Low-intensity farming systems in the conservation of the countryside.
The role of low-intensity farming in sustainable management of European landscapes and biotypes of high nature conservation value is discussed. More than 50% of Europe's most highly valued biotopes occur on low-intensity farmland. However, most of this farmland has no environmental policy directly affecting it; most management decisions are taken by farm businesses and determined primarily by European and national agricultural officials. As a result, there continues to be intensification or abandonment of traditional practices, changes which are equally damaging to the nature conservation value. However, the nature conservation importance of low-intensity farming systems is gradually being recognized. Reforms and reviews of agriculture policy are providing a variety of potential opportunities for maintaining such systems. Unfortunately, initiating change through policy is a slow process. There is therefore also a pressing need to look for other opportunities to maintain surviving systems and, where possible, to reinstate those recently lost. Although these systems may be considered low-intensity in terms of chemical inputs and productivity, they are usually high-intensity in terms of human labour. Therefore, the processes that make the low-intensity farmed countryside biologically rich and diverse must be understood, but at the same time mechanisms to make life easier and more rewarding for the people who work such farmland must be found. It is suggested that ecologists and conservationists should think less of 'remnants of habitat being left amongst farmland' and more of a farmland biotope for which optimum management practices need to be developed. At the same time current emphasis on site-based conservation should be complemented by strategic initiatives that promote wise management of the wider countryside.