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Schlaich opening image

Enhancing food abundance and availability for harriers

Birdfields – a novel Agri-Environmental Scheme to improve foraging conditions for a vole-eating raptor
Almut Schlaich
Dutch Montagu’s Harrier Foundation & Conservation Ecology Group,
GELIFES (Groningen Institute for Evolutionary Life Sciences),
Groningen University, The Netherlands
Testing a novel agri-environment scheme based on the ecology of the target species, Montagu’s Harrier Circus pygargus
Schlaich, A.E., Klaassen, R.H.G., Bouten, W, Both, C & Koks, B.J. 2015. IBIS 157: 713-721. DOI: 10.1111/ibi.12299 View

The Montagu’s Harrier is a rare farmland breeding bird, not only in the UK, but also in the Netherlands where we have a small population of around 40 pairs. In the highly intensified agricultural landscape farmland birds struggle to find sufficient food to breed successfully. We tested a novel agri-environment scheme (AES) – coined Birdfields – to provide accessible food sources for breeding Montagu’s Harriers.
A small population of Montagu’s Harriers established in our study area in Eastern Groningen, the Netherlands, in the early 1990s when farmland was set aside on a large scale to counteract wheat overspill (Koks et al. 2007). The set-aside habitat was used for foraging, and the harriers nested in large wheat fields that characterize this intensively farmed area. After the set-aside regulation ended, the number of breeding pairs directly decreased again. To preserve Montagu’s Harriers for the Netherlands, agri-environment schemes (AES) like field margins and set-aside fields were introduced. This led to an increase in numbers and we nowadays have a population fluctuating around 40 breeding pairs (Figure 1).
Schlaich Fig 1Figure 1 Development of the Dutch Montagu’s Harrier population
In the Netherlands, Common Voles are the most important prey, which is exemplified by the fact that vole abundance determines breeding success and population growth (Koks et al. 2007). In order to understand where Montagu’s Harriers exactly find these prey in the intensively farmed landscape, and the exact role of AES in this, we tracked individual harriers using radio-transmitters and UvA-BiTS GPS-loggers. Surprisingly, the birds were not spending much time hunting on set-aside, but strongly preferred freshly mown grass fields (Trierweiler 2010, Klaassen et al. 2014). This seems paradoxical as vole abundance is much higher in set-aside habitats compared to other crops (Koks et al. 2007, Schlaich et al. 2015). The answer probably lies in the fact that prey are difficult to capture in dense set-aside vegetation. Thus, prey availability rather than prey abundance per se dictates habitat selection in foraging harriers.
Integrating knowledge on the Montagu’s Harrier ecology, we designed a novel AES – coined Birdfields – that aims at increasing both prey abundance and availability. Birdfields consist of alternating strips of set-aside and alfalfa (Figure 2). Set-aside strips are sown with a mixture of cereals, grasses and herbs, and their most important function is to enhance local densities of voles. Alfalfa strips are harvested three times per year, and their main function is to enhance prey availability. An additional advantage of growing alfalfa is that the harvest of alfalfa reduces the overall costs of the AES, making Birdfields a more economical alternative to current AES.
Schlaich Fig 2Figure 2 Birdfields in Haansplassen 2013. Clearly visible are the alternating strips of set-aside (yellowish habitat) and Alfalfa (greenish habitat) © Ben Koks
In 2011, two Birdfields were created close to a core breeding area of Montagu’s Harriers. These Birdfields were monitored in 2012-2013. During the same period, high-resolution tracking data of individual male Montagu’s Harriers was collected using UvA-BiTS GPS-loggers. With the help of volunteers vole abundance was monitored in set-aside and alfalfa strips, and small mammals killed during the mowing events were identified (Figure 3). This involved counting vole burrows in 6184 1m²-plots and walking 93.9 km behind the mowing machine! As expected, vole abundance was much higher in set-aside than in alfalfa, and nearly 90% of all observed small mammals were Common Voles. Detailed tracking data from four male Montagu’s Harriers in each season showed that birds used the Birdfields intensively during and after mowing events, in which the birds strongly preferred mown over unmown habitat (Figure 4).
Schlaich Fig 3Figure 3 Counting vole burrows in 1m²-plots (left) and walking behind the mowing machine to identify small mammals killed during the mowing events © Ben Koks
Schlaich Fig 4Figure 4 Example of the tracks of one male Montagu’s Harrier hunting above a Birdfield on the day of mowing (10 June 2013) and the 2 days thereafter (11 and 12 June 2013)
Our results show that Birdfields form an efficient AES for Montagu’s Harriers as this novel measure not only enhances prey abundance but also prey accessibility. In addition, it is a more economic AES. Furthermore, many other species seem to profit from Birdfields in particular breeding Skylarks, breeding and wintering vole-eaters and wintering farmland birds. Consequently, the measure ‘Birdfields’ has now been officially implemented as a greening measure in the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in Pillar 1 and Pillar 2 in The Netherlands. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Economic Affairs has started a country-wide pilot, executed by BirdLife Netherlands, Louis Bolk Instituut and the Dutch Montagu’s Harrier Foundation, to evaluate scientifically the general value of Birdfields for soil, insects, and farmland birds and already 230 ha of Birdfields have been implemented throughout the Netherlands. More than 300 ha will follow in 2016.

References and further reading

Klaassen, R. H. G., A. E. Schlaich, M. Franken, W. Bouten & B. J. Koks. 2014. GPS-loggers onthullen gedrag Grauwe kiekendieven in Oost-Groningse akkerland. De Levende Natuur 115:61-66. View

Koks, B. J., C. Trierweiler, E. G. Visser, C. Dijkstra & J. Komdeur. 2007. Do voles make agricultural habitat attractive to Montagu’s Harrier Circus pygargus? Ibis 149:575-586. View

Trierweiler, C. 2010. Travels to feed and food to breed. The annual cycle of a migratory raptor, Montagu´s harrier, in a modern world. PhD, University of Groningen, Groningen. View
Schlaich photo

About the author

Almut Schlaich is a PhD student at the Dutch Montagu’s Harrier Foundation supervised by Prof. Christiaan Both at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and Prof. Vincent Bretagnolle at the CNRS (Centre d’Etudes Biologiques de Chizé) in France. She started studying Montagu’s Harriers during her Master’s thesis on the stopover ecology of harriers at a key stopover area in Morocco. For her PhD project she investigates space use and behaviour of individuals tracked by UvA-BiTS GPS-loggers in breeding areas in Europe as well as wintering areas in the Sahel.

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Conservation Ecology Group, University of Groningen
Follow our satellite tagged Montagu’s Harriers during the annual cycle
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Image credits

Top right: Montagu’s Harrier © Ben Koks; Photo of author © Johan Poffers; others as credited.

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One comment on “Birdfields

  1. Rob Simmons says:

    Dear Almut,
    This is not only a fascinating result but one of the nicest practical uses of theory (actually the Life-Dinner Principle …without you saying it in so many words this is why your voles are hiding in the densest vegetation and most available in the least dense), put into conservation. Hearty congratulations on both increasing your Montagu’s Harrier population and showing their foraging paths so well in the tracking figures. If you are interested in the Life-Dinner Principle and its application to harriers and mice please take a look at my Harriers of the World book (2000) pp 105-115. Rob S

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