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Institute of Land Use Systems

Institute of Landscape Biogeochemistry

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Institute of Landscape Hydrology

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United for species protection - from the field to the shopping counter

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​Around 28,000 animal and plant species worldwide are classified as endangered. An issue we are also increasingly encountering on domestic meadows and fields. For wherever land is intensively cultivated, less space remains for segetal flora, farmland birds and insects. In the »Agriculture for Biodiversity« pilot project, scientists are now linking the competitiveness of farmers to nature conservation and are receiving support from one of the largest food retailers in Germany.

They are the singers rejoicing in the arrival of spring, but their song is becoming increasingly rare. The skylark population has declined dramatically over the past 30 years, in some regions by up to 90 percent. The overall populations of agricultural birds in Europe has halved since 1980, a similar trend can also be observed in other species groups like butterflies. Every time a species of animal or plant becomes extinct, it is not only genes, colors, shapes and sounds that are irretrievably lost. Important ecosystem services are also threatened by this, such as the pollination of many food plants by insects, the climate-regulating function of plants or also the beneficial effects on people of a landscape characterised by natural diversity. 

In the meantime, every eighth species of bird, approximately 130 types of segetal flora, every third amphibian and half of the insects in Germany are at risk. »The pace at which species are becoming extinct is alarming«, says Dr. Karin Stein-Bachinger from the Institute of Land Use Systems of the Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research (ZALF). »More than half of Germany’s surface area is used for agriculture. This creates habitats for animals and plants, yet at the same time also poses a risk.« One reason for this: Fields and meadows are worked on just when plants and animals are reproducing. »Renouncing chemical pesticides and mineral nitrogen fertilizers in organic agriculture is already a good basis for nature conservation. If we want to stop the extinction of species, then we need to review the nature conservation aspects of more areas in agricultural farming, identify alternative cultivation methods and make them assessable« says Dr. Karin Stein-Bachinger. What has been missing until now is a suitable and recognized benchmark for practice. This is where the »Agriculture for Biodiversity « comes in, a pilot project which was initiated jointly in 2012 by the environmental organization WWF Germany and the ecological farming association Biopark, under the scientific direction of ZALF. So far, 60 farms in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Brandenburg, Saxony-Anhalt and Schleswig- Holstein are actively participating.

 

A catalog of nature conservation services

Over the last few years, a team from ZALF, headed by the biologist Frank Gottwald and Dr. Karin Stein-Bachinger, has been examining the impact that certain nature conservation measures have on wild animals and plants as well as on agriculture. »Ornithologists again and again sat in camouflage tents to observe farmland birds«, says Frank Gottwald. »They like to nest in legume-grass which is grown on organic farms for feedstuffs and soil improvement«, seemingly good conditions for farmland birds. But the legume-grass is mown before the young birds can fly – only a few survive this. Night-flowering Catchfly and Field Nigella are only rarely found in the fields today. They do not bloom until the summer when the cereal crops are already ripe. The problem: the fields are cultivated immediately after harvesting. This means that the herbs are ploughed under before they can fructify. The experts have evaluated their observations and developed proposals as to how these conflicts could be resolved. »If the legume-grass is mown later or part of an area is left unmown, the nests of the farmland birds are not destroyed. This also helps leverets, amphibians, butterflies and saltatoria, which find food and cover in the higher vegetation.« The experts have compiled more than 100 nature conservation ideas for fields, meadows and pastures, the maintenance of the landscape and the protection of individual species. Specially trained nature conservation consultants help farmers to filter out those, which are useful for their location and farming procedures.

 

​​Species protection concerns us all

»Nature conservation normally means an additional burden for farmers«, explains Dr. Karin Stein-Bachinger. »He not only has to invest more time, he also has to put up with losses in yields. To compensate for this, support from food retailers and consumers is also required. »The retailing company EDEKA therefore pays farmers a premium for certain products, as a kind of nature conservation bonus. There are no additional costs for consumers. The products are identified by a specially designed »Agriculture for Biodiversity« logo. 

To achieve certification, farms must collect nature conservation points. For this, the researchers at ZALF, together with a team of 40 experts from the fields of nature conservation, agriculture, science and administration, evaluate every nature conservation measure with credit points. »The number of credit points varies according to how effective the measure is for the protection of wild animals and plants and their habitats. Thus there is up to one point per hectare for delaying tillage after the harvest, eight weeks of not using legume-grass during the breeding season brings three points per hectare, and if sub-areas are even left unmown over the winter, that is worth ten points.« A farm must have a minimum number of credit points per hectare to receive the nature conservation certificate. The system therefore enables both very small, but also very large farms to be evaluated. More than 50 organic farms in north-east Germany have already been certified. 

​This nature conservation evaluation of farms is currently unique in Germany. Nature conservation is not practised classically for a single species or single site. »With the farmers we have for the first time been able to implement nature conservation with agriculture on a large scale and comprehensively on a total area of around 40,000 hectares«, says Dr. Karin Stein-Bachinger. A specialist jury distinguished the project as ground-breaking in the UN Decade on »Biodiversity« in 2016. Now it‘s up to the customer. Through purchasing the products, anyone can make a contribution to the enhancement of biodiversity. A tracking code takes the customer to the website of the project at www.landwirtschaft-artenvielfalt.de, where they can inform themselves and find out what services the farms are providing for nature conservation. Thus far the nature conservation products have only been available for purchase in the EDEKA supermarkets in Northern Germany. »It is our aim to get more organic farms involved from other regions in Germany«, says Dr. Karin Stein-Bachinger. The pilot project has set a precedent: from 2017 studies will be carried out in ten pilot farms in southern Germany.

 

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