Testing suitable land use methods for Steppes and
their birds in Spain
Spain’s steppes contain both rare grassland habitat types and a host of Annex I birds, some of them endangered. The steppes, which owe their biodiversity to traditional low-key cereal growing and sheep grazing, are however under threat from two opposing processes. In some areas, farming is abandoned altogether, in others, there is intensification and overgrazing.
In two LIFE-Nature projects, the beneficiaries, the Regional Government of Extremadura’s nature conservation department and the NGO Sociedad Española de Ornitología (SEO/Birdlife), tested different management models in farming estates to find ecologically sustainable agricultural models. The aim was to enhance the conservation status of the Natura 2000 habitats and species of the La Serena steppes with the help of local farmers.
In the SEO project, two farm estates were selected, chosen for their value for steppe birds, and an agreement reached with the owners/leaseholders that the estates would be managed during the LIFE project according to ecological guidelines. Data from these two pilot estates were compared with two other control estates which stayed under conventional farm management. Under the agreement, the farmers carried out their work under the technical supervision of the beneficiary, in return for a compensation for their effort.
In the two pilot farms, most land (3-400 ha at each farm) was kept in livestock, but the density was reduced from 3 to 1.5 sheep/ha (meaning a 50% reduction of the flocks by number). The remainder of the land (265 ha altogether) was earmarked for cereal dry farming using a traditional rotation system.
This land was further divided into three or four sections which were fenced and rotated (= land left fallow, ploughed, sowed once or twice) on a three or four-year cycle. The rotation allowed preferences in the use of crops or fallow land by the different target species. The breeding requirements of bird species were taken into account when setting the calendar for the farming work (no harvesting before 20/6, no ploughing between 1/03 and 1/10). 25% of the surface was devoted to mixed cereal-legume cultivation (oats/vetch) which was not harvested, in order to provide foraging opportunities for the birds. No fertilisers were used.
Regular bird counts (6/year) allowed the estates to be compared thoroughly with the control sites as regards species abundance and preferences for different habitats.
Analysis of the results showed that:
The economic performance of the estates was also compared. Based on the two managed estates, this study estimated a decrease in returns of €33.99 ha for sheep and €20.35 ha for arable. Therefore, to make the management viable, agri-environmental measures would need to be set up.
- The managed estates had a higher number of species.
- The density of these species increased during the project implementation.
- The management model brings proportionately greatest benefit to lesser kestrel, great bustard and little bustard.
- Fallow land is used preferentially to crops by most of the species studied.
- Sowed cereals benefited great and little bustard.
- Predation significantly decreased in the managed estates during the implementation of the project, which could be partially related to the cover and height of the vegetation.
- The unusually high rains registered in the last three years of the project (above the average of the last 30 years) allowed a more intensive grazing of the estates than expected, so that there was less difference in pasture vegetation between the managed and control estates than expected. A longer-term trial under all possible meteorological scenarios would be required. Nevertheless, the differences in the one dry project year were significant.
The 2nd LIFE project had been implemented by the regional government and was much broader. It made a thorough analysis of livestock density and carrying capacity on 17 farms and concluded agreements with 23 farms to modify farming activities for the benefit of steppe birds.
These agreements were on annual basis, renewable in function of the presence of relevant birdlife. They covered:
Widening the scope of application
- delayed harvest date (targeted to areas with high nesting density,
refuges during breeding)
- patches without harvest (when the nesting density is lower)
- margins left unharvested (diversifying the available habitats)
- sowing legumes (provide extra source of food)
- taking pastures temporarily out of use to avoid disturbance to the steppe
birds during the breeding period – mainly mating display areas were concerned
What did the two projects do with the results of their investigations? SEO produced a management model at the end of the project for the La Serena Natura 2000 area which comprises an arable farming, livestock and game hunting management. It also worked out technical guidelines for appropriate agri-environmental measures to continue the good practices defined by the project, and transmitted them to the Regional Government of Extremadura in summer 2005.
The Regional Government project, using the information it had gathered, elaborated a specific agri-environment scheme, a first draft of which was ready in Nov. 2004. This scheme is now being fine-tuned (the project ends autumn 2005).
Both LIFE projects helped to promote sustainable practices in the district. The actions undertaken triggered debate and expectation amongst farmers. They had an incentive effect: farmers not involved in the projects voluntarily applied some of the management actions, once they had seen the results obtained with these alternative methods. Sowing legumes proved particularly popular - it provides additional food for the sheep as well as for the birds in late summer when pasture is no longer available – and farmers expressed their intention to continue this practice on their own after the LIFE project.
Both projects brought together relevant stakeholders (different administrations, hunter and farmer associations and conservation NGOs) in several meetings, facilitating dialogue, a key asset for future decisions on the management measures to be applied in the Natura 2000 area. These meetings also discussed the wider issues farming in the region was facing, such as the lack of interest from local young people in the profession.
In these contacts, the agricultural sector showed a willingness to practice farming beneficial to the Natura 2000 sites, if the suitable aid schemes and regulations were set in place under the CAP or rural development instruments. This change of mentality was a direct outcome of the LIFE projects carried out in la Serena. SEO is considering continuing building on these results by promoting profitable products obtained through ecologically sustainable management, such as sheep cheese with a designation of origin or farm-based bird-watching tourism.
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