove that at least one of 10 target bird species was breeding in a field under their ownership, and also had to employ less intensive grassland management over the payment period of 5 years.
The researchers compared the birds found at 585 grassland sites1 across Poland over a two-year survey (2013–14). They recorded eight AES target species and 11 SPA target species. The number of AES-target species was not higher at AES sites than control sites, but was generally higher within than outside SPAs (with one exception — the common snipe (Gallinago gallinago) was a species more often found at AES than control sites). The number of SPA-target species was not significantly associated with SPAs or AES sites. There was also no significant interaction found between AES sites and SPAs, as the effect of AES did not differ according to whether they were within or outside SPAs…