Threatened species need farmland

White-shouldered ibis (Image: Hugh Wright) Species such as the white-shoulder ibis need arable landscapes to survive, say researchers

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Several threatened species in the developing world are completely dependent on human agriculture for their survival, say scientists.

A study by researchers at the University of East Anglia (UEA), found at least 30 bird species that would be driven to extinction without farmland.

The research is published in the journal Conservation Letters.

This study focused on birds, but the team say the same probably applies to many other animals.

Dr Paul Dolman from the University of East Anglia led the research team.

He told BBC Nature: "The general principle is that where large herbivores used to graze the land and create this habitat, they have now gone and human farmers are doing the job instead.

"So wildlife now needs the farmers."

The team laid the foundations for their study with research into threatened bird species in Africa and Asia.

This revealed that some of the rarest and most threatened birds there were completely dependent on traditional grazing land.

To find out if this was true of species worldwide, Dr Dolman and his UEA colleagues, Hugh Wright and Iain Lake examined the habitats of threatened birds throughout the globe, using a bird habitat database, collated by the charity BirdLife International.

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Hopefully this study will eventually help both the people and the wildlife”

End Quote Dr Paul Dolman UEA

"This showed large numbers of threatened birds were using farmland in developing countries," said Dr Dolman.

The team looked more closely at exactly what these threatened species needed to survive - the land they required for nesting and breeding and the food they ate.

"This threw up at least 30 examples of dependency (on farmland), and we are certain there will be many more."

Some endangered species have historical associations with old farming methods that are now dying out. For example, the Asian crested ibis, which is now found only at a single site in central China, depends on arable land for food.

When these small farms disappear - as land is developed for building or for more intensive, commercial agriculture - the birds disappear too.

Another Critically Endangered bird, the sociable lapwing came to rely on farmers for its survival much more recently.

The birds breed in northern and central Kazakhstan and south-central Russia, and as the antelope that used to graze these breeding grounds died out they were "replaced" by sheep farms.

Sociable lapwing (c) Maxim Koshkin/RSPB The sociable lapwing has come to rely on sheep farms for its breeding grounds

Dr Dolman said: "Extensive grazing and [traditional] pastoralism systems are crucial to many threatened species.

"But low intensity cultivation is also vitally important to many species, with traditional rice cultivation seeming extremely valuable to biodiversity in Asia and traditional cereal cultivation important to biodiversity in Africa."

Dr Wright pointed out that most conservation efforts in the developing world focus their attention on forest species and pristine habitats.

"People have usually been seen as a problem," he said.

"But there are a number of threatened species - particularly birds but probably a whole range of wildlife - which heavily depend on the farmed environment."

The study's authors warned that many more traditional farming systems that they identified as beneficial to threatened species are now under threat themselves, as they are replaced by industrial, large-scale agriculture and local economic development.

Dr Dolman concluded: "We need to identify valuable farmland landscapes and support local people so that they can continue their traditional farming methods and help maintain this unique biodiversity.

"So hopefully, this study will eventually help both the people and the wildlife."

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