Olive Grove Expansion Threatens Endangered Bird Species in Spain

The expansion of olive groves in Andalusia is reducing the habitat of the endangered Eurasian great bustard and little bustard.

The great bustard (Photo: Attila Terbócs)
By Simon Roots
Aug. 16, 2022 14:37 UTC
The great bustard (Photo: Attila Terbócs)

According to researchers from the University of Córdoba and Ecuador’s Technical University of Manabí, the expan­sion of olive groves in Andalusia is impact­ing the habi­tat of the already scarce pop­u­la­tions of Eurasian great bus­tard and lit­tle bus­tard.

In a research arti­cle pub­lished in Bird Conservation International, the team eval­u­ated the per­cent­age of dif­fer­ent land uses between 2000 and 2018 using data from the Corine Land Cover inven­tory, a pan-European satel­lite land sur­vey data­base, con­cern­ing the birds’ nat­ural habi­tats and known ranges.

They found that over this period, new olive groves occu­pied 2.14 per­cent and 2.61 per­cent of the Andalusian range of the Eurasian great bus­tard and lit­tle bus­tard, respec­tively.

Though pre­vi­ously wide­spread through­out Eurasia, from the British Isles to China, some 60 per­cent of the sur­viv­ing pop­u­la­tion of the great bus­tard is now con­fined to the Iberian penin­sula.

See Also:Bans on Night Harvesting Have Alleviated Threat to Migratory Birds

The lit­tle bus­tard has suf­fered a sim­i­lar fate. Once breed­ing as far north as Poland, it has become extinct in its for­mer cen­tral-European range over the past few decades.

All bus­tards are nat­u­rally grass­land and steppe birds but are well-suited to open arable farm­land. It is the con­ver­sion of such farm­land to olive groves and other woody crop­land that the authors believe may threaten the species’ future, not only because of over­all habi­tat reduc­tion but also because of habi­tat frag­men­ta­tion.

Though capa­ble of fly­ing vast dis­tances, bus­tards are pri­mar­ily ground-dwelling and feed by for­ag­ing on veg­e­ta­tion and insects.

Iberian flocks of the great bus­tard, in par­tic­u­lar, appear to migrate only very rarely, and even then for rel­a­tively short dis­tances in response to extremes of tem­per­a­ture.

Therefore, these changes in land­scape con­fig­u­ra­tion sug­gest a decline in both habi­tat avail­abil­ity and habi­tat qual­ity for steppe birds that could affect their dis­tri­b­u­tion and pop­u­la­tion size,” the researchers wrote.

This arti­cle accu­rately shows the impact of habi­tat loss in cereal agrosys­tems in favor of woody crops, in this case, olive groves,” said José Eugenio Gutiérrez, a del­e­gate of SEO/BirdLife in Andalusia and head of the Life Olivares Vivos+ project. It exposes the effect of this habi­tat loss on the great bus­tard and the lit­tle bus­tard, some­thing we already knew, but to which this inter­est­ing sci­en­tific work puts fig­ures.”

Although the expan­sion of olive groves in the last two decades has not been so impor­tant quan­ti­ta­tively… it has been qual­i­ta­tively because it has occurred at the expense of farm­land [pre­vi­ously] ded­i­cated to cereal crops and has had an impact on the loss and frag­men­ta­tion of habi­tat that has added to that accu­mu­lated over pre­vi­ous decades,” he added.

Of par­tic­u­lar con­cern to con­ser­va­tion groups such as SEO/BirdLife is the authors’ obser­va­tion that no dif­fer­ences were found in the pro­por­tion of new olive groves planted inside and out­side of Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) from 2000 to 2018, specif­i­cally des­ig­nated to con­serve these steppe birds.”

This leads us to think that con­ser­va­tion pol­icy should be reviewed and improved to pre­vent changes in land use from being detri­men­tal to dif­fer­ent species,” they added.

In response to this and other stud­ies, both SEO/BirdLife and the Life Olivares Vivos+ project have made numer­ous rec­om­men­da­tions to regional, national, and E.U. gov­ern­ment bod­ies regard­ing the need to con­sider the habi­tats of steppe species when cre­at­ing agri­cul­tural and envi­ron­men­tal pol­icy.

Discussing the impli­ca­tions for the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), Gutiérrez affirmed his belief that to con­serve our nat­ural her­itage (and, as we are see­ing, to improve our food inde­pen­dence), stop­ping this trans­for­ma­tion of farm­land into woody crop­land or solar pho­to­voltaic plants is a top pri­or­ity that must go through ade­quate strate­gic plan­ning at the ter­ri­to­r­ial level, and com­pli­ance with the envi­ron­men­tal objec­tives of the new CAP.”

Biodiversity con­ser­va­tion can­not fall entirely on the shoul­ders of these farm­ers who resist change, and until the agri-food mar­ket (and con­sumers) have incor­po­rated bio­di­ver­sity into the rules of the game, it is time for agri­cul­tural pol­icy,” he added.

SEO/BirdLife said that if ade­quate man­age­ment plans are in place, the impact can be mit­i­gated. For exam­ple, in those cases where olive groves and arable land are inter­spersed in the so-called mosaic” land­scape that pro­vides an over­all ben­e­fit to bio­di­ver­sity, includ­ing birdlife.

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