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Large-scale patterns of summer and winter bird distribution in relation to farmland type in England and Wales

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Over the last 30 yr, the loss of traditional crop rotations and the polarisation of pastoral and arable farming have led to a marked reduction in mixed agriculture in Britain at both the individual farm and the landscape scale. We assess the potential impact of this change on lowland farmland birds by examining the extent to which distributions (as shown by national atlases of summer and winter birds) of different species are associated with arable, pastoral or mixed-farming landscape types. Relatively few species appeared as either widespread generalists, equally associated across the three broad farmland types, or specialists associated only with one landscape type. Most were associated with two farmland types but distributions showed seasonal differences. During the breeding season there was an approximate ratio of 2:2:1 of species associated with arable, mixed and pastoral landscapes. However, in winter, most species were at highest abundance in mixed farming landscapes. This coincided with a reduction in the number of species associated with pastoral landscapes relative to the breeding season, whereas the number of species associated with arable landscapes remained relatively stable. These patterns are likely to be related to foraging requirements; granivorous birds tended to be associated with arable habitats, which tend to be more seed-rich, and invertebrate-feeding species tended to be associated with mixed or pastoral ones, which may be more invertebrate-rich. The relative importance of mixed landscapes in winter was attributed to seasonal changes in the distribution of some invertebrate feeders, particularly small insectivores (pipits, chats and wagtails), and some of those species considered to be widespread in summer. The results have two important implications for future research. First, most research on farmland birds has, to date, focused on species associated with arable farming during the breeding season. More research is required on species associated with agricultural grasslands, reflecting its importance for farmland birds in Britain, and on the winter ecology of farmland birds in general. These results also emphasise the importance of mixed habitats for farmland birds, particularly in winter, and suggest that further changes in agricultural practices causing reduction in habitat diversity will be detrimental for the farmland bird community. However, widespread benefits may be derived from small scale measures that increase habitat diversity within farmland, for example field margin management options within agri-environment schemes and support for traditional farming practices in some Environmentally Sensitive Areas.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: August 1, 2002

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