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Most emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O) are linked to the use of nitrogen (N) fertiliser in agriculture, highlighting a need for agricultural management practices that reduce emissions while maintaining agronomic productivity. A new study has assessed the long-term impact of conventional tillage (CT — where soil is prepared for agriculture via mechanical agitation) and no-tillage (NT) systems on soil N2O emissions and crop productivity in rain-fed Mediterranean conditions. The findings show that, over a period of 18 years, mean yield-scaled (i.e. per unit grain yield) soil N2O emissions (YSNE) were 2.8 to 3.3 times lower under NT than CT. The researchers therefore recommend NT as a suitable strategy by which to balance agricultural productivity with lower soil N2O emissions in rain-fed Mediterranean agroecosystems.
Copper (Cu) is frequently used in agricultural practices, particularly in fungicides, used extensively in the management of permanent crops, such as vineyards, olive groves, and fruit orchards — all crops of significant economic importance to the EU. An investigation into the factors influencing Cu distribution in the topsoils of 25 EU Member States has identified that, in conjunction with other factors such as topsoil properties, land cover, and climate, such agricultural management practices play a role in influencing Cu concentration. The analysis used 21 682 soil samples from the EU-funded Land Use and Coverage Area frame Survey (LUCAS)1 and found that vineyards, olive groves, and orchards had the highest mean soil Cu concentrations of all land use categories. The findings highlight the major impact of land use and agricultural practices on soil Cu concentrations and emphasise a need for more sustainable land management practices.
In-depth soil information is increasingly required to achieve an array of environmental and economic goals. In particular, accurate estimates of soil carbon stocks are necessary to guide land-management practices and climate- related policymaking. To help meet this need, Australian scientists have developed a new sensing method to analyse cylindrical soil samples (soil cores), known as the Soil Condition ANalysis System (SCANS). By integrating a novel automated soil- core sensing system (CSS) with advanced statistical analytics and modelling, the SCANS provides a level of detail that is difficult to achieve with existing alternatives. SCANS is not only rapid, accurate and inexpensive1, but is likely to be a useful tool for farmers, land managers and policymakers, as the improved assessment of soil functions, structures and carbon stocks will facilitate more informed, sustainable decision-making.
A new study has looked at the potential of green infrastructure to compensate for the effects of soil sealing generated by urban development. It investigates how green roofs and permeable paving could contribute to flood mitigation in southern Italy. Using a hydraulic model technique, the researchers found that, in this particular urban case, green roofs were more effective than permeable paving. Policies to promote the adoption of sustainable urban drainage systems (SUDS) by the private sector could thus prove more effective under certain circumstances, and policymakers should look at ways to promote SUDS where suitable.
Researchers have developed a new model that highlights how agricultural practices impact on water availability in the wider landscape. The model, AquaCrop-Hydro, could be used to inform agricultural management decisions and policy related to water and land use, to ensure best allocation of water resources. Such tools are not only useful currently, but will be especially important in future in areas where climate change impacts on water availability and affects crop productivity.
A new study has, for the first time, estimated total anthropogenic releases of mercury over the last 4 000 years, up to 2010. Overall, the study estimates that a total of 1 540 000 tonnes of mercury have been released; three-quarters of this since 1850, and 78 times more than was released through natural causes over this period. Therefore, human activity has been responsible for a significant level of contamination, and this inventory can be used to inform and assess mitigation measures. The publication coincides with the ratification of the Minamata Convention on Mercury, and the new EU Mercury Regulation1, which prohibits the export, import and manufacturing of mercury-added products, among other measures.
Constructed wetlands serve as a cost-effective and multi-purpose option for storm-water treatment in urban landscapes, offering flood protection as well as wildlife habitat. However, a new study shows that when nearby land use includes industry, wetlands can accumulate high levels of pollution and potentially become toxic to wildlife. This new piece of research offers important insights for the planning and management of wetlands.
Researchers have compared the findings of a citizen-science project and a long-running butterfly monitoring scheme in the UK to gain insights into the reliability of data gathering by the public. They found that — contrary to the scepticism with which such projects are sometimes viewed — much of the citizen-recorded data agreed with the findings of more formal monitoring, particularly for species often found in gardens. This indicates that mass-participation sampling not only provides a valuable tool for public engagement, but, in this case, could also provide valid data to inform butterfly conservation.
The growing human population and a shift to more resource-intensive habits and behaviours are increasing the demands on global ecosystems. Natural capital is a way to describe Earth’s natural assets, including soil, air, water, and living things, existing as complex ecosystems, which provide a range of services to humans. Depleting and degrading these reserves may irreversibly reduce the availability of benefits to future generations. This In-Depth Report presents an overview of ideas, debates and progress so far in natural capital accounting, in particular in accounting for ecosystems and their services.
A new review of the potential uses of visual soil evaluation (VSE) shows how this tool can be used to indicate risks of erosion, compaction, greenhouse gas emission or storage and surface-water run-off. Assessing soils in this way is not only useful for agriculture, but has implications for the wider environment, due to the vital role that soil plays in the provision of ecosystem services, for example as a habitat for biodiversity and as a carbon sink.
