European Agriculture Crisis Could Benefit Conservation

Although European agriculture is reeling from mad cow and hoof-and-mouth disease, the crisis could benefit conservation. The push for major agricultural reforms may be the best hope for restoring habitats in Western Europe, much of which has been almost completely developed.

“Visitors to the UK are often astonished by the paucity of anything resembling natural habitat. Even national parks are intensively farmed, usually by intensive grazing by sheep and cattle, and have lost much of their interest and beauty,” says William Sutherland of the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, in the March issue of Trends in Ecology & Evolution.

Decades of agricultural subsidies in Western Europe have encouraged outright conversion of wildlands to farmland as well as farming practices that harm the environment. For instance, the European Union’s current Common Agricultural Policy pays farmers per head of sheep, resulting in overstocking that degrades habitat.

Government and environmental organizations alike support shifting subsidies towards environmental protection. While this sounds good, it may not be working as well as it could in practice. The current approach is to provide incentives for farmers to modify agricultural practices, resulting in “management agreements” such as planting hedgerows between fields or mowing fields after the bird breeding season. “The key, but usually unasked question, is whether, on its own, the alteration of farming methods is sufficiently effective,” says Sutherland.

Recent studies suggest that in some cases the answer may be no. While there have been successes, some management agreements do not benefit conservation. Notably, a recent study in the Netherlands found that unmanaged fields actually had more wading birds than fields with management agreements designed to protect the birds.

Sutherland says it’s time to think big when it comes to conservation incentives in Europe, suggesting a combination of management agreements and large-scale habitat restoration. The opportunity to restore habitat is likely to be attractive to the many farmers who have lost hoofstock to disease or who have unproductive land. For instance, erosion is resulting in poor soil and drainage around Wicken Fen, a 324-hectare wetland remnant in Cambridgeshire, UK. Local farmers are beginning to sell their land to the National Trust, gradually increasing the area of fen that can be restored.

Restoring habitat also could benefit farming communities by increasing tourism, which can be even more important to the rural economy than agriculture. Furthermore, habitat restoration can help solve environmental problems such as flooding. For instance, as grasslands have been converted to arable land in West Germany, water runoff has increased. The risk of flooding could be reduced by restoring meadows, wetlands, and other habitats that absorb water. Finally, restoring habitat may also help restore the public’s trust in the European farming community, which in turn could help revitalize agriculture there. “The debate over the landscape has just begun for real,” says Sutherland. “Restoration and creation are now practical options.”

—Robin Meadows

Further Information:

Sutherland, W.J. 2002. Restoring a sustainable countryside. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 17:148-150.

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