Biodiversity in European farmlands are decreasing. Diversity is lost in crop varieties as well as in non-crop species; on the farms and in the landscapes surrounding them. This decrease is frequently attributed to an intensification of farming.
In a study recently published in the International Journal of Ecology, centre researcher Wijnand Boonstra together with colleagues from the Swedish Agricultural University look at how farmers’ interest in nature influences biodiversity in and around their fields.
The study shows a positive correlation between farmers’ interest in nature and biodiversity of the agricultural landscape in which their farms are situated. It also highlights a negative relation between crop density and biodiversity. These results lead the authors to conclude that farmers do not solely work to optimize crop production to increase income. Farm practices are also guided by non-economic considerations, which are rooted in traditions, habits, values and interests.
"Farmers experience nature and biodiversity through management of their farms. They value and appreciate these experiences – hearing a skylark sing or noticing seasonal change – which can develop into an interest in nature. This interest, in turn, may both influence and be influenced by the landscape and crop composition on the farm," says Boonstra.
Interdisciplinary by nature
The paper is based on Johan Ahnström's PhD study "Farmland Biodiversity - In the minds and hands of farmers" for which he assessed farmers' interest in nature through interviews, as well as ecological field studies. With the objective to investigate whether a correlation could be found between farmers’ attitudes and the ecological conditions of their fields.
In their paper Ahnström, Boonstra and colleagues convert information from qualitative interviews into data that can be used in statistical analysis. A crucial step in this process is to define and use "interest in nature" as an indicator of farmers' attitudes.
"In Sweden 'interest in nature' [naturintresse] is a commonly used everyday term," explains Ahnström, "it can manifest as walks in the forest, or detailed knowledge of, for example, birds or bumblebees."
The authors conclude that finding out why interest in nature relates positively to biodiversity requires more detailed studies examining the relationships between interest in nature, farm management techniques and conservation measures.
"Farmers' views and values are just as important to consider for biodiversity as the amount of herbicides of fertilizers that is used. These viewpoints influence farmers’ decision-making, and, in so doing, affect biodiversity"
Johan Ahnström, lead author
While heterogeneity and other landscape measures have previously been shown to be good indicators of biodiversity, the authors found that interest in nature was an even better predictor.
Factoring in the attitudes
While studies on farmers' attitudes are increasing in numbers, many remain skeptical about the effect of farmers' attitudes on biodiversity. This study, however, shows that there is a link between attitudes and biodiversity. The authors conclude that conserving nature on farmland can be improved through understanding farmers’ attitudes and motivations when it comes to agricultural practices and managing biodiversity.
"Agri-environmental schemes such as those used in the EU and elsewhere aim to counteract the loss of biodiversity. Our study indicates that such schemes are more likely to be successful if they factor in farmers' attitudes as well, rather than being purely based on biological, ecological and agricultural productivity information," Boonstra concludes.
Ahnström, J., J. Bengtsson, Å. Berg, L. Hallgren, W.J. Boonstra, J. Björklund. 2013. Farmers' interest in nature and its relation to biodiversity in arabel fields. International Journal of Ecology. 2013, Article ID 617352. DOI: 10.1155/2013/617352
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