Meadow birds – can they be saved?


    Even at higher altitudes – the image shows Schamserberg GR at 2200 m – valuable vegetation cover is destroyed and the land replanted to improve forage production. © Markus Jenny

    Where flowery meadows and species-rich pastures disappear, meadow birds go with them. Early mowing destroys broods, leading to steep population declines. Intensified use has made grassland unsuitable for breeding birds even at higher altitudes. Switzerland is thus at risk of losing the entire group of meadow birds.

    Meadow breeders are a group of birds specially adapted to life in grassland (meadows and pastures). They nest on the ground, well protected by their camouflaged plumage. Common Quail, Corncrake, Eurasian Skylark, Tree Pipit, Meadow Pipit and Whinchat are – or used to be – typical meadow birds in Switzerland.

    Ongoing habitat loss

    Grassland landscapes have undergone radical change within a relatively short time. From the 1970s to the 1990s, large expanses of species-rich grassland on the Central Plateau were converted into artificial grassland with low plant diversity. This development has now spread to the mountain areas as well. In 1950, 95 % of mountain meadows were species-rich Alpine wildflower meadows; today, that figure is down to 2 %.

    This change is driven by intensive farming practices. Faster, more powerful machinery, more farmyard manure (due to higher livestock density, made possible only by the import of feed concentrates), a rise in atmospheric nitrogen deposition and new harvesting methods (mower-conditioner and silage) lead to earlier and more frequent mowing, both in the valleys, where four to six cuts per year are standard, and increasingly in mountain areas. New, more efficient irrigation systems are employed in dry areas, and even at higher altitudes, machines level the terrain to facilitate the harvest of meadows.

    Dramatic consequences for meadow birds

    On the one hand, agricultural intensification means a reduced food supply for birds. When a meadow is mowed, up to 50 % of insects and spiders are killed – and this happens with every cut. On the other hand, habitat is lost: meadows are mowed earlier in the season. Even in mountain regions, the first cut now takes place in the middle of the birds' breeding season. Innumerable broods are lost and even incubating adults are killed by mowing machinery.

    The example of the Whinchat in the Engadine GR is well documented. Large numbers of Whinchats used to breed successfully in low-intensity meadows located at some distance from the villages. As farms moved out of the village, livestock increased and new roads were built, the management of these remote meadows was intensified and the Whinchat population collapsed.

    The intensification does not impact all meadow birds equally. The Corncrake is the most sensitive species. The population on the Central Plateau already underwent a steep decline in the 1930s. To breed successfully, the Corncrake requires meadows that are not harvested before early or even mid-August. The Whinchat disappeared from the Central Plateau almost completely between 1970 and 1990. At the same time, the populations in the Pre-Alps and the Jura began to dwindle; the decline in these areas continues unabated. The Skylark breeds in arable fields as well as grassland. A substantial range contraction became evident from 1990, and today, the lowland grasslands are all but abandoned. Common Quail populations below 800 m have also shown signs of decline since 1993–1996. The massive decline of the Tree Pipit on the Central Plateau started around 1980. Further substantial losses have occurred below 1000 m since 1993–1996; above that altitude, numbers are largely stable for the time being. Similarly, the Meadow Pipit has undergone a marked decline below 1200 m.

    Changes in the occurrence of the six meadow-breeding birds (Common Quail, Corncrake, Eurasian Skylark, Tree Pipit, Meadow Pipit and Whinchat) per atlas square between 1950–1959 and 2013–2016. Note, however, that there were substantial monitoring gaps in certain parts of the Jura and especially the Alps in the period 1950–1959.

    Solutions exist, but implementation is inadequate

    To save meadow birds in Switzerland, there is an urgent need for a change in grassland management practices. Farmers whose meadows and pastures are managed at low intensity receive compensation under a system of ecological direct payments. Habitat connectivity projects have been introduced to preserve target and characteristic species according to the "Environmental Objectives in Agriculture" (EOA). If target species occur within the perimeter of a habitat connectivity project, the measures have to be geared towards the needs of these species. Corncrake, Skylark and Whinchat are target species, the other meadow birds are classified as characteristic species. This means that efforts must concentrate on promoting low-intensity meadows and pastures. But scale is crucial: studies show that mowing would have to be delayed in more than 60 % of the meadows that are considered suitable habitat in order to preserve a self-sustaining Whinchat population. Meadows used at low intensity can be concentrated in regional core areas so as to achieve the required 60 % of late-cut meadows. Farms can produce enough feed when 20–40 % of their meadows (more than 50 % at higher altitudes) are managed at low intensity. However, only few habitat connectivity projects have been able to make full use of this potential. A consistent effort to promote meadow birds could not only save these six bird species, but also numerous insects, hares, fawns and Alpine wildflower meadows.

    Distribution in 2013–2016 of the six meadow breeders Common Quail, Corncrake, Eurasian Skylark, Tree Pipit, Meadow Pipit and Whinchat. The map combines all species maps. For areas with more than two species, conservation projects should be developed and implemented.

    Text: Petra Horch

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    Species concerned
    Mountains & Alpine habitats
    Farming area
    Land management & land use
    Species in decline
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