Researchers have pinpointed hotspots for birds in an agricultural region of Italy. These show that hotspots for wintering birds are different to those for breeding birds — yet it is often only breeding birds’ locations that are considered in the design of protected areas. The researchers say their research highlights the importance of crop-dominated land for birds in the Mediterranean region.
There are several types of wildlife-friendly farming scheme, some of which are more prescriptive than others. A recent study compared the effects of different wildlife-friendly farming approaches, including organic farming, on pollination. The findings suggest that organic farming practices enhance pollination services but may compromise crop yield. ‘Conservation Grade’ farming schemes — biodiversity-focused practices funded by sales of labelled food products — can support both pollination and yield.
Agri-environment schemes (AES) are a means by which farmers can ensure greener agriculture, but their success is based on many factors, including the effectiveness of the scheme and participation by farmers. In an effort to understand how different factors affect uptake of AES, this study assessed the attitudes and values of decision-making for a sample of UK farmers involved with bird conservation. The results indicate that effectiveness and participation rates could be improved by informing farmers about the state of bird populations in their region and highlighting the impacts of different management practices on bird conservation.
Isolating specific reasons for involvement in agri-environment schemes (AES) is a key step in the formulation of schemes that are more appealing to Europe’s farming community. Through a comprehensive exploration of the literature on AES across the EU, this study contributes to a better understanding of what drives farmers’ participation in such initiatives, revealing important factors, such as previous experience with schemes and flexibility in management.
Many would agree that the efficiency of agri-environment schemes (AES) could be improved, but how? A new study considers how AES could deliver ecosystem services better, using peatlands in the UK as a case study. The researchers suggest a number of approaches to improving the link between the payments given to farmers and the environmental benefits they deliver; these include methods of targeting payments to particular areas.
Agri-environment schemes (AES) are widely researched; some important issues, however, remain unstudied. Researchers have investigated some of these issues using a sample of olive growers in southern Spain. Their study reveals the level of monetary incentive needed for farmers to accept an ‘ecological focus area’, and a general unwillingness to participate collectively. These results could help policymakers design more cost-effective AES.
The cost-effectiveness of agri-environment schemes to conserve species and habitats under the Scottish Rural Development Programme (SRDP) has been assessed by a recent study. Cost-effectiveness was found to vary widely between schemes. Improvements in cost-effectiveness relative to specific conservation objectives might be achieved with increased geographical targeting, advice and monitoring of impacts.
Results-based agri-environment measures are an alternative to management-based measures that, in certain circumstances, could be both more effective and more cost-efficient, since their payment depends on the provision of the desired conservation outcome. This study reviews the success of a scheme, introduced in Germany in 2000, to preserve biodiversity in species-rich grassland.
This study assessed the implementation of the ‘Flowering Meadows’ agri-environment scheme in France, a results-based scheme which encourages farmers to conserve meadows in the Bauges, Haut Jura and Vercors natural parks. While there was limited change in agricultural practices, the scheme did help to maintain meadow habitats. Farmers also welcomed the results-based payments approach, which gave them greater responsibility for and flexibility in managing their farms.
The willingness of farmers to create wetlands within agri-environment schemes (AES) has been assessed as part of a new study in Sweden. Land-owning farmers and those with prior knowledge of the Water Framework Directive (WFD) were more likely to create wetlands than leasehold farmers or those with no prior knowledge of WFD. Common reasons for not wanting to take part in the scheme included the farmers’ senior age, that wetlands would not be suitable on the farm and high costs — leading the researchers to suggest that changes in subsidy payments may increase wetland creation.
A team of UK researchers has analysed interviews with a selection of farmers from across England in an effort to determine the sociocultural factors influencing their decisions to cooperate with each other on collaborative agri-environment schemes (cAES). Results from this study have significance for the success of AES in the region, as it may be that only by collaborating on such schemes can farmers adequately conserve crucial landscape-scale ecological processes. The study finds that cAES which provide greater flexibility, with opportunities for farmer involvement in scheme design and locally targeted and clearly defined aims, are more likely to gain support from farmers. Farmers might also be more receptive to environmental interventions if they could be partially involved in cAES.
Managing landscapes effectively requires the involvement of a wide variety of stakeholders. The views and interests of these different groups can be effectively integrated by agri-environment 'collaboratives' — a type of bridging organisation which can be found in varying forms in Europe. Using data from Germany and the Netherlands, a study concludes that these groups make important contributions to landscape management, ranging from implementing policy to generating income.
Researchers have found that farmer experience, concerns and motivation influence environmental outcomes for agri-environment schemes (AES), in a study in southern England. Farmers with more environmental-management experience and/or concern for wildlife created habitats that provided more pollen and nectar for bees and butterflies and winter seed for birds. The results suggest that supporting environmental learning among farmers may increase the success of AES.
A new study has investigated the effects of set-aside management —when fields are taken out of agricultural production — on common invertebrate decomposers in soil. The diversity of woodlice species was higher in set-aside fields compared to neighbouring wheat fields and this effect increased in older set-asides. This study highlights the importance of set-aside areas as habitats for soil invertebrates, which are important for soil health.
