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Cereal density and N-fertiliser effects on the flora and biodiversity value of arable headlands

Abstract

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.

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Acknowledgments

This study was part of a project funded by Defra (BD5204). The field experiments were set up in cooperation with Charles Church Partnership and with Jon Harley, the farm manager of Roundwood Estate. Valuable advice was provided by Mike Green from Natural England. We would like to thank Marek Nowakowski (Wildlife Farming Company) for advice and help while setting up the experimental treatments, and Pete Nuttall for help with field recording. Two anonymous referees made valuable comments and suggestions during the review process.

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Correspondence to Markus Wagner.

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Communicated by Daniel Sanchez Mata.

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Wagner, M., Bullock, J.M., Hulmes, L. et al. Cereal density and N-fertiliser effects on the flora and biodiversity value of arable headlands. Biodivers Conserv 26, 85–102 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10531-016-1225-4

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Keywords

  • Agri-environment schemes
  • Agro-ecology
  • Conservation headlands
  • Crop competition
  • Rare arable plants
  • Weed management