SLU news

Saving old villages helps save farmland birds

Published: 23 August 2016

Preserving old villages and farm buildings – and being more creative in designing new rural homes – could help halt the decline in European farmland bird populations, according to new research published today in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

The study, a collaboration between Tomas Pärt and Michał Żmihorski at the Swedish University of Agriculture and their colleagues in Poland, found that traditional villages in Poland are biodiversity hotspots for farmland birds, whose populations have declined at an alarming rate across Europe over recent decades.

As agriculture becomes ever more intensive, traditional villages will play an increasingly important role in farmland bird conservation so preserving the variety of farms, homes and building materials is key to conserving farmland birds, whose numbers have fallen dramatically.

The team of ecologists from Poland and Sweden visited 78 homes and farms in 30 villages, and recorded 12,000 individual birds from 135 species, including many species which are declining in Europe. They found that old rural properties had more birds, from more species, than buildings constructed after 1989 and that farmsteads hosted more bird species than homesteads.

They also found that old, traditional villages are biodiversity hotspots for farmland birds, and that the proportion of new homes in a village has a dramatic impact on bird life. They found 20-25 bird species in villages with less than 10% new dwellings, but when new homes made up 40-50% of a village, fewer than 10 bird species remained.

Poland is an ideal place to study the ecological effects of more traditional patterns of rural life and farming. In contrast to western Europe, 50% of people in Poland still live in rural areas, where villages have a huge diversity of building structures, microhabitats and management. Agricultural land makes up 60% of Poland, which has 1.5m farms, 77% of which are less than 10 hectares.

“What strikes you first about these old Polish farms and villages is their diversity: there are many different types of buildings, there are alleys of old deciduous trees, orchards, ponds and paddocks. These all contribute to the multitude of breeding and foraging sites for birds, says Zuzanna Rosin of Adam Mickiewicz University who led the study.”

“The old buildings have a complex structure and many sites – from old roof tiles and thatch to chimneys and timber beams – that several species use for nesting. The surroundings of a house are also heterogeneous, with old trees, shrubs, gardens and orchards, which add to nesting and foraging opportunities for birds,” Rosin explains.

Farms and villages in rural Poland are, however, under threat from the same socio-economic forces that have affected western and northern Europe over the past 50 years.

The availability of imported food that followed the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 made many small family farms in Poland uneconomic. As young people have moved to cities, old rural villages have declined. Financial support from the European Union has favoured large, modern farms and the ‘urban style’ of new houses in rural areas provides fewer nesting and foraging sites for birds.

“Old villages are a key part of European farmland, but they are disappearing fast, taking with them the birds that nest and forage in them. If we want to halt the continued decline in farmland bird populations, we need to conserve these villages and their old properties,” she says.

Three key changes would help, the researcher says:

  • Making villages and farmsteads part of national      and European conservation policies;
  • Promoting biodiversity-friendly rural      architecture by use of targeted subsidies for renovation; and
  • Supporting small-scale, traditional farming by      boosting demand for high quality local food.

Zuzanna M. Rosin et al (2016). ‘Villages and their old farmsteads are hot-spots of bird diversity in agricultural landscapes‘, doi: 10.1111/1365-2664.12715, is published in the Journal of Applied Ecology on 17 August 2016.

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A small, old village called Kalitnik. Photo credit: Darek Świtała.