Habitat fragmentation is a threat to biodiversity, especially in agricultural land where there are also many endangered species. Corridors between habitats are one way to counteract its effects. A study suggests that grassy field margins — established throughout Europe to improve water quality — could act as corridors. The study, which measured the effects of field margins on butterflies, concludes that agricultural schemes should include this corridor function.
The Natura 2000 network is the backbone of nature conservation in the EU, and agri-environment schemes (AES) are an important tool to protect biodiversity on European farmland. A recent study, which investigated the effectiveness of AES in relation to grassland birds in Poland, found that AES were not associated with species richness of target species, and proposed a number of reasons for this. The researchers recommend that AES management regimes should be diversified and customised to provide optimal habitat for a wider range of bird species.
A study of wildflower planting within agri-environment schemes has demonstrated that the practice can support a diverse array of economically beneficial insect species, not just prominent pollinators such as wild bees and hoverflies. The study demonstrates the high conservation potential of wildflower planting within agricultural landscapes and the value of insects outside the traditional focus of conservation efforts.
Agri-environment schemes (AES) have been implemented throughout Europe to mitigate against the negative effects of agricultural intensification. Although these schemes have shown positive effects on the abundance and richness of certain species and taxa, the impact of AES on reproduction of target species at the local and landscape scale is poorly understood. This large-scale study looked for the effect of selected AE measures on bumblebee reproduction. Results indicate that bumblebee reproduction is significantly higher on sown flower patches when compared to conventional management. Although the increase is most pronounced at the plot scale, higher reproduction was found in landscapes surrounding larger sown plots (at least one hectare) compared to smaller sown plots.
New research has examined three different categories of Ecological Risk Assessment (ERA), each with different goals. The researchers find that overlaps between the three assessments could be combined to create a more comprehensive form of ERA, usable by regulators and environmental decision makers. There is an inherent trade-off between increasing agricultural production and protection of biodiversity. This study models the effects of biodiversity conservation agri-environment schemes (AESs) and ecosystem service provider schemes, and shows that determining the aim of an agri-environment scheme is key to improving its efficiency. Such an optimisation could allow AES to be rolled out more generally to provide the backbone for both high yields and enhanced farmland biodiversity, say the researchers.
What has been the impact of Agricultural Environment Schemes (AES) on European farming? These schemes provide payments to farmers in return for the implementation of agri-environmental measures to encourage positive environmental outcomes and as a counterbalance to the profit incentive. The schemes might concentrate on low-intensity production, organic or integrated management or enhancement of biodiversity on farmland. This Thematic Issue presents recent peer-reviewed research examining the impacts AES have had on European farm ecosystems, biodiversity and farmers – and to what extent AES have benefited a range of animals and plants by increasing the number of individuals and species.
Traditional, high-nature-value (HNV) grasslands are at risk of being abandoned by farmers in the future — in turn, risking the wildlife they support, warns a new UK study. Farmers interviewed by the researchers had weak motivations to protect grasslands, as they felt that financial incentives for conservation are low and that traditional management practices are inconvenient. More dialogue between farmers and conservationists could be part of the solution, the study suggests.
This study is one of few to assess the genetic diversity of crops in an agroecosystem over several years. Researchers analysed the genetic makeup of oilseed rape plants within and outside crop fields over four years. They found similarity between cultivars of field plants in one year and those of feral plants (unplanted) in the following year. They also found persistence of the cultivars within the feral plants, which suggests that feral populations with genetically modified (GM) traits might result from persistent GM traits within field seed banks. The researchers say their findings could aid impact assessments of GM crops.
Natura 2000 sites have, on average, 10% more carbon in their topsoil than non-protected areas, according to new research. They also generally have lower economic value for agriculture. The results suggest that there is significant potential to develop win-win biodiversity conservation and climate change mitigation efforts within the EU.
The coverage of ‘Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas’ (IBAs) in relation to Special Protection Areas (SPAs) for birds in the EU has been assessed in a new study. Overall, 66% of the IBA network is covered by SPAs. SPAs were found to cover 23% of the distributions of 435 EU bird species as well as 25% of the distributions of mammals, reptiles and amphibians.
A recent study develops a framework for implementing IAMs using the Lombardy region of Italy as a case study. Researchers have run an uncertainty and sensitivity analysis with an environmental model, specifically with an Integrated Assessment Model (IAM) for air quality, demonstrating how model components are sources of uncertainty in the output of an integrated assessment. Policy responses should therefore consider uncertainty and sensitivity when developing measures to improve air quality.
Biodiversity’s contribution to ecosystem services in grasslands — at different levels of the food chain (known as trophic levels1) — has been assessed in a new study. Higher species diversity across trophic levels — particularly for plants, insects and soil microbial decomposers — is important for the provision of multiple ecosystem services related to food production, recreational benefits, or climate regulation. Species diversity across different trophic groups was also found to be just as important in controlling ecosystem functioning as the management intensity of grasslands and environmental factors, such as climate or soil type.
