What About Fertile Agricultural Regions?

Does Controlled Rewilding for marginal land mean that we should forget about the ecosystems within fertile agricultural regions? Although it makes sense within a Europe-wide land-sparing framework to intensively farm such fertile regions (Merckx and Pereira in press), we remark that a dominant land-use of intensive farming does not necessarily have to imply current destructive practices, but merely the provision of high yields. Moreover, the conservation value of remaining semi-natural patches can be increased by an ecological upgrade of the intervening 'matrix', which basically consists of farmland, but also of brownfield sites and urbanised areas (Dennis 2010). Tangible environmental benefits can be obtained on farmland via agri-environment schemes (AES) (Donald and Evans 2006; Scheper et al. 2013), where the aim should be to reconcile intensive agricultural practices with wider societal benefits, including biodiversity. Here, the basic questions are which landscape elements to restore, how, and at what spatial scale, in order to make farmland less hostile to a broad range of declining 'wider countryside' and rare, localized species (Merckx et al. 2010a). Brownfield and even urban sites provide opportunities for restoration of successional biotopes otherwise not strongly represented locally, with restoration plans best tailored to focal species and/or to improving biotopes by assuring a sufficient quantity, quality and spatio-temporal diversity of habitat resources (New 2009; Dennis 2010).

AES can reverse negative biodiversity trends by increasing resource heterogeneity and improving dispersal success (Dennis 2010). However, they must be made more efficient and cost-effective (Scheper et al. 2013). One way to achieve this is by implementing specific measures for high-priority species targeted at landscapes where such species occur. However, we argue that this species-specific approach must be complemented by a multi-species approach in order to more fully address the steep declines in farmland biodiversity. General AES that are focused on the restoration and implementation of vital landscape elements are key to this multi-species approach. Even simple AES management prescriptions applied to relatively small areas can benefit Lepidoptera populations. For example, the restoration and management of arable field margins has been shown to benefit a range of insect groups (Haaland et al. 2011). Sympathetic management of hedgerows has positive effects on vulnerable insects, such as the brown hairstreak Thecla betulae butterfly (Merckx and Berwaerts 2010) and the lackey Malacosoma neustria (T. Merckx pers. data), a macro-moth of which the larvae feed gregariously on blackthorn Prunus spinosa and hawthorn Crataegus sp. In addition, we have recently discovered that the protection of existing hedgerow trees, and the provision of new ones, is likely to be a highly beneficial conservation tool for populations of moths, and probably many other flying insects too, as hedgerow trees provide a sheltered microclimate and other key habitat resources (Merckx et al. 2012b). The implementation of hedgerow tree and field margin AES options is likely to provide even better results in areas where farmers are targeted to join AES across the landscape. This approach results in a landscape-scale joining-up of habitat resources. Such a higher connectivity between resources at the landscape-scale does benefit fairly mobile species, which use the farmland biotope at a landscape-scale (see Chap. 7). A fair amount of macro-moth species falls into this category (Merckx and Macdonald in press).

 
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