News - May 19, 2016

Meadow birds: voluntary rescue not working

Albert Sikkema

The new rules for agrarian nature conservation, introduced on 1 January, are good for meadow birds and biodiversity, say ecologists David Kleijn and Jos Hooijmeijer. Yet they do not go far enough. ‘There is no pressure on farmers to introduce high-water measures.’

Photo Guy Ackermans

Question Time for Resource


They usually put their questions to government ministers, but now Members of the Lower House can also ask Resource a question. This time round, PvdA Member of Parliament Henk Leenders would like to ask, Are the current regulations for agrarian nature conservation improving the natural lives of plants and animals in the countryside?

Until recently, all Dutch farmers could get a subsidy for agrarian nature and landscape management. They were compensated financially for protecting, for example, the nests of meadow birds, or for edging their arable land with wild-flower borders. However, this policy was unable to prevent a decline in rural biodiversity and a 60 percent drop in the number of meadow birds – such as the black-tailed godwit, lapwing and skylark – since 1990.

This prompted the amendment of the regulations for agrarian nature conservation as of 1 January. Only farmers in key areas, where nature is highly likely to recover, can still apply for a subsidy. Moreover, the number of target species has been limited to 67. These are species that the Netherlands is compelled to protect under international treaties. And, finally, the money no longer goes to individual farmers, but to farmers' collectives that submit an area-based plan and quote.

Groundwater level

‘Broadly speaking, these changes are an improvement,’ says David Kleijn, professor of Plant Ecology and Nature Conservation at Wageningen. ‘It is good that the subsidies are now being concentrated in areas with potential. We should be investing only in areas where the ecological preconditions for  protecting nature are present.’ The focus on target species is also good, because it makes farmers give a better indication of how they plan to protect those species. A farmers' collective has the added benefit of making it easier to take measures in a larger area, says Kleijn.

In recent year he has done much research on waning meadow-bird numbers in the Netherlands and he sees yet another important improvement ushered in by the new regulations. ‘At last, there's compensation for raising the groundwater level. This is really important because it retards crop growth and that makes farmers delay their mowing. Since the early 1980s farmers have been mowing 15 days earlier in spring. But meadow birds haven't been following this trend. The chicks of the black-tailed godwit used to hatch 11 days before the first mowing date; now on average the first mowing date falls two days before they hatch. So the chance of eggs or chicks ending up under the mower is much greater. Moreover, these days the vegetation is much taller and that makes it harder for the chicks to find food. That's another reason why it is essential that we raise the water level.’


Like Kleijn, Jos Hooijmeijer, meadow-bird biologist at the University of Groningen, sees clear benefits to the new policy. Since 2004, Hooijmeijer has been tracking the population trend of the black-tailed godwit in Southwest Friesland. ‘Good meadow-bird management requires large areas of at least 500 hectares. At present chicks often grow up in a nature reserve or with a farmer who takes good care of meadow birds, but if that population spreads out to surrounding farmlands it is insufficiently protected. Around these core growth areas, you need farmers who enforce rigorous management measures.’

Raising the groundwater level is essential

By ‘rigorous’, Hooijmeijer means three measures intended to ensure that more black-tailed godwit chicks survive. ‘The only way to get lots of black-tailed godwit chicks is to have herb-rich grassland with a high water level and a delayed mowing schedule. Black-tailed godwits do twice as well there as on the ryegrass monoculture of dairy cattle farmers who are maximizing production and keen to mow early. In that ‘turbograss’ meadow birds remain underweight because they have more difficulty finding food. And if they survive the mower, they are often eaten by predators in the wide open spaces.’


But there's a problem: they system isn't geared to ensuring the introduction of such a rigorous package of measures, says Hooijmeijer. Kleijn agrees. ‘A persistent drawback is that the regulations for agrarian nature conservation are voluntary. For example, the provinces implementing the regulations are putting no pressure on farmers to introduce a package of measures to ensure high water. It's something many farmers don't want because it means they will have less protein-rich feed in the spring.’

Moreover, adds Kleijn, the provinces have not made enough of an aim of management agreements in areas surrounding nature reserves. ‘I had hoped that land stewards like Staatsbosbeheer (the Dutch state forest service) and Natuurmonumenten (national nature conservationists) would join the collectives, but this has not yet happened. That's a missed opportunity.’

Neither of the ecologists thinks the current regulations will increase the number of meadow birds, at most they will retard the decline. So what is needed? ‘The provinces must put all their money on farmers who want to achieve nature targets,’ says Kleijn, ‘instead of farmers who “wouldn't mind adding a package of nature measures”. In addition, research is needed on high-water agriculture. Most meadow birds are found in peatlands where a low water level leads to subsidence and CO2 emissions. If you want to preserve this landscape, you must raise the groundwater level and adapt agriculture accordingly.’

Hooijmeijer argues for policy that encourages nature-inclusive agriculture. ‘We must link agricultural policy in Europe to societal services, so we can give EU subsidies for preserving meadow birds. In addition, the true cost of dairy cattle farming must be acknowledged. The hidden costs – water pollution, pumped drainage, subsidence, health problems, agricultural subsidies, biodiversity loss and greenhouse gas emissions – are high. You have to take these costs into account, because at present agrarian nature conservation is being outweighed by the market forces driving us towards more intensive and maximized milk production.’


Hens Runhaar, special professor of Management of Biodiversity and Agrarian Landscapes at Wageningen UR, views nature management through an administrative lens. He sees a role for NGOs and industry. ‘You have to realize that the subsidy regulations for agrarian nature conservation apply to at most 7,000 farmers who manage one-tenth of the Netherlands' agricultural acreage. You need a range of management options.’

By way of example, Runhaar mentions the coalition run by the Dutch Bird Protection Society with some 100 dairy cattle farmers who are cooperating to improve the management of meadow birds. ‘And FrieslandCampina is working on a points system for dairy farmers who are increasing their sustainability. The protection of meadow birds can form part of that. These farmers get a bonus on the milk price. I see a lot of potential in an arrangement like this one, because FrieslandCampina has huge power to call the shots.’ Runhaar does not exclude the possibility of dairy companies marketing milk from meadow-grazed cows in a couple of years' time, which would mean the consumer could contribute towards the preservation of the black-tailed godwit.