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Links between agriculture and wildlife

Links between agriculture and wildlife

The data on the censuses of wild fauna populations, and in particular of avifauna, unfortunately confirm that in Europe there is a significant decline in the number and variety of animal species present in agricultural land, one of the so-called “biodiversity in agricultural land”.
However, the European Union had committed to halting the loss of biodiversity by 2020. The Commission had planned to allocate 66 billion euros from the common agricultural policy between 2014 and 2020 to this objective.
The European Court of Auditors has examined whether EU agricultural policy has contributed to maintaining and enhancing biodiversity on agricultural land. It found that the wording of the agriculture-related objectives pursued by the EU biodiversity strategy makes it difficult to measure progress; the ways in which the Commission tracks biodiversity spending funded by the EU budget is unreliable; the impact of CAP direct payments is limited or unknown; and the Commission and Member States have prioritized rural development measures with lower impact.
Without going further into the aspects of verifying policies and their effects in the European Union, it is clear that, for many years now, in Europe, there has been a significant decline in the number and variety of species living in agricultural land. Since 1990, for example, populations of birds on agricultural land and butterflies on grassland have declined by more than 30%.
For this reason the Court recommended that the Commission:
– improve the coordination and design of the post-2020 EU biodiversity strategy and, to this end, monitor expenditure more precisely;
– enhance the contribution of direct payments to biodiversity on agricultural land;
– increase the contribution of rural development to biodiversity on agricultural land e
– develop reliable indicators to evaluate the impact of the CAP on biodiversity in agricultural land.
Why is the protection of avifauna important (a question that applies to the entire wildlife system) not only in natural ecosystems but also in agricultural ones?
We consider that birds play a fundamental ecological role in the agricultural scenario.
Birds, as widely reiterated, have an essential importance for biodiversity as, through their behavior and migrations, they are able to facilitate the development of plants and their spread.
In fact, birds favor the dissemination of seeds and the pollination of different plant species.
Birds can also positively influence the growth and good health of plants through their nutrition. In fact, many species of birds, such as hummingbirds, woodpeckers, swallows, etc., feed on insects which are often harmful to plants, thus helping to reduce the problems linked to the attack of these parasites.
Other species, however, such as parrots, feed on seeds and fruits and once consumed, can disperse these seeds, encouraging the growth of new plants.
Furthermore, these feathered animals represent a crucial component in the development of ecosystems, performing a vast series of ecological functions.
Among the most important tasks that benefit the ecosystem, birds are responsible for controlling populations of insects and other small animals through their diet.
This behavior restores the balance of the environment and prevents some types of insects, often harmful to the health of plants, from becoming too numerous. It is not for nothing that in recent times, in agriculture, the fight against phytophagous pests has assumed significant proportions, requiring a growing need for insecticides.
For example, species such as swallows and woodpeckers feed on insects that damage trees and crops, thus eliminating the need to use poisons and pesticides.
Their diet also promotes the protection of ecosystems as some birds, such as seagulls and hawks, feed on fish and animals, contributing to the transport of nutrients present in the carcasses of these animals, which are very useful for the soil.
An example above all is that of the decreased intake of guano and various substances, including phosphates, linked to bird excrement, requiring a significant increase in synthetic phosphate fertilization.
Birds are an integral part of the food chain as they regulate the populations of other species and in addition to being predators, birds also become prey of other animals, thus managing to close the circle.
Unfortunately, the sharp decline in insects in the agricultural landscape creates major problems for insectivorous nesting birds. The use of pesticides and modern agricultural techniques are among the main causes of the disappearance of insects. In agricultural areas, the decline in insectivorous bird species is particularly pronounced.
For example, in Switzerland, where some research has been carried out, around 40% of nesting species feed almost exclusively on insects. Another 25% have a mixed diet, but raise their young mainly on insects. The need for suitable and easy-to-prey insects is therefore high.
Even though we only have a small amount of data available across Central Europe, we know that there are fewer insects today than there were decades ago. This is demonstrated at least in Germany for several regions in which, over the last 27 years, insect biomass has decreased by 75 %. In Switzerland there are almost no data sets documenting the reduction in insect biomass. Georg Artmann-Graf has noted a clear decline in locusts in the Olten SW region over the last 30 years. Older train drivers also agree that, even in the 1960s, they had to clean the windscreen of their locomotive from a mass of dead insects after every journey, whereas today cleaning is only necessary at much longer intervals (the so-called windscreen effect , well known to scientists).
There are many reasons for the decline in insects. In particular, the loss of favorable habitats for them (dry and semi-dry meadows, wetlands, mirrors and waterways close to their natural state) weighs heavily: above all in these environments numerous large insects were present such as grasshoppers, dragonflies and butterflies. Many modern management techniques have a negative impact on insects. Near natural state rail and road embankments are often mowed during the main flowering period. For the production of silage, on mowing meadows the grass is packaged and taken away immediately after cutting, together with most of the insects. The lawns are mowed up to six times a year and machinery (mower conditioners) is often used which crushes the grass immediately after mowing, so that it dries more quickly. These machines cause a loss of European bees seven times greater (up to 90,000 dead bees/Ha) compared to mowing without conditioning.
Furthermore (and certainly not least) the use of pesticides reduces the diversity and frequency of arthropods. Herbicides affect the food base of many insects. Insecticides decimate all insects, not just phytophages and, often sterilizing the soil, create an inhospitable environment and interrupt relationships with insects and other soil organisms.
In fact, insecticides that are difficult to degrade penetrate into the soil and partly into groundwater. By the 1970s, the now widely banned DDT, being a fat-soluble insecticide, had accumulated along the food chain, leading to a dramatic decline in birds of prey around the world. Today neonicotinoids, which are difficult to degrade and water-soluble, are often used as a prophylaxis and in Switzerland they have also been detected in bodies of water and streams, as well as on surfaces for the promotion of biodiversity. Even in private gardens the use of pesticides is considerable. In the Netherlands, in areas with a greater presence of neonicotinoids in surface waters, insectivorous birds have decreased more markedly than in less polluted areas. The use of medicines in the fight against livestock parasites leads to less colonization of manure and sewage by insects and therefore their further reduction.
Among the agricultural techniques, developed in recent decades, we report the increased fertilization (especially with synthetic fertilizers); numerous meadows and crops are now much denser than they once were. In Engadine (Switzerland), for example, in just 20 years sparse, nutrient-poor meadows have decreased by 20 %, while in the same period the percentage of very dense meadows has increased sharply. Cereal fields are denser due to new varieties and fertilization. In crops and dense lawns, catching insects is more difficult.
All these aspects are leading avifauna to a dangerous collapse.
It is not surprising, in fact, that the exclusively insectivorous species of agricultural areas (e.g. Skylarks, Pipiter, Little Shrike, Whitethroat, Whinchat) are in notable decline. Species from agricultural areas less dependent on insects for their food (e.g. white stork, red kite, kestrel, fieldfare, yellowhammer), on the whole are not affected by this decline. In general, insectivores that live in the woods (e.g. woodpeckers, tits, blackcaps, robins) and those that hunt in flight (e.g. great swifts, bee-eaters) do not show this negative trend. The disturbing situation of insectivores in agricultural areas is probably a consequence of the massive use of pesticides, modern agricultural techniques and land reclamation.

