Protecting farmland birds

In the spotlight

Protecting farmland birds

Black-tailed godwit and other farmland birds are in danger of becoming extinct. Their numbers in the Netherlands have been driven down to worryingly low levels as a result of climate change, and more specially due to the intensification of agriculture, urbanisation and an increase in the number of animals that steal eggs or chicks.

A solution must be found, as most farmland-bird species breed in the Netherlands. Wageningen University & Research (WUR) is researching how to curb this development and ensure that farmland birds have the chance to successfully rear their young. Alongside this, WUR is using its knowledge, maps and satellite data to support agricultural nature conversation officers.

Despite the efforts of nature and landscape conservation organisations, farmers and volunteers, the management of farmland bird species is lacking. This is because the conservation of farmland-bird species poses a particular set of challenges. ‘Many of the processes are intermingled,’ says Alex Schotman, animal ecologist at Wageningen Environmental Research.

Agriculture

First, we must consider the ever-increasing intensification and upscaling of agriculture, which has been fuelled by the need for cost-effective production for the global market. ‘As a result of low prices, farmers have little scope for nature-friendly measures on their farm, particularly those aimed at farmland birds. If the birds are to breed successfully, they need areas with the right conditions for chicks. This means farmland must be mown later, wet, and have a rich variety of flowers,’ explains Schotman. In light of this, the groundwater level needs to be higher, mowing delayed and the use of fertilisers reduced. However, as these measures lower the grass yields, they drive up the cost of milk production. A higher price for milk that has been produced in an eco-inclusive manner can help lead to a solution. But how do you persuade consumers that they should pay a premium for dairy that has been produced at farms that look to conserve farmland birds? Schotman explains: ‘The best situation would be if the term “organic dairy” not only meant that farmers use no artificial fertilisers or pesticides, but that they also ensure there is scope for a rich biodiversity. This is currently not the case.’

Landscape

A second process is the gradual disappearance of the very open landscapes that the birds need to survive, driven by urbanisation, expanding infrastructure (roads, pylons, wind turbines) and an increase in shrubbery and trees. While the last point may seem rather odd, considering that the disappearance of trees and coppice groves along fields is harming biodiversity, we know that farmland birds require wet, open grasslands. Whether by choice or due to a lack of tools, the increase in wild growth in nature conservationists’ reserves for farmland birds is damaging that openness. 

Diet

20% of an adult farmland bird's diet consists of larvae and insects, with earthworms accounting for the remaining 80%. However, as earthworms are not very nutritious, the birds need to consume them in large quantities in order to ingest enough nutrients. They find their food by foraging (probing) or by using their vision. Tactile hunters such as the black-tailed godwit and Eurasian oystercatcher have an elongated bill that they use to probe around in the soil. On the other hand, the Northern lapwing and the European golden plover – both of which use their vision to hunt – have large eyes and a short bill to snap up any prey that emerges from the ground. As earthworms only live in wet soil and dig deep into the ground in drought conditions, there must be a high groundwater level. The soil must also be rich in organic matter for the worms to feed on. Farmland birds also need large insects such beetles and spiders in order to rear their young successfully. These insects are most common in less dense vegetation, not in highly productive turf. The grass must also be high enough to offer protection from predators.

Predation

A third factor in the birds’ decline is an increase in predation. ‘This is due to the fact that more and more animal species eat the birds’ eggs and chicks – and these predator species are increasing in numbers,’ explains Schotman. The birds’ predators include foxes, birds of prey, large seagulls, crows, herons, storks, stoats and martens. Farmland birds would be able to cope with this natural phenomenon in large-scale nature reserves with an abundant supply of food and plenty of vegetation cover. Both, however, are lacking in the current distribution range.

Climate

Climate change also plays a role. While the growing season and, consequently, the harvest season are beginning earlier, the birds’ breeding season is struggling to keep pace with the changes. The earlier start means the grass is mown before the birds are able to rear their young. ‘However, considering that draining peat areas for dairy farming leads to subsidence and extra CO2 emissions, it makes more sense to farm these areas in an eco-inclusive way,’ thinks Schotman. This farming method involves increasing the water level so as to reduce CO2 and create the best possible conditions for farmland birds. Although this halves agricultural production, the final product has an added value. Eco-inclusive agriculture can only be a success if the loss of income due to lower production is offset by compensation for the reduced CO2 emissions (the price per tonne would then increase tenfold) and a higher price for eco-inclusive products. Direct sales to consumers, known under the term ‘short food supply chains,’ could play an important role in this development.

Budget

Finally, conservation officers are also having a rough time. ‘Many nature conservation organisations are struggling to make ends meet with the available budget,’ says Schotman. ‘This has brought down the effectiveness of nature conservation to unsatisfactory levels. But this isn't only restricted to reserves. With very few other areas managing to implement a sufficient number of conservation measures, agricultural nature conservation is equally in need of improvement. What's more, findings from research often either do not reach the conservationists working in the field or are not put into practice once received. The same applies to experience from the field making it to people active in research.’ To improve the situation, Wageningen has launched the ‘Kennissysteem agrarisch natuurbeheer’ (‘Knowledge system for agricultural nature conservation’). This year saw cooperatives embark on a programme entitled ‘leren beheer,’ which will assess the knowledge system in practice.

Dutch national plan for farmland birds

The Dutch House of Representatives has requested Martijn van Dam, Minister for Agriculture, to formulate a national plan for farmland birds. As part of this, researchers at WUR and Sovon have developed several scenarios that provide further information on the instruments and financial means required for a national plan. The Wet natuurbescherming (nature conservation act) that came into effect on 1 January 2017 provides the scope to establish a binding national programme with the view of improving the conservation of wild plant and animal species native to the Netherlands. With its cohesive and balanced set of measures, this instrument is particularly well-suited to saving farmland birds from being wiped out.