- Researchers investigated the value of creating wildlife-friendly habitat on low-yielding edges of fields that have been removed from food production.
- Creating such wildlife-friendly habitat seemed to boost overall crop yield, and wildlife numbers, study found.
- In fields with habitat edges, crop yield increased over time, researchers found.
Commercial farms can benefit from creating exclusive spaces for wildlife on field edges, a new study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B has found.
“It is possible to achieve BOTH wildlife conservation and maintain — and in some cases increase — food production on a modern, commercial farm,” Richard Pywell from the Natural Environment Research Council’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Wallingford, UK, told Mongabay in an email.
Instead of looking at the role of preexisting semi-natural habitats within crop fields as many past studies have done, Pywell and his colleagues investigated the value of actually creating wildlife-friendly habitat on low-yielding edges of fields that have been removed from food production.
For six years, between 2005 and 2011, the team studied yields of wheat, oilseed rape, and beans on 56 fields in central England.
They removed three to eight percent of usable cropping land from the edges of some of these fields, and instead grew native plants and wildflowers there to attract wildlife like bees, beetles, and birds. Then they compared crop yields from these fields with yield from other fields lacking such wildlife-friendly habitats.
The team found that in fields without wildlife-habitat margins, crop yields were much lower at the field edges than in the rest of the fields. Replacing these low-yielding field edges with wildlife-friendly habitat seemed to boost overall crop yield.
For example, fields with habitat edges had 25-35 percent greater yield of beans than fields that lacked such habitats.
The number and diversity of bees and beetles also increased in fields with habitat margins, the researchers observed. Species supported by the wildlife-friendly habitats included pollinators and natural enemies of crop pests, which most likely helped enhance crop yield, Pywell said.
The team also found that in fields with habitat edges, crop yield increased over time. This could be because pollinators and other beneficial insects take time to respond to wildlife-friendly farming, the authors write.
So wildlife conservation and commercial crop production can go hand-in-hand, the study suggests.
“It is feasible to remove up to eight percent of land from production on a large, intensively managed commercial farm to create a range of beneficial wildlife habitat and maintain yields of key arable crops critically important to food supply in northwest Europe,” the authors write. “Indeed our results indicate that yield and profitability of some insect-pollinated crops may even be increased by this approach.”
However, the policy implications of these findings need to be tested across a wide range of farming systems and situations, the authors write. Moreover, “better engagement and training of farmers will also be essential for the delivery of these more demanding and complex wildlife habitats,” they add.
- Pywell RF, Heard MS, Woodcock BA, Hinsley S, Ridding L, Nowakowski M, Bullock JM (2015) Wildlife-friendly farming increases crop yield: evidence for ecological intensification. Proc. R. Soc. B. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2015.1740.