Agriculture "greatest threat to European biodiversity" says EU

Yellowhammer has suffered one of the swiftest declines among farmland birds, and the cause is widely thought to be partly due to the intensification of agriculture. Photo: Charlesjsharp (commons.wikimedia.org).
Yellowhammer has suffered one of the swiftest declines among farmland birds, and the cause is widely thought to be partly due to the intensification of agriculture. Photo: Charlesjsharp (commons.wikimedia.org).
EU Member States have identified farming as the biggest threat to wildlife in Europe, mostly from the ravages of its own policies.

In Europe, farming has transformed the natural landscape over millennia. Today, around 40 per cent of land area is under agricultural use and it is estimated that more than half of European species use farmland habitats. Therefore, it is not surprising that agriculture has a profound influence on the biodiversity of Europe. This is why it is shocking that EU Member States themselves have identified agriculture as the single greatest threat to biodiversity.

The EU Farmland Bird Indicator reveals that populations of common farmland birds in the EU (such as European Turtle Dove and Goldfinch) have declined by 57 per cent since 1980, with worse declines seen in the countries that have been in the EU the longest.

The EU State of Nature report shows that farming-related activities (modification of cultivation practices and changes in grazing regimes) are the most prominent pressures and threats to birds. For non-bird species covered by the Habitats Directive, agriculture is in the top two most frequently reported high-ranked pressures and threats. For habitats, fertilisation and changes in grazing by livestock are the most frequently reported threats.

The same report also shows that more than half of bird species associated with agricultural and grassland habitats have unfavourable conservation status in the EU (25 per cent are Threatened and 28 per cent are Near Threatened, Declining or Depleted), while the European Red List of Birds shows that this is the most threatened group of birds in Europe.

Changes in land use and agricultural expansion and intensification is now widely seen by the scientific community as the main cause of the decline in farmland bird species since the 1970s. In marginal or mountain areas, abandonment of farmland is the main culprit.

The main drivers of declines vary by region: northern and western Europe are affected by increased use of fertilisers and biocides, and changes in crops and crop rotations. In central and Eastern Europe, it is management intensity – that is, using more funds, labour and innovative practices to increase crop yield and to reduce time the land lies fallow (fallow land is an important bird breeding habitat). In the Mediterranean, intensification and abandonment of farmland have the worst effect.

One of the major drivers of agricultural change is the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The CAP has resulted in the abandoning of traditional low-intensity farming (where land lies fallow between periods of cultivation) for more intense industrial-level agriculture, which has negatively impacted biodiversity.

Successive reforms of the CAP have sought to mitigate its impact on biodiversity, and had been moving towards measures that could actually make a difference, such as linking the payment of agricultural subsidies with the implementation of agri-environment measures. However, thanks to poor implementation, loopholes and lack of funding, their effectiveness has suffered.

In a big setback, the 2014 ‘reform’ of the CAP delivered an essentially empty set of greening measures, both in terms of land coverage and environmental content. Scientists concluded that the new ‘greening’ rules would not drive the delivery of environmental public goods to any meaningful extent and would therefore not contribute to the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy.
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