Migrant birds lose breeding grounds to poor farm management

Montagu's Harriers, like this male, are losing breeding habitat in Europe due to the intensification of agriculture. Photo: Cks3976 (commons.wikimedia.org).
Montagu's Harriers, like this male, are losing breeding habitat in Europe due to the intensification of agriculture. Photo: Cks3976 (commons.wikimedia.org).
Up to 65 per cent of bird species use farmland as breeding habitat, but the barrenness of much of it is causing rapid declines.

Migratory birds like Swallow or Montagu’s Harrier which breed in Europe in summer before migrating to warmer climes in autumn mare struggling to find appropriate breeding habitat, says BirdLife International. Farmland is a very important habitat for migratory birds, as up to 65 per cent of those species use it at some stage during their life cycle.

With widespread intensification of landscapes and industrialisation of farm management, dramatic declines in the quality and quantity of grasslands and overall loss of space for nature, EU Member States have reported agricultural methods to be one of the main threats to migratory birds. BirdLife International has consequently identified the expansion and intensification of agriculture as the main threat to almost 80 per cent of Globally Threatened and Near Threatened migratory land and waterbird species. All this is happening despite numerous efforts to improve the situation.

“Species and habitats which depend on agricultural ecosystems are doing worse than those in general assessments,” states the EEA’s State of the Environment in Europe report.

Against the doom and gloom stand the Birds and Habitats Directives. These policies have proven their worth and importance but they need to be implemented better, especially on farmland. On the other hand, another piece of EU legislation, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), is more of a hindrance than a help.

The CAP was recently reformed, ostensibly to make it more environmentally friendly and justify the huge investment of public money going into it. At the heart of the reform is its so-called ‘greening’, officially introduced this year. This asks farmers to respect three measures: grassland protection, crop diversity and keeping five per cent of farms – such as hedgerows and flower strips – in nature-friendly use as 'ecological focus areas'. To incentivise farmers to follow these environmentally beneficial practices, 30 per cent of the income support they receive from the EU is now conditional on the farmers implementing these protocols.

If well implemented, such measures could make a huge difference for migratory and resident farmland birds by improving the quality of European farmland. However, overviews by the European Commission show Member States are implementing these measures unevenly by making use of the staggering array of options, derogations and loopholes introduced into the legislation. It seems unlikely they will achieve any environmental success from it.

Almost all Member States chose to allow the growing of nitrogen-fixing crops in ecological focus areas instead of creating natural, undisturbed features. When a landscape is dominated by crops, what is needed is more space for nature without spraying of pesticides or other disturbances.

BirdLife hopes therefore that the European Commission’s upcoming biodiversity mid-term review demands a strong evaluation of the outcomes from the CAP and charts a path for correcting the most glaring forms of abuse. Without a radical change of course, our migratory birds will continue to find an ever less welcoming landscape when they arrive in spring.