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Indicators for biodiversity in organic and low-input farming systems

Final Report Summary - BIOBIO (Indicators for biodiversity in organic and low-input farming systems)

The overall objective of the project was to identify scientifically sound and practicable farmland biodiversity indicators. In iterative interaction with stakeholders, candidate indicators were identified and tested on 195 farms in 12 case-study regions across Europe. The resulting core set of 23 indicators is applicable across Europe and for major farm types.

The cost of implementing the indicator set on a farm depends on its size and complexity. 0.25 % of European Union (EU) expenditure on the common agricultural policy would suffice to implement a biodiversity monitoring on 50 000 farms across Europe. The information thereby obtained would allow to evaluate the effects of the 'greening' of the CAP, of agri-environmental schemes, and to better target agricultural policies towards the Aichi 2020 biodiversity goals. Applications were tested beyond Europe in Tunisia, Ukraine and Uganda. The BIOBIO approach proved feasible, but would require adaptations to the countries in question.

Scientific testing and the subsequent stakeholder audit yielded a complementary set of 23 indicators with minimum redundancies within the components of habitat-, species- and genetic (livestock, crops) diversity as well as farm management indicators. Whereas 16 indicators are relevant for all farm types, 7 apply only to specific farm types. For example, using crop-related indicators only makes sense on farms with a significant percentage of arable crops. Grassland- and farm-animal-related indicators can only be applied on specialist grazing or mixed crops / livestock farms.

Habitat indicators:

BIOBIO proposes a system for classifying the farm habitats. Common lands, forest and aquatic habitats not used for agricultural purposes, and urban habitats are excluded. The farm area is subdivided into:
(1) intensively farmed land, including all crop fields and grasslands managed for the primary purpose of agricultural production; and
(2) semi-natural habitats.
Both categories are then subdivided, depending on the presence of trees. Aquatic habitats are classified as semi-natural.

Category (2), semi-natural habitats, comprises all linear habitats and areal habitats managed as farmland where the species composition of the vegetation reflects less-intensive farming practices. Hedgerows, grazed forest, lines of trees, etc. belong to this category, which also includes all habitats listed in Annex I of the European Habitats Directive (European Commission (EC), 1992). Thus, for example, Spain's dehesas have been assigned in their entirety to this category. Extensively managed permanent grassland comes under this category if plant composition reflects the semi-natural character of the grassland. We strived for an overall classification of semi-natural habitats across all case study regions by establishing general rules (see Jeanneret et al., 2012). The classification was cross-checked individually by case study leaders.

Category (2.1) semi-natural habitats without trees, relates to sparsely vegetated habitats, permanent grasslands, vegetated banks associated with stone walls and herbaceous linear elements. Category (2.2) semi-natural habitats with trees, consists of extensively managed vines and fruit orchards (e.g. traditional high-stem orchards, olive groves < 200 trees / ha), small woods (< 800 m2), larger forests if grazed, and woody linear habitats (hedgerows, lines of trees or scrub). Category (2.3) semi-natural aquatic habitats, refers to water plots < 800 m2 if they are used for agricultural purposes (e.g. aquaculture, seasonal ponds), as well as to water margins.

Assigning the label 'semi-natural' to a habitat is not a straightforward matter, involving as it does decisions at a minimum of two stages. This can be difficult if the shifts from one habitat type to another are gradual, as often occurs in an agricultural context in permanent grassland. A first decision must be made in order to separate the different vegetation types and classify them into distinct habitats. The EBONE (no date) habitat mapping method consists of a tested European-scale habitat-mapping methodology providing rules that help distinguish different habitat types. In a gradient-dominated landscape, however, deciding where exactly to separate the habitats from each other is still a long, drawn-out exercise.

Once the habitats have been identified and indicated on a map, a second decision i.e. which of these habitats should be labelled semi-natural must be made. This is a clear-cut matter for habitats A and C in the figure, but a somewhat arbitrary decision for habitat B. Labelling a habitat semi-natural is a black-and-white decision in a situation where there are numerous intermediate (grey) habitats. The definitions adopted in BIOBIO are detailed by Jeanneret et al. (2012), and attempt to create a classification which is applicable across Europe. What is perceived as semi-natural, however both in terms of agricultural practices and the species pool for a given region may vary from country to country. Depending on the aim and geographical extent of a monitoring programme, these definitions should be revised and adapted to local requirements (Bailey et al., 2012).

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