Social and ecological drivers of success in agri-environment schemes: the roles of farmers and environmental context.
Agri-environment schemes remain a controversial approach to reversing biodiversity losses, partly because the drivers of variation in outcomes are poorly understood. In particular, there is a lack of studies that consider both social and ecological factors. We analysed variation across 48 farms in the quality and biodiversity outcomes of agri-environmental habitats designed to provide pollen and nectar for bumblebees and butterflies or winter seed for birds. We used interviews and ecological surveys to gather data on farmer experience and understanding of agri-environment schemes, and local and landscape environmental factors. Multimodel inference indicated social factors had a strong impact on outcomes and that farmer experiential learning was a key process. The quality of the created habitat was affected positively by the farmer's previous experience in environmental management. The farmer's confidence in their ability to carry out the required management was negatively related to the provision of floral resources. Farmers with more wildlife-friendly motivations tended to produce more floral resources, but fewer seed resources. Bird, bumblebee and butterfly biodiversity responses were strongly affected by the quantity of seed or floral resources. Shelter enhanced biodiversity, directly increased floral resources and decreased seed yield. Seasonal weather patterns had large effects on both measures. Surprisingly, larger species pools and amounts of semi-natural habitat in the surrounding landscape had negative effects on biodiversity, which may indicate use by fauna of alternative foraging resources. Synthesis and application. This is the first study to show a direct role of farmer social variables on the success of agri-environment schemes in supporting farmland biodiversity. It suggests that farmers are not simply implementing agri-environment options, but are learning and improving outcomes by doing so. Better engagement with farmers and working with farmers who have a history of environmental management may therefore enhance success. The importance of a number of environmental factors may explain why agri-environment outcomes are variable, and suggests some - such as the weather - cannot be controlled. Others, such as shelter, could be incorporated into agri-environment prescriptions. The role of landscape factors remains complex and currently eludes simple conclusions about large-scale targeting of schemes.