Evaluating CAP wildflower strips: high-quality seed mixtures significantly improve plant diversity and related pollen and nectar resources.
Flower strips are a fundamental part of agri-environment schemes (AESs) introduced by the European Union to counteract the loss of biodiversity and related ecosystem services in agricultural landscapes. Although vegetation composition of the strips is essential for most fauna groups, comprehensive studies analysing vegetation development and influencing factors are rare. From 2017 to 2019, we investigated the vegetation composition of 40 perennial wildflower strips (WFSs) implemented in 2015 or 2016, and 20 cereal fields without WFS across Saxony-Anhalt, Germany. We analysed environmental factors on plot (cover of grasses, shading, soil fertility) and four landscape-scale levels (habitat diversity, proportion of WFS and open habitats). The provision of nectar and pollen resources was estimated by the newly developed Pollinator Feeding Index (PFI). All strips had been implemented by farmers as AES with species-rich seed mixtures comprising 30 native forbs. In all study years, forb species richness, cover and related nectar and pollen supply were much higher on WFSs than on controls, confirming the effectiveness of this AES. Although sown native forbs contributed the most to the high PFI values, spontaneously established forbs expanded the total range of species considerably, especially in winter and spring. While sown forb communities remained similar over time, spontaneous forbs showed a higher species turnover. Altogether, shading and grass cover had the greatest negative effect on the performance of the sown forbs. Landscape variables had only minor effects and were inconsistent in their importance across scale levels and years. Synthesis and applications. Successfully established perennial wildflower strips (WFSs) sown with species-rich native seed mixtures provided a forb-rich and diverse vegetation throughout the AES funding period of 5 years. By supplying feeding resources for pollinators under various landscape situations, WFSs have significant potential to promote farmland biodiversity and related ecosystem services. We recommend the mandatory use of species-rich wildflower mixtures for perennial flower strips and to avoid their creation in heavily shaded field edges. Advisory services for farmers are necessary to prevent failures in WFS implementation and management and to improve their ecological effectiveness.