Organic cows better for birds

C&I Issue 7, 2019

Organically farmed cows are good for birds, according to a study of EU agri-environment schemes and birds in Finland. Organic cattle farming has a positive impact on the abundance of insect eating birds and birds such as swallows and martins that migrate over long distances.

‘We chose nine agri-environmental support schemes that we expected to be good for birds, which we know are good on a local scale,’ explains Irina Herzon, agroecologist at the University of Helsinki. They then looked at bird abundance data gathered by birdwatchers on 44 bird species over a six-year period. ‘The only scheme that was positive was organic animals. We didn’t expect that,’ says Herzon.

Traditional animal farming may be an excellent way to restore or maintain threatened farmland species and ecosystems in rural areas of Europe (PLoS ONE, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0216009), they conclude.

EU farmers choose to take part in agrienvironment-climate schemes, or AES, which pay them to reduce intensity or maintain or introduce biodiversity-rich habitats. About 25% of farmland in the EU is under some form of AES or organic production. The AES budget was almost €20bn for the study period, 2007 to 2013.

In Finland, 90% of agriculture is under some AES or organic production, yet evidence for its impact in northern Europe is scarce, say the study scientists. ‘We can speculate that with no chemical inputs in organic farms, especially herbicides and pesticides, boosts the foraging resources for birds,’ says Herzon, ‘because in our dataset the bird group that benefited most from organic animal farms was insectivores.’

For land use types, semi-natural pastures and meadows did have a positive impact on bird abundance. This was independent of whether these grasslands were subsidised or not. ‘The main message for policy makers is that at least in the case of organic animal farming, [financial] support seems to be justified for birds,’ says Herzon.

Steve Ormerod, ecologist at Cardiff University, UK, says farming intensification is causing a biodiversity decline globally. The Finnish study is supported by previous data from other regions, he says. This leaves a conundrum for conservationists, regarding whether it is better to push for organic farming that needs more land but protects some nature. ‘Or should there be more intensification in particular locations to free up land elsewhere to restore ecosystems to an even more natural state,’ Ormerod says. ‘In an increasingly urgent struggle to protect biological diversity, balancing these options is critical.’

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