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Rhön (Germany)
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Introduction

One of the most remarkable aspects of nature in Europe, when compared to North America or the tropical rainforests, is that a considerable part of it is closely linked to farming. Calcareous grasslands, hay meadows, dehesas, ...the list goes on.

In all these habitat types we are dealing with vegetation communities which tend to evolve over time into other communities, usually scrub and eventually woodland. In primeval situations such habitats would come into being as a result of natural catastrophic events (wildfires, floods and erosion, storms) or maybe through the action of megaherbivores (the actual importance of large herbivores is still hotly debated). They would exist for a while and then disappear again, until the next cycle of events favours their re-apparition.

Human settlement and land conversion to farming has greatly increased the area of such habitats in Europe over the past thousands of years, and, through grazing by livestock, mowing for hay or burning for rotational crop growing, maintained them against their natural evolution to scrub, woodland etc. Heaths and a wide variety of meadows and grazing grasslands have thus become typical aspects of the traditional European landscapes.

Not only are they a natural heritage in their own right, they also harbour an array of plant and animal species which are adapted to these habitats. Some bird species, for instance, originally from the natural steppes of central Asia, like the great bustard, have adapted to the open croplands and pastures created by farmers and have followed human settlements into central and western Europe.

Threats

The problem is that the sorts of traditional rural land uses which sustained these dynamic habitats, and the species which depended on them over centuries, are under threat from changes to agricultural practice and economic structures. In summary, these involve:

  • Abandonment. Grasslands are no longer grazed or mowed; heathlands are no longer exploited traditionally; succession takes over and there is overgrowth by bushes, shrubs, woody plants. This happens when farmers lose interest, because the economic return no longer merits the effort, because hay is replaced as fodder by e.g. maize or industrial feedstuffs, because outdoors grazing makes way for housed livestock,... Farming focuses on other activities on less marginal land, or ceases altogether (rural depopulation).
  • Intensification: Grasslands are ‘improved’ by draining, ploughing and sowing, applying fertiliser etc., in order to get more cuts a year and higher yields per cut (silage). Such agri-industrial grasslands have low biodiversity value. Here we have a situation which is the opposite of abandonment – instead of declining farming there are strong incentives to boost production.
  • Conversion: Semi-natural grasslands, heathlands etc are converted to other land uses: afforestation (with low-biodiversity coniferous monocultures), arable land, vineyards, housing estates, quarries, development of various activities.
  • Ecologically inappropriate practices: Mowing at the wrong dates, for instance, can disturb breeding birds or favour certain plant species to the detriment of others.

Natura 2000

The Natura 2000 Network includes many sites which are designated for Annex I grassland, heath or other dynamic, semi-natural habitats and/or for the species relying on them. So it is vital for the Natura 2000 site managers to build up partnerships with farmers and find ways of restoring or continuing the kinds of land use and practices which guarantee a favourable conservation status to the Natura 2000 values, yet without compromising the farmers’ right to a livelihood.

Good practice examples
The following case studies illustrate the range of different ways that farming and conservation have been reconciled:

1. Using conservation to develop new farming outlets in the Rhön, Germany
2. Influencing policy in Termoncarragh SPA in Ireland
3. Testing suitable land use methods for steppes and their birds in Spain
4. Reviving extensive farming in the baltic coastal meadows of Estonia
5. Combining large-scale arable farming with little bustards in France

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