Will agri-environment schemes deliver substantial biodiversity gain, and if not why not?
One of the main aims of agri-environment schemes (AES) is to increase biodiversity on farmland. Common conservation practice is to identify areas containing valuable resources (e.g. habitats, ecosystems and species) and then to protect them: 'protected area' schemes. AES differ from typical protected area schemes because they are often applied to small patches of land, such as field boundaries, and are sometimes located in areas where the target species does not occur. AES require an enormous amount of funding and they have been applied across a large geographical area, i.e. the European Union. However, recent evidence suggests mixed results regarding the effects of AES on biodiversity. It is hard to predict the consequences of AES on biodiversity because a number of factors are seldom accounted for explicitly. For example: (i) the occurrence of target species will vary between patches; (ii) there will be variation in habitat preference by species in different geographical areas; (iii) both optimal foraging theory and metapopulation theory predict that the distance from breeding individuals is likely to determine patch use; (iv) if resources are widely spread then the home ranges of some species may need to increase to encompass the multiple resources needed for breeding. The potential for these factors to affect the outcome of AES on biodiversity is discussed. Synthesis and applications. AES are likely to increase biodiversity if a lower number of larger resource patches are provided, in contrast to current practice that promotes many small fragmented areas of environmental resource. One way of achieving this may be to run these schemes more like traditional protected area schemes, with farms or groups of farms managed using extensive farming methods. Such an approach negates some of the problems of current AES and may help to address a wider range of concerns held by different countryside stakeholders.