Transport infrastructure is so widespread in Europe that half of the land area is within 1.5 kilometres (km) of paved roads and railway lines, researchers have calculated. The researchers found that in Spain, transport infrastructure has an impact on the abundance of birds in almost half of the country and is affecting the abundance of mammals across almost all of the land area.
A UK solar park has been found to change the local microclimate, reports recently published research. Moreover, the microclimate coupled with management activities had an impact on greenhouse gas emissions and plant-community diversity and productivity under the solar panels. The study’s authors say their research provides a starting point for considering how to improve solar-park design in order to deliver co-benefits for biodiversity and farming, and minimise any negative environmental effects.
Pesticides used on agricultural land can leach into nearby surface water; this is called run-off and can harm aquatic ecosystems. This study evaluated the potential of ditches to reduce run-off, using Italy’s Po Valley as a case study. Grassy ditches were able to significantly reduce the concentration of herbicides, even during extreme flooding. The researchers therefore suggest that the promotion of vegetated ditches via agri-environment schemes would be beneficial for pesticide mitigation.
A recent study has found that bumblebees in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany are more successful at pollinating urban areas than agricultural land. Urban areas also had higher flower diversity and more potential nesting areas for bees compared to agricultural areas. However, the abundance of bee parasites was also higher in urban areas, although this was not found to negatively impact on pollination. This demonstrates the value of urban green spaces as habitat for pollinators.
Stakeholder support is essential to the success of environmental policies. A recent study has identified stakeholders that can promote biodiversity in European agricultural landscapes. The researchers found farmers were the most influential group of stakeholders, as they make the final decisions on land use. In turn, farmers are influenced in their decisions by a number of actors whose influence is perceived differently on a local and regional level.
A method for developing more cost-effective agri-environment schemes is outlined in a recent study. The procedure can be used over large areas, accounts for hundreds of management regimes and several different endangered species. The model is one of the first to account for the timing of measures and, when applied to Saxony in Germany, proposed savings of over €3 million, while also improving some conservation outcomes.
Agroforestry — managing trees alongside crop or animal-production systems — has been proposed as a means of protecting biodiversity and enhancing ecosystem service supply. A study bringing together evidence has confirmed that agroforestry does have an overall positive effect over conventional (separate) agriculture and forestry. Its environmental benefits, which should be considered in rural planning policy, include reduced nutrient run-off and soil erosion, and biodiversity protection.
The importance of seagrass meadows in supporting fisheries has been highlighted by a new study in San Simón Bay, a Natura 2000 site in Spain. The research also demonstrates the benefits of stakeholder involvement in developing management plans to balance conservation with the use of natural resources.
Researchers have developed a new approach to hierarchise pesticides based on their risk to or via the aquatic environment, which has been implemented in the Pinios River Basin of Central Greece. The analysis indicated that a number of pesticides were found in concentrations that could cause negative impacts on aquatic ecosystems. The results provide detailed information to inform decisions regarding the monitoring of pesticides in the Pinios River Basin and outline an approach that could be used in other watersheds.
Researchers have analysed the policy response to the 2013–2014 flooding of the Somerset Levels and Moors in the UK. Analysis of media coverage and interviews with stakeholders revealed how local pressure promoted dredging — a policy that had fallen out of favour with the national Environment Agency (EA). Although dredging was eventually readopted by the EA, there remain uncertainties over its long-term viability due to funding constraints and debates over its effectiveness.
A new study has assessed community perceptions towards a controversial wind-farm development in Cornwall, UK, following installation. The results indicate that a range of social, economic and environmental factors influence residents’ perceptions of wind farms. Although negative opinions of the wind farm were found both before and after construction, overall, community attitudes towards them became more favourable after construction, adding to evidence that fear of living near wind farms can reduce over time.
Large carnivores play important roles in ecosystems by regulating populations of herbivores and other species. Understanding how human activities affect the role of predators, particularly within human-modified systems such as agricultural landscapes, is therefore important. This study investigated how predator and prey populations were distributed in Transylvania, Romania, and assessed them in relation to human activities. The research highlights how relationships between large carnivores and people need to be considered as part of biodiversity conservation efforts, especially considering the successful recovery of several large carnivore populations within the EU.
Governance of biodiversity is closely linked to social and economic processes and human behaviour, appreciation of which can enhance conservation outcomes. This study reviewed findings on the social aspects of Natura 2000, identifying research gaps and recommendations for improving the network’s implementation across the EU. The researchers say limited stakeholder participation, negative perceptions of the network and a lack of consideration of the local context hinder the network’s effectiveness. They recommend increasing public awareness and compensating private landowners.
Floods are devastating natural hazards, which can cause loss of life and substantial damage to buildings and other infrastructure. Assessing future flood risk is complicated by the influence of climate change, land-use change and economic development in an area. A study on an Alpine valley suggests that land- use change and urbanisation will affect future flood risk by 2030 more than climate change, but risks can be reduced by adopting low-cost adaptation strategies, such as building restrictions in flood-prone areas and residents taking their own precautions against flooding.
