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SOURCE: Eurasia Review

DATE: July 10, 2020

SNIP: A new study warns that the last remaining habitat for several endangered bird species in Europe could reduce by up to 50 per cent in the next century as farmers convert land to more profitable crops and meet increased demand for products such as olive oil and wine.

Low intensive agricultural practices created semi-natural agro-steppes that hold important populations of great bustards, little bustards, lesser kestrels, rollers and other at risk bird species. In the early 2000s several of these sites were designated as Special Protection Areas (SPAs) for bird conservation and are part of the EU Natura 2000 network of priority areas for conservation.

Researchers at the University of East Anglia (UEA) and University of Lisbon assessed the effectiveness of Natura 2000, the world’s largest protected area network, at conserving Western Europe’s agro-steppes over a 10-year period. The regions in Iberia studied hold approximately a third – or 14-15,000 – of the world’s population of great bustards, Otis tarda.

Agro-steppes are characterised by the cultivation of cereal in a low-intensity rotating system. These low yield farmlands are being converted predominately to permanent and irrigated crops, which dramatically changes the open landscapes that provide resources for important bird populations.
Traditional olive groves and vineyards are occasionally used for feeding or resting by great bustards, little bustards or sandgrouses, but the modern versions of these and other permanent crops are intensively managed and inadequate for such birds.

If the current market pressure on agro-steppe habitat conversion is maintained, it may decline 20 per cent by 2050 and 40 per cent by 2110. Declines will be more severe if the demand for products derived from permanent or irrigated crops continues to increase. For example, with high demand for Mediterranean products such as olive oil and wine, agro-steppes within SPAs may soon be the only areas left to be converted.