Insect conservation and agriculture – pragmatism and respect
Insect conservation and agriculture seem to be contradictions. But actually, they aren’t. You may already imagine, though, that it’s not all black and white.
Some months ago, I heard a sentence on a panel discussion that kept moving around in my head: “The biodiversity we observe exists because, not despite, agriculture”. This statement came from Klaus Weddeling, a biologist working at a regional “biological ward” in the Rhine area (Biostation Rhein-Sieg). Wards like this are an interface between the official and voluntary conservation work. But how is it possible that biodiversity is a consequence of agriculture? Well, because agriculture created structures like open landscape, field margins and paths. The diversity of these structures created habitat for many plants and animals. And, therefore, also for insects.
Regional conservation management
What we consider “nature” often was formed by humans. The typical “countryside”, meadows and arable land offer plenty of these important structures. So the problem isn’t agriculture itself, but the type of management. Fortunately, there are people like Weddeling who work on counteracting this. He works on a program for farmers who commit to manage part of their farmland according to conservation rules. Insect conservation isn’t the only aspect of course, but a part of it. The rules for participating in these programs are stricter than in usual greening programs.
For instance, a farmer is interested in participating with a part of his grassland. This may be a meadow on a hillside. He then commits to mow this meadow later than usual, doesn’t use pesticides in this area and doesn’t fertilize it. In consequence, this meadow will probably regenerate and develop a greater biodiversity in wildflowers. This attracts bees and other insects, birds, small mammals and many other wildlife. But, on the other hand, the farmer gets worse quality hay. If usually feeds dairy cattle with, he has to buy other forage to compensate this. Therefore, for his commitment he also gets a compensation for this downtime, about 600-700€ per hectar and year.
Practical conditions for (insect) conservation
This may be a point some could criticize: “He’s doing it only for money!”. Of course he does. Farmers live from their land, they count on the harvest. The reason for managing grassland is the forage they get for their animals. And if grassland isn’t managed, it doesn’t stay like this: first bushes like blackberries take over and at the end forests cover the meadow. The process (succession) is a slow one, but at the end the flowers needing the open area disappear. I don’t give higher value to meadows over forests. But diversity means also diversity of habitat and for this, sometimes, we need management.
Therefore, there must be an incentive for the farmer. He needs a compensation for his work and the lower quality hay etc. On the other hand, he has to accept controls. He commits for five years, if he interrupts the collaboration he has to return the money he got for the previous years. “The farmer must know what he’s expected to do. It only works talking openly, then usually the farmers collaborate.”, Weddeling says. He helps with all the bureaucracy such a program implies. He also regularly controls if the areas in the program develop according to the requirements.
Arable land is important for insect conservation
There are lots of flowers which grow only in fields. Cereal fields full of poppies, corn flowers and others are a rare sight these days. But these flowers are again important food for insects, birds and other wildlife. Another measure within this program for biodiversity conservation, therefore, addresses arable land. Here farmers are requested to leave a part of their fields without pesticide treatments to allow these flowers to grow. These are not the usual flowering strips, but areas within the crop where the wild flora is allowed to grow as well.
As a consequence of this less intense management, not only the wildflowers grow, but also animals follow. As I’m interested in bees, I love seeing lots of flowers. But also other insects feed on these plants, as well as birds and other animals. So the conservation work may focus on the typical wildflowers, but by this a whole cascade of biodiversity follows.
Efficiency controls and some challenges
Every year, Weddeling controls the different areas and checks what species are present. These assessments are necessary for the payment of the compensation, which is partially EU funded. On grassland, it’s on his expertise to decide if the meadows develop according to the conservation requirements. On arable land, on the other hand, the rules are clearer: here it’s necessary to find at least 20 typical wildflowers for arable land or one species listed on the Red Lists.
Controls once a year may not sound that much. But considering that this means every single area in the region, summing up to 1,400 ha, it becomes clear that it’s a lot of work. In addition, Weddeling is the only one doing it. In addition to the bureaucracy and supporting and consulting the farmers. “You need sure instinct for this work”, he says. Of course he’s interested in conservation, but the honesty to the farmers is crucial. There’s nothing gained if the farmer at the end of the day can’t comply with the requirements. He has to know everything beforehand, the measures must be feasible for him. It’s this mixture of pragmatism and respect that in my opinion helps (insect) conservation work most.