The rise in intensive agriculture, and associated land-use change, is a major driver of biodiversity loss. This study evaluated these effects via international food trade, calculating estimates of species loss for 170 crops and 184 countries. The results show that the majority of biodiversity loss is due to growing crops for domestic consumption but that industrialised countries can ‘import’ negative impacts from tropical regions.
Huge amounts of soil carbon have been discovered up to 1 metre below grassland in a recent UK study. Yet most carbon inventories do not assess soil deeper than 30cm. Furthermore, this research suggests that intensive management of grassland, involving high rates of fertiliser use and livestock grazing, may deplete carbon at these depths.
Biodiversity scenarios are a useful tool to help policymakers predict how flora and fauna will likely respond to future environmental conditions. Although changes to land use are a major driver of biodiversity loss, scenarios focus overwhelmingly on climate change, a new study shows. The researchers say this imbalance makes scenarios less credible, and make recommendations for developing more plausible projections.
Voluntary non-monetary conservation — where citizens implement actions without a financial incentive — is an emerging approach to biodiversity protection that could be applied in many countries and environments, a new study shows. This study makes recommendations for actions, such as being simple and affordable, and calls for conservation scientists to recognise their value as a complementary tool alongside traditional market-based and coercive approaches, such as payment for ecosystem services and national parks.
Land-use changes in the arid south-eastern Iberian Peninsula impact on the supply of various ecosystem services that support human well-being. Research into perceptions of the rapid expansion of greenhouse horticulture and the abandonment of rural and mountainous areas has highlighted trade-offs between conservation efforts and economic development.
Agricultural run-off can contain pesticides, sediment particles and nitrates and is a major threat to the health of the sea. Although there are policy frameworks to reduce run-off water, they often don’t clearly explain how to maximise benefits. A new study provides an economic framework that prioritises methods based on their cost-effectiveness, which could help policymakers to reduce the pollution of marine ecosystems.
The concepts of instrumental value (protecting nature for humans’ sake) and intrinsic value (protecting nature for nature’s sake) are fundamental to environmental policy. This paper — based on a literature review and critical analysis — argues that using these concepts alone overlooks important concerns for the environment. The authors recommend also considering relational values, which derive from the relationships between people and nature.
Land and soil are limited natural resources essential to all human life. One of the major environmental challenges facing Europe is an increasing demand for development, which threatens ecosystem services. This Future Brief focuses on how land and soil could be used efficiently to continue to provide these functions and services for generations to come.
How rice paddy fields are managed significantly influences the release of greenhouse gases (GHGs), a recent study concludes. Permanently flooded soils release more methane than soils that are flooded and then dried between production periods, for example. In general, the researchers recommend growing other crops in dried soil between production cycles, as well as limiting nitrogen fertilisers, to minimise the release of methane and nitrous oxide.
Grasslands cover 30–40% of European agricultural areas. Agri-environmental schemes leading to even small changes in grassland biodiversity could elicit extensive benefits. A new study on working farms in southwest England highlights the contribution of the plant diversity of the grassland to the abundance and diversity of insect pollinators and their potential to increase crop yields. The researchers make recommendations for which species to include in seed mixes.
There is a large potential to improve the global efficiency of energy, land and phosphorus use, finds new research which modelled the effects of four worldwide scenarios between 2010 and 2050. An ‘ambitious resource strategy’ could moderate the increases in energy use (+25% globally instead of +80% in the baseline scenario), phosphorus use (+9% instead of +40%) and arable land (-9% globally, instead of + 4%).
The livestock sector is estimated to contribute 14.5% of all global anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This study estimated the costs of reducing emissions from ruminant livestock using five different practices. The findings will help policymakers to understand the cost effectiveness of different interventions in the sector, and the contribution that different policies could make to addressing climate change.
Climate change objectives are now featured in a wide range of policies, including the European Rural Development Programme, which promotes sustainable agricultural interventions. This study describes the net greenhouse gas emissions for these interventions across Europe. The findings could help policymakers to better meet multiple social, economic and environmental objectives, although the authors say a broader perspective may be needed to determine the overall benefit of interventions.
Lesser kestrel (Falco naumanni) populations survive equally well in grassland and artichoke fields in Italy, a recent study has concluded. Overall, however, populations are declining and the researchers recommend reducing pesticide use, growing alternative crops such as artichokes, and maintaining grasslands as part of the farming landscape.
New research aimed to identify the factors that lead to the success of Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) schemes. The study analysed 40 different schemes in Latin America to identify factors related to success. The researchers identified four such factors, which could inform policy and aid decision makers in designing PES initiatives with increased chances of success.
Decision-making about complex environmental problems like desertification, which also have important social and economic implications, could be improved by employing methods outlined in a new study. The study outlines the steps taken by researchers on behalf of the Canary Islands government in devising a policy strategy for tackling desertification and describes a three-step methodology and participatory decision-making process.
Following rapid urbanisation, management of contaminated soil has become a political priority in China. In this study, researchers reviewed the current system in China as compared to Europe and provide recommendations for the sustainable management of soil.
