Cereal density and N-fertiliser effects on the flora and biodiversity value of arable headlands
Modern intensive farming caused pronounced changes to the European arable flora. Many species adapted to less intensive traditional farming declined severely, as did the potential of unsown arable vegetation to support higher trophic levels. To reverse these trends, various agri-environment measures were introduced. One such measure is to manage cereal headlands as conservation headlands, involving strict restrictions on pesticide and fertiliser use. An additional modification to management which could reduce crop competition and thus deliver benefits to arable plants is cereal sowing at reduced rates. However, little is known about its benefits to rare and declining arable plants, or to species of value to higher trophic levels, and whether it can be implemented without concomitant increase in undesirable weeds. We set up identical two-factorial experiments in winter wheat and spring barley, combining a nitrogen fertiliser versus no fertiliser treatment with cereal sowing at economic rates versus sowing at rates reduced by 75 %, with added sowing of a mixture of rare arable species. Both experiments also included an uncropped but cultivated control equivalent to another agri-environment measure. Our results show that reduced cereal sowing in conservation headlands can benefit rare and declining species, as well as arable plant diversity, without necessarily resulting in a concomitant increase in undesirable weeds. While such benefits tended to be larger in uncropped cultivated controls, conservation headlands have the advantage of not requiring land being taken out of production. Moreover, as shown in this study, their benefits to arable plants can be maximised by reduced sowing.