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Agri-environment schemes in Europe are largely ineffective


Agri-environment schemes (AES) in Europe appear to be largely ineffective as policy instruments. Research in five European countries has shown that common species of birds, insects and plants do not benefit very much from this kind of nature management and rare species benefit much less. There are virtually no benefits for threatened species (listed in the Red Data Books). These conclusions were drawn by researchers from six European research institutions during a conference on 30 and 31 January at Wageningen University. They proposed that much clearer and more measurable goals should be established in the future and that the policy should focus more on the protection of specific species.

Agri-environment schemes intend to counteract the negative effects of modern agriculture on natural habitats. Farmers are given financial incentives to use environmentally-benign methods for cultivating the land, such as mowing pastures later in the season, spreading less manure or spreading manure later in the season. Agri-environment schemes are important policy instruments for many European countries. The European Union has recently obligated all its Member States to implement these schemes. In 2003, an estimated € 3.7 billion was spent on such measures. In 2005, approximately 25% of the total agricultural area in the 15 older Member States of the European Union was subjected to this policy. Agri-environment schemes are one of the most important tools for protecting biodiversity in agricultural areas. In addition, it has turned out that subsidies for AES provide European countries with the possibility of indirectly supporting the agricultural community in situations where direct support is under pressure due to the resulting distortion of international trade.


During the past three years, researchers from the Netherlands, Germany, the United Kingdom, Switzerland and Spain have conducted research in their own countries especially into the effect of AES on biodiversity. As part of this research, the presence of specific plants, birds, bees, grasshoppers, crickets and spiders was compared on 202 plots with AES and the same number of plots without AES. This research, which was made possible by the European Union as part of its Fifth Framework Programme, was published in the scientific journal Ecology Letters.

The participants in the study were the following:

  • Nature Conservation and Plant Ecology Group, Wageningen University (the Netherlands);
  • Departamento de Ciencias, Ambientales, Facultad de Ciencias del Medio Ambiente, Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha, Spain;
  • Department of Agroecology, University of Göttingen, Germany;
  • Agroscope FAL Reckenholz, Swiss Federal Research Station for Agroecology and Agriculture, Zürich, Switzerland;
  • Marshall Agroecology Ltd, Barton, Winscombe, Somerset, United Kingdom.


On 30 and 31 January, approximately 75 researchers from 12 countries met in Wageningen to discuss the results of their research. Their most important conclusions were that AES has a small positive effect on the maintenance of biodiversity and the protection of threatened species, but in its current form this policy instrument is not sufficient to bring a halt to the downward trend. However, there were enough examples from the large-scale study that showed when and under which conditions such measures are effective. Based on these findings, the researchers concluded that AES, if it is to be effective, must be conducted differently than at present.

The conference participants came to the following final conclusions:

1. At the present time, Agri-Environment Schemes (AES) do not adequately protect farmland biodiversity at a European or national scale, but there are enough examples of individual schemes which do protect biodiversity to suggest that, given an appropriate evidence base, design, targeting and funding, AES could provide adequate protection for biodiversity. Ecological information on the impacts of schemes on land abandonment and the associated biodiversity implications are lacking.

2. In order for them to work and to demonstrate that they have worked (or not), AES need clear objectives and targets. These objectives and targets should be area-specific, realistic and quantitative in terms of changes in abundance, range or diversity of specified species or species groups and be time delimited.

3. For future improved success of AES, region-specific farmer training and advice will be a key issue to enhance farmland biodiversity.

4. In general, there is sufficient ecological insight and geographical information to identify the objectives, outcomes and targeting for potential AES prescriptions. However, ecological insights are often lacking for spatial scale effects and for temporal and ecosystem service effects.

5. Wide-scale ecological evaluations, well-integrated in scheme design and implementation should be linked to specific case studies on the causes of effectiveness or lack thereof. Ecological insights into cause and effect are important for the design/re-design process, for which monitoring and clarity of objectives are essential. Ecological assessment should be transparent, inclusive and carried out by skilled ecologists.

6. The results of evaluation and cause-effect studies should be used to improve the design of schemes. Agri-environment schemes should be regarded as working hypotheses that need constant adjustment.

Jac Niessen | alfa
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