Approaches to cross taxa advice
Tensions between agricultural uses and nature conservation commonly underlie difficulties in the management of habitats and species. However, sometimes advice and interventions create potential conflicts or contradictions, between the management of habitats and the requirements of priority species. There is no one size fits all way to address such issues if they arise and indeed if they are recognised. Decisions need to be made on a case-by-case basis, and by reference to habitat and species priorities.
There is also potential for confusion and frustration to arise if advice is provided without context and independent of other advice. The farm wildlife advisory sector must communicate effectively with itself, as well as with other types of advisers and of course farmers and land managers, to ensure the best interventions or management decisions are made.
Conflicts between any combination of taxa, habitats, environmental objectives and other farm priorities/operations can be significantly reconciled by consultation with experts on both sides of the conflict and where possible on-site discussion with all parties involved to determine a course of action.
The Farm Wildlife approach was designed to help address the issue of conflicting species and habitat needs. Using a tailored approach to the Farm Wildlife six key actions, to form the basis of a conservation plan, will provide the key lifecycle resources for most species.
Provision of advice to encourage species-rich arable plant communities through annually cultivated areas will have benefits for a much wider suite of species, such as generating a food source for priority bird species like cirl bunting. Giving this advice requires an awareness that wild arable plants will provide a more ‘natural’ and sustainable system than sowing brought in seed. While detailed plant and bird knowledge is required on the varying needs of different arable plant species and potential compromises that may need to be made around the timing of cultivation and mosaic management, so that all the species present have some years when the management is favourable for them.
Decisions to prioritise management for one species over another
- Good baseline data on the priority habitats and species present on a farm and in the wider landscape allows for more robust decisions about prioritising management for particular habitats and/or species.
- Conflicts should be resolved using data on the relative priorities at the appropriate scale (local/regional/national), for particular habitats and species. Preliminary checks are important for establishing this information (see Checklist).
- Identify what can deliver the best outcome for the key species with the least harm to other species.
- Scale is a key factor in the decision process. Larger sites allow a greater scope for compromise, whereas it is more difficult to find a balance in smaller patches, where the greater need should be prioritised. What qualifies as a larger site and what is the ‘greater need’ is dependent on the species or taxa involved, potentially necessitating specialist knowledge or advice. The site’s relative size, location, context within the local and national landscape, as well as its connectivity and associated species dispersal characteristics are all considerations.
- Consider what the farmer’s or other family member’s particular interests are. The assumption being that aligning management recommendations with their interest will increase the chance of more immediate and sustained success. Equally these interests can be used as a starting point to advocate for other associated wildlife, such as arable plants which can provide foraging resources for pollinators, farmland birds and natural pest control insects.
- On agricultural land, its essential decision factor in agricultural objectives such as the need to obtain a viable hay crop.
- A decision may have to be made about how and when habitat is managed, that may be positive for the maintenance of that priority habitat but negative for a priority species. In such cases decisions need to be made with reference to local, regional and national priorities for the habitat and species.
For example: an invertebrate requires a tall heterogenous grassland sward, whereas the grassland plant community requires a higher intensity of grazing or mowing for its optimal condition. The management objectives for the maintenance of species-rich meadows are generally to increase floral diversity. However, the method of achieving this aim - by cutting and removal of the vegetation in mid to late summer - will negatively impact invertebrate populations by the removal of foodplants, cover for shelter, and nectar and pollen resources, preventing them completing their life cycle. In this case a decision needs to be taken as to whether the highest priority is the maintenance of the species-rich meadow (which might be compromised by management changes) or the suite of often widespread invertebrate species associated with such habitats which may be common in the countryside beyond the meadow (field margins, road verges etc). If though a meadow was known to support a priority species or species assemblage, then the balance of prioritisation may need to be reconsidered. In this case, changes could be considered such as:
a) leaving wider uncut margins around the meadow,
b) pushing cutting dates to later in the year for some, or all, of the meadow or,
c) changing from a cutting regime to a gradual low intensity grazing system commencing around the time of a hay cut.
A good understanding is needed of existing guidance on the environmental conditions required to support particular habitats and/or species. Note that where this is unavailable, especially for species, the existence of evidence gaps and the need for detailed ecological research should be highlighted.
Decisions linked to Agri-environment management options and other green financial support
- The issue of contradictory advice is often a “hidden issue” in that it is not always realised or resolved. Advisers may be following scheme prescriptions unaware or unsure how these might be causing conflicts, or at least not optimising biodiversity and other environmental benefits.
- Habitat management plans of agri-environment schemes can lean towards wider biodiversity or environmental benefits, at the expense of particular taxa. Examples include resource protection options that favour grass margins at the expense of arable wildflowers, or the impact of broad reductions in upland stocking rates on the favoured habitat of birds such as the chough or golden plover.
- Beyond cross taxa conflicts, tension may arise between differing environmental objectives and priorities. For example, flood management and the protection and management of curlew habitat: flooding for prolonged periods may negatively impact on the habitat requirements of curlew. In future, conflicts may increase further between farm wildlife and carbon sequestration and carbon reduction efficiencies. Such as tree planting on deep peat, semi-improved grassland, or areas where open landscape bird species are prevalent e.g. lapwing, stone curlew and skylark. Or the need to create bare ground and early successional habitats for rare plants, birds such as stone curlew, invertebrates, and reptiles, which may release soil carbon. Expertise should be sought from both sides to resolve such issues, as mutually beneficial solutions may be possible if both priorities are considered.