Traditional farming methods are crucial for protecting a number of threatened bird species in the developing world, including bustards, cranes, ibises and vultures, a study has found.
Livestock grazing and features associated with arable farming — such as hedgerows — create environmental conditions that certain birds currently depend on for food, shelter and breeding, the authors report.
But as industrial farming methods eliminate these habitats, these species are threatened with extinction, said Hugh Wright, a researcher in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia, United Kingdom, and lead author of the study, published in Conservation Letters earlier this month (5 December).
"There really is no hope for these species if industrial farming continues unchecked," he told SciDev.Net.
Although reintroducing or mimicking traditional farming techniques has had success in conserving wildlife in Europe, "conservation in the developing world has always focused on pristine forest ecosystems and has paid little attention to where farming might be beneficial," Wright said.
The study found 29 bird species threatened by the decline of traditional agriculture in developing countries. This number could be much higher if all organisms, rather than just birds, are considered, as evidence from Europe suggests that traditional farming also benefits reptiles, amphibians, butterflies and even plants, Wright said.
Farmers can benefit too from protecting biodiversity since it helps to justify traditional agriculture and could prevent big agri-businesses from forcing farmers off their land, he added. Also, by offering farmers economic incentives to continue these beneficial practices, governments can ensure that conservation and development move forward together.
Tim Benton, professor of population ecology at the University of Leeds, United Kingdom, agreed that traditional agricultural methods are a valuable conservation tool, but said that adopting techniques aimed at saving a few iconic species can disadvantage farmers.
"Applying low-intensity farming instead of industrial methods often pits livelihoods against conservation, and can impose limits on a region's development," he said.
Instead, he said that "land sparing" — where some areas are intensively farmed while others are left primarily for conservation — can lead to more wildlife and better crop yields.
There is no one strategy, but a "middle ground" that combines land sparing and traditional farming methods to suit local conditions could be the best conservation strategy, he added.
Wright agreed that a mixed approach can maximise biodiversity. "You need to assess which species you have, how feasible it is to protect them, what it will cost and social issues as well before coming up with a conservation strategy for an area," he said.
Conservation Letters doi: 10.1111/j.1755-263X.2011.00208.x (2011)