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Ecological focus areas show potential for helping biodiversity

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A report from the European Commission shows that ecological focus areas (EFAs) can contribute to addressing the impact of some farming practices on environment, by bringing potential positive effects for biodiversity, and for soil, water and climate. The report covers the first two years since the introduction of EFAs in 2015 through new rules governing direct payments to farmers.

Farmers with arable land exceeding 15 ha must ensure that at least 5% of this land is an ecological focus area. This obligation for farmers to establish ecological focus areas on part of their land applies to the vast majority of EU arable land (around 70%). The remaining 30% or so is exempt for a variety of reasons, ranging from the farming type (organic farming) and the way in which the land is used (i.e. if there is already a high share of grassland on a farm) to the location of the farm (in particular those in the north).

In 2015 almost 8 million hectares of land were declared as EFAs, accounting for 10% of the land under the obligation after taking into account the impact on biodiversity. This is twice as much as the 5% required by the legislation at farm level. Data for 2016 shows very similar results.

EFAs can take various forms, and it is up to national authorities to decide which ones are best suited to circumstances of each EU country. Farmers can then choose from their national list which EFA types to adopt on their land. EFAs can be features such as fallow land, field margins, hedges and trees or buffer strips which benefit biodiversity directly; they can also include specific productive areas whose effect on biodiversity is indirect through a lower use of inputs such as fertilizers.

The report shows that the most common forms of EFA chosen by farmers are those considered ‘productive’ – i.e. where land is sown with ‘nitrogen-fixing’ crops such as alfalfa (that help improve the nitrogen content of the soil and reduce the need for fertiliser), or catch crops (fast-growing crops grown between plantings of main crops which catch excessive nitrates). The other most popular form of EFA is where the land lies fallow.

These three EFA types correspond to more than 90% of EFAs. In contrast, other EFAs, including landscape features (such as field margins, trees or hedges) and buffer strips, were less widely taken up.

The first insights into the environmental effects of EFAs show that while EFAs in general are potentially beneficial to biodiversity and also to ecosystem services (such as pollination, pest and disease control, the chemical condition of freshwater and soil erosion), some EFA types are more beneficial than others. EFAs consisting of landscape features and those where the land lies fallow are the most effective, while EFAs where catch crops are sown are relatively least effective.

The report indicates that the results may also differ depending on factors such as soil cover, the species sown and the diversity of vegetation, the retention period, the location of features and the use of chemical inputs. For example, for fallow land EFAs, sowing wildflowers has the highest impact for pollinators, while leaving the soil completely bare has the lowest. Bare soil may also have negative impacts due to the higher risk of soil erosion. In addition, keeping land fallow for a long period and not using pesticides is shown to reduce the disturbance of habitats, in particular over the bird breeding period.

The current repartition of EFA types and the finding that the extent to which each type of EFA is managed influences the environmental effectiveness of the EFA are of particular interest. New delegated rules on EFAs, currently under scrutiny by the co-legislators in Council and the European Parliament, should address these findings, by improving management practices, such as by establishing retention periods for some types of EFAs such as fallow land or catch crops or by introducing a ban on the use of plant protection products on productive and potentially productive EFAs. On the other hand, streamlining the requirements relating to the most environmentally beneficial EFA types such as landscape features should encourage farmers to use them more extensively.

The Commission’s assessment of the implementation of EFAs was part of the agreement with the co-legislators in Council and the European Parliament to determine whether the minimum threshold for the land reserved at farm level for EFAs should be increased from 5% to 7%. The evidence collected for the report shows that the amount of land used for EFAs (on average) is already in excess of this higher proposal, and in light of this the Commission has decided not to propose increasing the threshold limit.

SOURCE: European Commision