Ecological Focus Areas – what are their impacts on biodiversity?

AUTHORS: Graham Tucker-Evelyn Underwood

Ecological Focus Areas (EFAs), part of greening in the Common Agricultural Policy, are intended to safeguard and improve biodiversity on arable farms in the EU. This IEEP study for EEB and BirdLife looked at how EFAs are being implemented in the EU and what evidence there is in the published literature on the potential biodiversity impacts on farmland – focusing on nitrogen-fixing crops, catch and cover crops, fallow, hedges and field margins, and taking into account how the areas are being managed.

Implementation data show that, in 2015, two-thirds of the EFA area comprised nitrogen-fixing crops, catch crops or cover crops, with land lying fallow on a fifth of the area. The literature shows that under the current EFA rules and conventional farming practices it is unlikely that most nitrogen-fixing crops and catch and cover crops grown on EFAs provide significant benefits for farmland biodiversity. In contrast, the EFA options of land lying fallow, hedges, and field margins generally have the potential under typical management to provide much greater, more diverse and more reliable biodiversity benefits.

The biodiversity benefits of EFA productive options and fallow could be considerably increased through changes in the incentives and implementation rules. Firstly, steps could be taken to increase the uptake of EFA options that provide the greatest biodiversity benefits. Secondly, measures could be taken to encourage farmers to sow species mixes that benefit wildlife on fallow, field margins and buffer strips and grow them long enough to flower and set seed without agro-chemical use. Finally, the biodiversity benefits of EFAs could be enhanced with a few simple changes to the implementation rules. Three key changes would greatly increase the ability of EFAs to meet their biodiversity policy objectives: 1) avoiding the use of fertilisers and pesticides; 2) ensuring the periods over which they are established and removed are suited to biodiversity as well as production cycles; and 3) ensuring that key farming operations (such as cutting of vegetation) are carried out at appropriate times.

This study aims to contribute to the evidence base for the forthcoming revision of greening regulation and implementation, building on a previous IEEP study on Member States greening choices.

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