STEPPE-AHEAD: Steppe-land birds, agriculture practices and economic viability: towards the conservation of threatened species in humanised landscapes (2011 – 2013)

Agricultural systems in general and steppe-land extensive farmland in particular, fall in the domain of systems driven by human activities that host a large number of species with high conservation concern.

These systems are characterized by a major and profound human use and still are home to a high biodiversity, which is threatened by particular changes in agricultural practices. These changes are leading to major population and distribution declines in species inhabiting these habitats, similar to those undergone by farmland bird species elsewhere in Europe.

Reversing such population declines in a farmland context will require a major management and conservation effort in the near future, basically based on well designed measures integrating environmental, social and economic approaches. Conservation efforts will not work if they are focused on a traditional conservation approach based on setting of protected areas with strong limitation on human activities and resource exploitation.

In the case of steppe-land birds using extensive farmland habitats, long term conservation will be only ensured if the species habitat requirements are explicitly included into the agricultural practices active in the area and if these agricultural practices are economically viable and integrated and accepted by local farmers.

The main objective of the present project is to conceptually advance in providing new conservation approaches aimed at making the conservation of threatened, steppe-land bird species possible in highly humanized agricultural dominated landscapes. Our approach will be based on the development of landscape use scenarios based on agronomic and local knowledge that will be evaluated both in terms of their economic viability and their potential to host viable populations of the target threatened bird species. This approach should therefore allow guiding the implementation of specific management actions in a sound agronomic context. The present project aims at dealing with two main challenges in current conservation biology. The first is conceptual and deals with the explicit integration of human activities influencing landscapes in conservation strategies. The second is methodological and deals with the development of new modeling methods allowing the integration of key ecological processes determining species distribution changes in flexible platforms allowing the comparison of impacts derived from different scenarios of future change.

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