The preferred habitats of wetland bird species - including 12 that are endangered - have been identified by a new study. From conducting counts at 137 sites across Sweden, it was found that total species richness was highest in sites that had a tendency to flood; wet grassland areas that were grazed as opposed to mowed; and sites that were far from areas of woodland. The authors suggest this research could help determine the most suitable locations for future wetland conservation projects.
Ecological intensification, using land and resources in ways that minimises negative ecosystem impacts while maintaining agricultural productivity, has been proposed as a way to sustainably increase crop yields, but remains under debate due to a lack of evidence. This six-year study of a large commercial farm assessed how using land for wildlife habitat affected food crops. The study shows that it is possible to remove up to 8% of land from production and maintain (and in some cases increase) yield.
Approximately 1000 km2 of agricultural or natural land is lost every year in the EU due to land-use change. When this occurs close to residential areas, it can lead to conflict with local people. This study explored the views of local people in Romania, and compared them to experts. The authors discuss similarities and differences, and say that participation, where both locals and experts communicate, is key to developing effective land use policies.
Soil erosion is an important issue in Europe, with consequences for water quality, ecosystem services supply and crop production. In this study, researchers enhanced an existing model to estimate soil loss and create an updated map of soil erosion across the EU. The authors say the tool can simulate the effects of land use changes and management practices and will support effective policy decisions.
Agricultural land use presents a number of environmental challenges, which the European Commission is committed to addressing through a range of agri-environmental policies. A new study points to the importance of aligning agri-environmental policies with farmers’ needs and operations. Using the case of land clearing in Finland, the research underlines the importance of incorporating input from grassroots stakeholders into policy design.
Wind and solar energy are effectively limitless resources, but construction of renewable power must compete for a finite amount of land. This study uses a constrained assessment of available land to see whether global energy demand could be fully met by renewable sources. The analysis predicts that by 2070, the world could produce between 730 and 3700 exajoules of electricity per year (EJ/a1) from renewable power, which, even at lowest available land estimates, could meet 2070 electricity needs in most countries.
Different management practices using pesticides affect the diversity, number and ecological traits of ground spiders in apple orchards, a new study finds. Because spiders are viewed as good indicators of the quality of an entire ecosystem, the results reveal that organic orchard management may be better for local management and landscape characteristics when compared to those with pesticide use.
Conservation on private land in Poland is supported by less than half of landowners, a new study suggests. The authors conclude that both conservation agencies and landowners could benefit from voluntary conservation schemes, financial incentives and more participatory decision-making processes, while civic organisations could play a vital coordinating role.
The costs and benefits of sustainable land management have been collated in a new review. Data from a global archive was analysed for the costs of sustainable practices and technologies and for land users’ perceptions of cost–benefit ratios. Most respondents had a positive view of the short-term cost-benefit ratio, and a strongly positive view of the long term. Low upfront costs, long-term planning and security of land tenure were identified as important factors to facilitate these practices.
A reforestation project has revitalised its surroundings just 80 years after its inception. In the late 1920s, the Saldaña badlands in northern Spain were a barren region, with a thin layer of intensely weathered soil, and only 5% vegetation cover. Now that cover has increased dramatically to 87%, the soil quality is improving, and the water flow in the area has stabilised, bringing greater environmental security to the local community.
Nutrient leaching, the movement of plant nutrients from soil to water, can have negative effects on aquatic ecosystems due to eutrophication, which reduces the oxygen available in water, causing species and habitat loss. Ecological Recycling Agriculture (ERA), which is based on ecological principles and integrates crop production and animal husbandry, may limit this effect. This study investigated the impact of ERA on agricultural fields in Finland, showing that the practice can reduce nitrogen leaching and may help to achieve agricultural nitrogen-reduction targets.
In the face of substantial evidence that modern land use management practices have increased runoff at the local scale, a new study reveals changes in local land use management practices can reduce the risk of local flooding. However, there is little evidence so far that these local increases in runoff culminate in large-scale flooding effects. To address this lack of evidence, the researchers present a model that maps the downstream rate of flow back to its source areas.
Thematic Issue 52
Land use changes over time have altered relations between soils and water cycles throughout the world. Soils have been lost and degraded, and the closely interlinked processes of soils and water have become an urgent issue for European policymakers. This Thematic Issue aims to provide a review of new research into the links between soil and water issues in Europe, including a message that the soil-water links must be considered at their proper spatial scales.
The use of pesticides in orchards may be threatening populations of wild bees, which are important pollinators that increase crop productivity, a new study concludes. However, the damage was mitigated in areas where the orchards were surrounded by natural landscapes, such as deciduous forests.
A global cropland percentage map and a global field size map have been created for the first time to guide scientists and policymakers interested in global agricultural modelling and assessment. Both maps are for the baseline year 2005 and combined multiple data sets from global, regional and national levels to achieve a high level of accuracy and 1 km2 resolution.
Soil and plants store around 5% of the world’s carbon, but carbon storage in some soils is in decline. Recent research has found that climate change accounted for 9–22% of carbon declines in organic soils in semi-natural habitats throughout England and Wales from 1978–2003. The researchers say monitoring soils rich in carbon should be a priority to ensure that more carbon is not released to reinforce climate change.
