Organic livestock farming is the only CAP supported agri-environmental measure that has been shown to correlate with higher bird numbers.
This finding comes from newly published research (Santangeli et al 2019) into Finland’s wild bird population.
Researchers used six years of data on 46 bird species from the Finnish landscape.
They found that organic livestock farms support migratory birds and insect-eating birds. Of all the supposed biodiversity-boosting farmland measures supported by the EU’s
Common Agriculture Policy, organic livestock farming was the only one that significantly correlated with higher numbers of wild birds.
Organic livestock farming also out-performed organic cereal farms.
The researchers assessed the country-wide impact of several CAP agri-environmental measures on bird abundance, and found “a positive impact of organic animal farming on
abundance of all farmland associated birds”.
What is perhaps more surprising was the impact of the other agri-environmental measures outside of organic livestock supports.
“None of the other agri-environmental measures considered for study showed any relationship with bird abundance,” said the research report.
This research is interesting, on a number of fronts.
It considered a wide range of bird types, over a large area, and multiple agri-environmental measures.
The team controlled for relevant landscape and land-use factors (22 landscape variables, plus two other variables, were controlled for). They explored “whether the effect of specific agri-environmental measures on farmland birds differs based on species traits such as a species’ main habitat, diet, migration ecology, and Red List status within the EU”.
Nine agri-environmental measures, based on their likely impact on birds, were selected: environmental grassland, winter cover through light tillage, through stubble or through vegetation (three separate agri-environmental measures), biodiversity field, biodiversity and landscape management field, buffer zones, organic crop farms and organic animal farms.
In their discussion of the findings, the researchers pointed to the following traits of organic farming as possibly beneficial for bird populations.
“Organic production is the only full-farm system support scheme that stipulates a coherent package of several management obligations.”
The organic livestock grazing season is longer, more grass-based and more time is spent outdoors, which correlates with the bird’s nesting season.
Use of antibiotics is restricted in organic, and the researchers pointed to studies which suggest this may increase numbers of invertebrates which some birds feed on.
Citing Irish research on organic dairy farms, they noted, “presence of animals and their dung on pastures and use of manure have been proven to boost abundance of aerial as well as soil invertebrates, which represent a key food source for most farmland-associated bird species, particularly during the breeding period”.
From a policy perspective, this study is important.
Considering the agri-environmental spend — €20bn in the 2007-2013 CAP period — it’s an indictment of these schemes and their efficacy that none of the measures other than organic livestock farming showed any positive correlation with increased bird populations.
Support for organic farming rarely equates to the level of organic farming in any given EU country.
If organic farming is at 3%, the sector is typically lucky to get 3% of the available agri supports. There are usually targets for growth of organics, but rarely the required extra supports put in place to get there.
While rewilded landscapes would support lots of life, organic animal farming has a strong biodiversity case to make too.