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Assessing the effect of the time since transition to organic farming on plants and butterflies

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1. Environmental changes may not always result in rapid changes in species distributions, abundances or diversity. In order to estimate the effects of, for example, land-use changes caused by agri-environment schemes (AES) on biodiversity and ecosystem services, information on the time-lag between the application of the scheme and the responses of organisms is essential.

2. We examined the effects of time since transition (TST) to organic farming on plant species richness and butterfly species richness and abundance. Surveys were conducted in cereal fields and adjacent field margins on 60 farms, 20 conventional and 40 organic, in two regions in Sweden. The organic farms were transferred from conventional management between 1 and 25 years before the survey took place. The farms were selected along a gradient of landscape complexity, indicated by the proportion of arable land, so that farms with similar TST were represented in all landscape types. Organism responses were assessed using model averaging.

3. Plant and butterfly species richness was c. 20% higher on organic farms and butterfly abundance was about 60% higher, compared with conventional farms. Time since transition affected butterfly abundance gradually over the 25-year period, resulting in a 100% increase. In contrast, no TST effect on plant or butterfly species richness was found, indicating that the main effect took place immediately after the transition to organic farming.

4. Increasing landscape complexity had a positive effect on butterfly species richness, but not on butterfly abundance or plant species richness. There was no indication that the speed of response to organic farming was affected by landscape complexity.

5.Synthesis and applications. The effect of organic farming on diversity was rapid for plant and butterfly species richness, whereas butterfly abundance increased gradually with time since transition. If time-lags in responses to AESs turn out to be common, long-term effects would need to be included in management recommendations and policy to capture the full potential of such schemes.
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Keywords: Lepidoptera; agri-environment scheme; farming system; farmland biodiversity; time since transition

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Department of Ecology, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, PO Box 7044, SE-750 07 Uppsala, Sweden 2: Department of Biology, Lund University, SE-223 62 Lund, Sweden

Publication date: June 1, 2011

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