This study assessed the effects of herbicides on non-target plants in Denmark and Canada. The findings showed that some plants are more sensitive to herbicides in the reproductive stages of their life cycle and can experience delays in flowering and reduced seed production. The authors say future ecological assessments should consider reproductive outcomes.
Cereal fields provide a staple food, but are also home to a wide array of invertebrates. This study analysed over 40 years of data to investigate the effects of extreme weather, climate and pesticide use on invertebrates in cereal fields in southern England. As pesticide use had a greater effect on abundance than temperature or rainfall, the authors also recommend reducing pesticide use.
Urban green spaces provide important ecosystem services in cities, from recreation to the mitigation of noise and air pollution. This study quantified the ecosystem services (ES) provided by green spaces in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, using new methods to evaluate high-resolution land-cover data. The findings show that different types of green space provide different ES, highlighting the importance of careful design during city planning. The authors say their method to map ES supply will aid the design of healthy, climate-resilient cities.
Storage of carbon in soil helps to keep land fertile and regulates the climate, and is therefore an important ecosystem service. However, mapping of soil carbon stocks currently uses unreliable measures. This study used data from a national survey of English grasslands to show that soil carbon stocks can be accurately predicted using simple measures of soil and climatic conditions.
Rewilding, a process of passive management focused on restoring natural ecological processes and reducing human influence on landscapes, could be used to restore the increasing amounts of abandoned agricultural land in Europe to more biodiverse wilderness. A new study has designed a framework to measure potential for rewilding in areas across Europe, highlighting in particular the potential of Natura 2000 sites and suggesting specific aspects of wilderness that future policies could address.
Amid efforts to reduce the loss of global biodiversity, a new study discusses how synergies and trade-offs between different conservation objectives should be researched and recognised in policy making. For example, by increasing protected areas, habitat loss and species decline could also be prevented.
Scientists recommend policies that alternate between mowing and grazing to manage Europe’s high-nature-value grasslands. This comes after a new seven-year study found that a high plant-species diversity helps grasslands to maintain productivity and to resist depletion of phosphorus caused by livestock grazing and depletion of potassium caused by mowing.
The declining number of bee and wasp species in England has been linked to historic changes in land-use in a recent study. Researchers say that policies which promote diverse landscapes offer more opportunities for bees and wasps to nest and forage and are best for conserving these insect pollinators.
Native soils are thought to take up more of the greenhouse gas methane than land used for farming. This study shows that, while agriculture can exert an adverse impact on soil methane uptake, the application of soil conditioners like compost may compensate for loss of the methane sink function. The researchers propose new land management strategies based on this finding.
The drive to increase renewable energy production can sometimes be at loggerheads with the desire to preserve natural landscapes. In this study, researchers from across Europe assessed the environmental impacts of renewable energies in the Alps, making key recommendations to resolve conflicts between different users of habitats.
Ecological networks connect areas of habitat to prevent biodiversity loss and have been established across Europe. The ambitious Dutch National Ecological Network aims to span 728 500 hectares by 2025. In this study, researchers explored the feasibility of this goal in the context of climate and policy changes.
Farmland birds like skylarks are attracted to nest in agricultural grassland, but repeated harvesting for silage causes most nests to fail. This study showed that skylark breeding success in silage was too low to sustain local populations. The researchers say that grass silage is a hostile environment for breeding skylarks and conservation efforts should focus on making other parts of the landscape more attractive and productive for nesting birds.
Urban agriculture is becoming increasingly popular. A recent assessment of rooftop farming in Barcelona shows differing attitudes towards the practice, and provides important recommendations for the development of agricultural policy for the 21st century, such as including food production as a potential use of rooftops in planning legislation.
Zero Energy Buildings (ZEBs) are a viable means to reduce global energy demand, a new study suggests. However, in response to the drop in energy costs for the household due to better energy efficiency, people may begin to consume more energy than they otherwise would. These so-called ‘rebound effects’ can undermine emissions reductions, the study says, and it proposes approaches that could lessen these impacts.
Ecosystems services — the benefits that nature provides to people — are inadequately accounted for in Environmental Impact Assessments, a new study suggests. The researchers used a case study in France to illustrate the substantial economic losses that are incurred as a result of infrastructure development that goes ahead without sufficient consideration of the impacts on ecosystem services.
This Thematic Issue provides a flavour of recent work by scientists in the area of biodiversity monitoring to highlight both up-to-date approaches to conservation and evaluation, and how long-term monitoring data could be used more effectively in management and policy decisions.
A new method for identifying forest sites to protect under the Natura 2000 network — as well as reviewing existing sites — is presented in a recent study. The modelling approach predicts the location of certain types of high nature value habitats using existing data on the distribution of key indicator species. The study demonstrates the method using the case of a German federal state, Lower Saxony.
The effects of changing agricultural practices on farmland birds are explored in a recently published study from Sweden. Overall abundance of 16 common species declined by 23% between 1994 and 2004, which may be partly caused by changes in land use, such as an increase in the amount of wheat cropland. However, effects vary between species, and some species increased or stayed stable in number.
