Rapid recovery of a depleted population of Little Bustards Tetrax tetrax following provision of alfalfa through an agri-environment scheme
The Little Bustard has undergone a steep reduction of its Western Palaearctic range over the last century. In the west of France, breeding populations declined by 96% from 1978 to 2008 in cultivated areas where grasslands have been converted into intensively managed annual crops. Little Bustard abundance and nest productivity have been monitored since 1995 in a 450-km2 site in western France. We assessed the proximate causes of the decline of Little Bustards in French farming landscapes and quantified the effectiveness of conservation measures that aimed to reverse the decline. The decline of Little Bustard, from about 65 males in 1995 to just six males in 2003, could be related to a near absence of recruitment over this period. Since 2004, the establishment of more than 1300 ha of specifically targeted agri-environment schemes (AES) in the study site has led to a sharp increase in female productivity, mainly associated with nesting in AES fields. By imposing constraints on mowing dates, AES have prevented nest destruction and female mortality during mowing and, by increasing plant species diversity, provided chicks with a higher abundance of grasshoppers. This has contributed to reversing the trend, and increasing the population to around 30 males in 2009. Conservation strategies involving specifically targeted AES based on the identification of limiting factors can help to reverse the decline of threatened species.