Possible solutions –
The solution to all this falls within the so-called dictates of agroecology, an agricultural production technique (and not only) perfectly synchronous with the rules and principles of ecology.
The situation can in fact be improved with simple measures:
– on extensive and mulch lawns, leaving a minimum of 10% of the surface intact with each mowing must become the norm. The positive effect of these residual surfaces on insects is proven.
– the use of pesticides must be strongly limited and must not occur for preventive purposes, but only starting from a certain damage threshold. It has already been shown that, as a rule, a reduction in pesticides of around 42 % does not cause crop losses.
– through information actions, consumers’ willingness to purchase foods produced with few pesticides must be further increased.
– in specialized cultivations, the vast majority of green surfaces are arranged in an unnatural way and “tended for” intensively; they are not attractive to insects.
– finally, gardening professionals and garden owners should be motivated to create gardens close to their natural state and insect-friendly, contributing to the increase of ecological corridors.
The decrease in food resources of insectivorous bird species is a major problem whose extent is too little known, poorly addressed by the CAP (Community Agricultural Policy) which has excessively summarized its aspects, through the application of eco-schemes which can do little or nothing do in this sense.
The same Farm to Fork and Biodiversity 2030 strategies, despite the objectives outlined, do not find (exclusion made for Regional Law 21/2021 of the Sicilian Region) a regulatory and training framework capable of modifying knowledge, models, techniques and systems that orbit around the world of agricultural production.
In concrete terms, the solution consists in having farms transition to the agroecological system, also allowing an initial loss of food production (since reaching a new balance in an agroecological system takes a few years) and compensating eco-farmers for the incomes, emerging from this mess of eco-schemes which have thrown farmers and technicians into despair and often confusion and which are causing quite a few problems especially in the production systems of Mediterranean climates.
Obviously this agroecological transition must be entrusted to the supervision of a State body (such as CREA which, through a dense network of Technical Assistance, must approve the company’s agroecological transitions and follow their evolution in the medium-long term. In Sicily, we repeat , we would also have the law (L.R. 21/2021), we just need the political will to implement it.
Meanwhile, time passes, our volatile friends pay a heavy price, but the whole of humanity will be forced to pay the highest current bill if we do not quickly change our way of dealing with the entire issue.

Guido Bissanti

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