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A cross-taxonomic index for quantifying the health of farmland biodiversity

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1. The development of sustainable, multi-functional agricultural systems involves reconciling the needs of agricultural production with the objectives for environmental protection, including biodiversity conservation. However, the definition of sustainability remains ambiguous and it has proven difficult to identify suitable indicators for monitoring progress towards, and the successful achievement of, sustainability.

2. In this study, we show that a trait-based approach can be used to assess the detrimental impacts of agricultural change to a broad range of taxonomic groupings and derive a standardised index of farmland biodiversity health, built around an objective of achieving stable or increasing populations in all species associated with agricultural landscapes.

3. To demonstrate its application, we assess the health of UK farmland biodiversity relative to this goal. Our results suggest that the populations of two-thirds of 333 plant and animal species assessed are unsustainable under current UK agricultural practices.

4. We then explore the potential benefits of an agri-environment scheme, Entry Level Stewardship (ELS), to farmland biodiversity in the UK under differing levels of risk mitigation delivery. We show that ELS has the potential to make a significant contribution to progress towards sustainability targets but that this potential is severely restricted by current patterns of scheme deployment.

5.Synthesis and applications: We have developed a cross-taxonomic sustainability index which can be used to assess both the current health of farmland biodiversity and the impacts of future agricultural changes relative to quantitative biodiversity targets. Although biodiversity conservation is just one of a number of factors that must be considered when defining sustainability, we believe our cross-taxonomic index has the potential to be a valuable tool for guiding the development of sustainable agricultural systems.
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Keywords: agri-environment schemes; agriculture; biodiversity health; risk assessment; sustainable development

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Rothamsted Research, Harpenden AL5 2JQ, UK 2: Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, University of Oxford, Abingdon OX13 5QL, UK 3: Centre for Agri-Environment Research, School of Agriculture, Policy and Development, University of Reading, Reading RG6 6AR, UK

Publication date: December 1, 2009

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