© Ignaz Hugentobler
Promoting ecological services in agricultural landscapes through comprehensive farm-wide counselling
Species richness has continuously declined in the wide agricultural landscape of the St. Galler Rheintal. By means of comprehensive, farm-wide counselling, we aim at showing farmers how to make use of the ecological and economic opportunities that are being offered and we support the farmers in implementing ecological compensation areas.
In the heart of the St. Galler Rheintal, the nature reserve „Bannried-Spitzmäder“ has been created. Here, rare plant and animal species have found important habitats. The small refuge is, however, isolated and surrounded by agricultural landscapes, where species richness is continuously declining. For example, only few pairs of the skylark are left, while lapwing, tree pipit and whinchat have disappeared twenty years ago during the intensified land-use.
In a joint project, Pro Riet Rheintal and the Swiss Ornithological Institute Sempach aim to enrich the agricultural landscape with ecologically valuable habitats, so that the local skylark population can be maintained and other typical bird species of agricultural landscapes can find a place for living. To that end, we want to convince farmers to revive their farmlands. The direct payment sys-tem of the Swiss Federation offers financial incentives to farmers setting up ecological compensation areas. However, many farmers are sceptical against the system based on ecological compensation. Knowledge on the function and value of ecological compensation areas is often lacking, but also how to create and care for such areas is often not known. It is here where our project steps in: by means of comprehensive, farm-wide counselling, we aim at showing farmers how to make use of the ecological and economic opportunities that are being offered – and we support the farmers in implementing ecological compensation areas.
The project aims at achieving the following goals:
- Farmers recognize the value of biodiversity (species diversity) for farms and landscapes.
- Farmers set up ecological compensation areas of high quality on their farms and are proud about their achievements.
- Due to the comprehensive, farm-wide counselling, farmers are motivated to undertake considerable additional efforts in favour of ecology on their farms.
Counselling is being done by a specifically trained agronomist owning a farm. The farm-wide counselling shows farmers what ecological services they provide and makes specific suggestions as to which additional measures could be taken. These measures might include setting up additional ecological compensation areas or the improvement of existing areas promoting biodiversity. The agronomist also discloses which work effort the implementation of these ecological services requires, what the difference in income is compared to an intensive production, but also what financial investments do not accrue and what additional income can be generated via federal direct payments. After the personal counselling, the farmer decides which measures he wants to implement. The list of measures is recorded in the final agreement between the farmer and the Swiss Ornithological Institute. With his signature, the farmer agrees to implement the measures within the next three years.
Thanks to the comprehensive, farm-wide counselling, farmers can better understand how the measures of ecological compensation fit into the framework of their farm. Farmers can consider questions related to productivity, sequence of crops and work load and choose the solutions most suited for their farms. Interestingly, work load often declines, whereas payments slightly increase. Many farmers recognize during the talks that biodiversity is a product of their farms as well, and they begin to get interested in the ecological relationships, for example to promote “beneficial organisms”.
Many plant and animal species will benefit from the planned ecological measures. Among the benefitting species are typical inhabitants of agricultural landscapes rich in structures, but also red-listed species with highly specific habitat requirements. For example, extensively used meadows and wildflower areas in combination with bushes and hedges should attract common whitethroat, red-backed shrike and yellowhammer. Improved margins along ditches or fields may benefit marsh warbler and stonechat.
Results of the pilot project from 2013 are promising for the ensuing counseling phase. In the Rhine valley, all farms having been counseled also signed the agreement. The share of ecological compensation areas per farm increased on average from 10.73% to 14.46% of the farm area.
Breeding populations of the bird species in the Rhine valley of St. Gallen have been monitored within the project “Habitat network Rhine valley of St. Gallen” for some time now. This starting position allows to later on assessing the consequences of the measures taken within the framework of the farm-wide counseling for the occurrence and distribution of bird species typical for agricultural landscapes.