The benefits of extensive agriculture to birds: the case of the little bustard.
The little bustard Tetrax tetrax is among many birds thought to be declining because of agricultural intensification in western Europe. In contrast with the situation elsewhere, bustard numbers have greatly increased during the last 50 years in the Crau, southern France, as agriculture has been developing. We wished to ascertain which features of agricultural development might have supported this population increase. Using data on habitat-specific densities obtained by surveys of the Crau in 1998 and 1999, we assessed how breeding male little bustards used habitats representing various levels of agricultural intensification. We also documented historical changes in bustard numbers and agricultural trends in the Crau, comparing them with present patterns of habitat use, to determine how changes in farmed landscapes may have driven population trends. Male bustards used natural steppe and extensive agricultural habitats (fallow, grazed crops, legume crops), whereas more intensive agricultural habitats (hay-meadows, grain crops) were little used. Mean densities on extensive agricultural habitats were always high, but densities on steppe varied with landscape composition: densities were low where steppe was dominant in the landscape, but high where steppe and extensive agriculture were mixed. Available literature showed that little bustards settled in the Crau around 1950, after 40% of the original steppe had been converted into arable land. We estimate a current population of 473-539 breeding males. Only 17% of the original steppe remains, but extensive agricultural habitats still represent 30% of arable land. Both historical data and present habitat use suggest that little bustard population trends in the Crau are driven by the development of extensive agriculture. Extensive agricultural habitats may provide little bustards with resources unavailable or scarce in natural steppe. Severe declines in little bustard numbers observed elsewhere could be reversed within a few decades by restoring extensive agricultural habitats. The potential impact of current European agricultural policies is discussed, with special reference to agri-environmental measures and set-aside policy. This work provides an example of an avian species that benefits from cultivated landscapes, providing that they are extensive rather than intensive. We propose a simple conceptual model to illustrate how little bustards, and possibly grassland birds in general, might respond where natural habitats are modified along orthogonal axes representing cultivation and agricultural intensification.