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Training farmers in management for bird conservation could improve overall biodiversity on farms

Science for Environment Policy - Thematic Issue 57 - June 2017

Agri-environment schemes (AES) are a means by which farmers can ensure greener agriculture, but their success is based on many factors, including the effectiveness of the scheme and participation by farmers. In an effort to understand how different factors affect uptake of AES, this study assessed the attitudes and values of decision-making for a sample of UK farmers involved with bird conservation. The results indicate that effectiveness and participation rates could be improved by informing farmers about the state of bird populations in their region and highlighting the impacts of different management practices on bird conservation.

Farmers must balance numerous factors when making decisions about farm management, of which environmental impact is just one. Voluntary AES can play a major role in benefiting biodiversity on farms, but there is a need to increase the effectiveness and the level of participation, suggests the study. Furthermore, it has been suggested that specific biodiversity targets can only be met with equally specific measures – so-called ecologically related AES (ER-AES) – and some general land management AES may be too broad to produce useful outcomes.

This study explored the attitudes and values that affect farmer decision-making, focusing specifically on ER-AES measures to benefit farmland birds. The researchers conducted telephone questionnaires with a sample of 46 farmers from Scotland’s Lunan catchment, who were deemed to represent the region’s range of farm types and sizes. As an intensively managed area, Lunan receives financial support from the EU to protect the local environment.

In the questionnaires, farmers were asked to indicate to what extent they agreed or disagreed with an array of questions concerning AES, birds, and farm management generally. The results indicated that farmers were concerned about the birds that were on their land, but also revealed conflicting priorities — such as the desire to maintain a ‘tidy’ landscape, which has been shown to reduce biodiversity. Crucially, there was a lack of understanding about current bird population trends and habitat requirements, as well as mixed perceptions regarding the benefits that ER-AES can have for birdlife. Overall, only a minority of the farmers sampled intended to participate in ER-AES in the future.

The researchers suggest that their findings are likely to be applicable to other intensively farmed parts of Europe, highlighting ER-AES in Germany and Ireland. For policymakers looking to develop more popular and effective ER-AES in the future, the key lesson that emerges from this study is the importance of knowledge provision. The researchers conclude that participation in AES is strongly linked with an ethical desire to improve the ecological value of the land. Providing farmers with information on the current state of bird populations in their region, as well as highlighting the impacts of different management practices on birdlife is likely to improve participation rates. This requires extensive assessments of the effectiveness of different practices, which can then be reported to the farmers. This principle could also be extended to other forms of AES…

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SOURCE: EC – Science for Environment Policy