The number of birds in Europe has fallen by more than 420 million between 1980 and 2009, new research has found. The study, which examined 144 bird species across 25 countries, found that 90% of the lost numbers were accounted for by common species, such as house sparrows (Passer domesticus). The decline was steepest in the first half of the study (1980–1994), followed by a period of greater stability in the second (1995-2009). More needs to be done to conserve common, as well as rare species, the researchers say.
The decline of urban populations and abandonment of buildings and land could provide an opportunity to promote ecosystem services, a new study suggests. The researchers examined the relationships between the use of abandoned land and ecosystem services, providing insight into the pros and cons of different urban planning policies.
Over 8% of land in Europe could be at moderate-to-high risk of wind-driven soil erosion, a new study has estimated. In the first assessment of its kind, the researchers produced maps which show wind erosion risk across 36 countries. This information could help guide actions to tackle land degradation.
Roads reduce the species diversity and distribution of frogs and toads, a new US study reports. The large-scale study used data from a national citizen science programme in which members of the public help monitor amphibian populations.
New areas of land suitable for agriculture will open up under climate change’s effects, new research predicts, particularly in far northern regions of the world. However, the overall quality of land for farming will decline and many regions, including Europe, could lose large areas of suitable land.
With over half of Europe’s species dependent on agricultural habitats, protecting ‘high nature value’ farmland is vital to biodiversity conservation. However, the identification and assessment of such farmland requires careful co-ordination, concludes a recent study. The researchers present a framework to help with this process and make a set of key recommendations.
Climate change, tourism and population growth are all accelerating land degradation in the Mediterranean region, according to recent research. This can have severe impacts: the amount of available agricultural land per capita in the region could have dropped by half by 2020, compared with 1961, the study estimates.
This article was updated 6.11.14 to correct an error in the valuation of ecosystem services provided by Mediterranean coastal wetlands.
Human activities are threatening river ecosystems in the Mediterranean. Recent research in south-east Spain has highlighted the need to assess biodiversity and the ecological condition of river ecosystems at both basin-wide and local scales. The researchers say this will provide a better assessment of river ecosystems, aiding management decisions.
A new decision-making aid to identify the best type of management plan for Natura 2000 sites has been developed by researchers. Using extensive data on different facets of biodiversity and human impacts, the researchers created two indices to show where conservation measures need to be integrated with socio-economic development. This study used sites in Italy as a case study but the method is widely applicable to all Natura 2000 sites, the researchers stress.
Halving meat and dairy consumption in Europe could reduce agricultural greenhouse-gas emissions by up to 42% and nitrogen pollution by 40%, new research suggests. The amount of land needed to grow food for each EU citizen would fall from 0.23 to 0.17 hectares and the reduced intake of saturated fats and red meat could have substantial health benefits, the researchers conclude.
Urbanising arable land can have serious economic consequences as a result of the reduction in food production and loss of ecosystem services, according to recent research. The loss of 15 000 ha of productive soils during 2003-2008 on the Emilia-Romagna Plain in Italy cost approximately €19 million in carbon storage, €100 million in wheat production and €270 million in raw materials, the researchers estimate.
Changing agricultural management practices can significantly improve water quality, according to a long-term study. The researchers found that in a US lake the total amount of suspended sediment fell, and water clarity increased as a result of multiple integrated practices implemented to reduce runoff in the surrounding area. These included introducing buffer strips of vegetation and planting trees.
A framework to combine economically viable agriculture with effective biodiversity conservation has been described in a recent study. According to the researchers, their approach provides a simple guide designed to help planners and farmers achieve sustainable agriculture.
Moving to an area with good access to green spaces has a positive, lasting effect on residents' mental health, new research suggests. The study shows that people who move to greener areas report considerably improved mental health three years after leaving their previous neighbourhood.
The reduction in summer storms in the western Mediterranean could be partly caused by land use change on coasts and mountain slopes, a new study reports. This lack of storms causes water vapour to build up above the region and may lead to heavy rainfall and flooding in central Europe.
Pollination by wild insects and honey bees improves soybean yield by 18%, new research has indicated. This equates to an extra 331.6 kg of seeds per hectare, boosting the value of the global crop by €12.74 billion. Encouraging insect pollination could therefore reduce the destruction of natural ecosystems to make way for soybean cultivation, the researchers say.
Increases in global energy requirements could lead to a rise in the energy sector's water footprint of up to 66% in the next 20 years, new research suggests. As part of a sustainable future, any energy mix must enable a reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. However, some renewable sources, such as biofuels and large-scale hydropower, have large water footprints, a factor which must also be considered in energy policies, the researchers say.
The land use associated with food imports to Germany outweighs that of exported food, leaving the country with a 'land debt', new research suggests. However, reducing the amount of animal products in the diet and minimising food waste could enable the country to achieve a positive land balance, the researchers conclude.
Diverse agri-environmental schemes which combine flowering crops with semi-natural habitats, such as grasslands and hedgerows, will be best for bees, new research suggests. The researchers examined the foraging behaviour of honey bees, bumblebees and other wild bees and found that all bees used semi-natural habitats, which were particularly important for wild bees, in addition to crops, such as sunflowers.