Agricultural Intensification 

Yellowhammer eating grain in field

The intensification of agriculture is a complex problem, where a balance needs to be struck between providing food for a growing population and conserving our natural environment. 

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With the global food demand thought to double before 2050, more drastic solutions that rely on technology and farming with nature in mind will be needed to stop farmland bird populations becoming extinct.

Agri-environmental schemes

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Agri-environmental schemes (AES) are schemes run by the government providing funding to landowners, land managers and farmers to manage their land in a way that helps to promote and support biodiversity, wildlife, and plant species.

Little girl watching combine harvester

    The AES are in place to try and improve the quality of air, water, and soil and to farm the land more sustainably. Over 70% of the land in the UK is classified as agricultural land, and as of 2020, 3.6 million hectares of UK farmland was enrolled in AES, but farmland bird populations have continued to decline.

    Since 1970, the abundance of farmland birds has decreased by more than half, but the decline has slowed since the 1980s. A 2018 study showed that though some farmland birds were increasing due to AES changes, to offset the continuing declines, between a quarter and a third of all agricultural land would need to be extensively managed for wildlife.

    More research needs to be conducted into AES schemes and new methods for farming with nature in mind for these declines to be halted. The loss of habitat due to changes in land use in both agricultural and other landscapes, as well as changes in habitat management is discussed here

    Pesticide and fertiliser use

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    Pesticide and fertiliser use is commonplace in an agricultural setting, but it wasn’t always. The use of inorganic fertiliser has allowed for crops to be grown the world over and meet the growing demand for food.

    Inorganic fertilisers have remained constant over the last 10 years, whereas the use of pesticides has dropped by 51% in the period of 1990-2016, but the area treated increased by 63%.

    • Fertilizers have been shown in some studies to have a negative effect on the number of insects, but many more studies have shown that pesticide use has a catastrophic effect on insect populations, particularly flying insects. 
    • Neonicotinoid use has been shown to have a negative relationship with bird populations, and the use of DDT shown to have altered the structure of the insect populations, having a knock-on effect on aerial insectivores. 
    Cereals agriculture - large field
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    The use of pesticides, whilst useful for protecting crops, is damaging the survival chances of our songbirds, due to reductions in the amount of prey available. Similarly, herbicides reduce weeds in amongst crops which farmland birds and their insect prey feed on, further reducing their available prey.

    How pesticides affect songbirds directly (through for example, ingestion of pesticides) is not yet known, but we have commissioned a study on pesticide use in partnership with the University of Sussex to understand the risks to farmland and songbirds. Current results have shown that songbirds could be at risk from harmful doses of pesticides when used as seed-treatments. Read more on the research project here.

    Cereals agriculture - harvest time

    What can you do to combat the challenges created by agricultural intensification for our songbirds?

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    Larger animals like horses, pigs, goats, and sheep that are kept in buildings such as stables offer a range of food and nesting opportunities for many birds. 

    • Ditch the pesticides at home so that insect life can thrive.
    • Plant hedgerows, trees, and bushes in your gardens to give shelter to songbirds. 
    • Plant bird and insect-friendly plants and flowers to attract wildlife to your garden and make space for a pond if you can.
    • Support us support us through spreading our messaging through social media
    Dunnock eating seed - by David Bowden
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    Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), UK. (2021) UK Biodiversity Indicators 2021.

    Donald, P.F., Green, R.E., Heath, M.F. (2001) Agricultural intensification and the collapse of Europe's farmland bird populations. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 268(1462): 25-29.

    EUROSTAT (2022) Consumption of inorganic fertilizers in the United Kingdom.
    . Accessed 20 July 2022.

    Fuller, R.J. () Relationships between recent changes in lowland British agriculture and farmland bird populations: an overview. Ecology and Conservation of lowland farmland birds. 5-16

    Green, R.E., Cornell, S.J., Scharlemann, J.P.W., Balmford, A. (2005) Farming and the Fate of Wild Nature. Science. 307(5709): 550-555.

    Gregory, R.D., Vořišek, P., Noble, D.G., Van Strien, A., Klvaňová, A., Eaton, M., Gmelig Meyling, A.W., Joys, A., Foppen, R.P.B., Burfield, I.J (2008) The generation and use of bird population indicators in Europe. Bird Conservation International. 18: S223-S244.

    Hallman, C.A., Foppen, R.P.B., van Turnhout, C.A.M., de Kroon, H., Jongejans, E. (2014) Declines in insectivorous birds are associated with high neonicotinoid concentrations. Nature. 511: 314-343.

    Møller, A.P., Czeszczewik, D., Flensted-Jensen, E., Erritzøe, J., Krams, I., Laursen, K., Liang, W., Walankiewicz, W. (2021) Abundance of insects and aerial insectivorous birds in relation to pesticide and fertilizer use. Avian research. 12:43.

    Nocera, J.J., Blais, J.M., Beresford, D.V., Finity, L.K., Grooms, C., Limpe, L.E., Kyser, K., Michelutti, N., Reudink, M.W., Smol, J.P. (2012) Historical pesticide applications coincided with an altered diet of aerially foraging insectivorous chimney swifts. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 279(1740): 

    Smil, V. (1999) Detonator of the population explosion. Nature. 400:415.

    Tassin de Montaigu, C., Goulson, D. (2020) Identifying agricultural pesticides that may pose a risk for birds. Biodiversity and conservation. PeerJ. 8:e9526

    Tassin de Montaigu, C., Goulson, D. (2022) Field evidence of UK wild bird exposure to fludioxonil and extrapolation to other pesticides used as seed treatments. Environmental science and pollution research international. 29(15): 22151-22162.

    Walker, L.K., Morris, A.J., Cristinacce, A., Dadam, D., Grice, P.V., Peach, W.J. (2018) Effects of higher-tier agri-environment scheme on the abundance of priority farmland birds. Animal conservation. 21(3):183-192.

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