Science - October 29, 2010

Skylark seeks sides of fields

Farmland birds are having a tough time in this country. Did anyone hear a skylark sing last summer? Money is needed to make that happen, says Jules Bos of Plant Research International. He has figured out that this would take at least twenty million euros a year.

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Farmland birds do not collectively exist as a group at all, Bos points out. Birds such as the partridge, the skylark and the yellowhammer are placed under this term because most of them in this country are relegated to cultivated land. 'Grassland is being used so intensively that it is no longer possible to raise the young there', says Bos. 'Only farmland still provides a period of rest between sowing and harvesting, so that these birds can still sustain themselves there.'
Absolute lower limit
But it is also becoming more difficult to hang in there. The PBL (Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency) has commissioned Bos and bird researchers from Sovon to work together to find ways to save farmland birds. That will cost money, says Bos. At least twenty million euros a year. This amount - double that spent currently on the comings and goings for farmland birds - is the 'absolute lower limit needed to sustain efforts to halt further decline.'
The money is needed to develop better breeding and foraging grounds for farmland birds. An example is the laying of spray-free zones at the edges of fields. Being rich in insects, such farmland border zones are ideal for birds; besides food, they also provide abundant shelter and protection. To enable birds to make it easily through the winter, farmers should also leave their land fallow after the harvest, instead of ploughing it right away. Well-managed grain stubbles are rich in winter fodder, says Bos.
Biodiversity goals
Farmland birds do not get the kind of  attention given to meadow birds such as the peewit and black-tailed godwit. This is understandable, Bos feels. 'Meadow birds are part and parcel of the typical Dutch wetland landscape. The first godwit causes a stir. And look at all the fuss over the first peewit egg. Meadow birds are literally more visible. Added to this, the Netherlands does not have any official role within Europe for the care and protection of farmland birds.'
To achieve European biodiversity goals, protection of farmland birds is desperately needed. Bos sees a good way to do so in Europe's common agricultural policy. 'The Netherlands wants more communalization in this policy. This means that in return for agricultural subsidies, farmers would have to do more for communal goals such as protecting the biodiversity.'
Income
Bos is currently involved in a follow-up study for the PBL. 'We now know how much money is needed. But such findings still need to be interpreted from the point of view of the agricultural firm. What does a firm in a certain area have to do and how do these measures affect the income of the farmer in different scenarios of the common agricultural policy?'
The report in Dutch, De veldleeuwerik zingt niet voor niets, can be downloaded from www.wotnatuurenmilieu.wur.nl. It will also be featured in the November issue of De Levende Natuur magazine.

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