Are Ecological Focus Areas delivering for biodiversity?

Ecological Focus Areas are intended to safeguard and improve biodiversity on arable farms in the EU. What evidence is there that they are actually delivering biodiversity on farmland?

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. IEEP’s 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, taking into account how the areas are being managed. The study aims to contribute to the evidence base for the forthcoming revision of CAP greening regulation and implementation, building on a previous IEEP study on Member States greening choices.

Implementation data published by the European Commission 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 current EFA rules and conventional farming practices it is unlikely that most nitrogen-fixing crops and catch and cover crops grown on EFAs provide much benefit 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.

Extensively managed nitrogen-fixing forage and green manure crops, could provide benefits for some wildlife groups (including some threatened farmland species), if the crop is kept in the ground for a year to several years, cutting is avoided during the summer and pesticides are not applied. However, nitrogen-fixing crop EFAs probably rarely produce such biodiversity benefits because: a) the rules governing EFA implementation do not require extensive management; b) grain legume crops tend to be cultivated fairly intensively, including use of fertilisers and pesticides, and forage or green manure crops can be frequently cut or grazed; and c) only one Member State has banned pesticide use on N-fixing crops in EFAs (with the exception of the ban on their use on forage and green manure crops in The Netherlands).

Catch and cover crops are only likely to provide biodiversity benefits if they comprise plant mixes designed to benefit pollinators or seed-eating birds that are allowed to flower and set seed. However, on the EFAs of most of the case study countries and regions, there is no incentive to grow biodiversity beneficial plant mixes, and even were this to be the case, they are unlikely to flower and set seed as the obligatory cropping period is too short and/or crops may be cut to control weeds. In fact, they could have a negative impact on some farmland birds if cover crops replace winter stubbles, which are important feeding habitat for seed-eating birds.

The biodiversity benefits of EFA crops and fallow could be considerably increased through changes in the incentives and implementation rules. Firstly, the uptake of EFA options that provide the greatest biodiversity benefits could be increased. Secondly, farmers could be encouraged 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, three key changes to implementation rules 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.

Evelyn Underwood presented the results of the study to a group of Member State representatives on agriculture and members of the DG AGRI greening unit in Brussels on 29 November. IEEP will continue working on the evaluation of greening in the next year under a contract to DG AGRI, which will look at the effectiveness, efficiency, coherence, relevance and EU added value of the greening measure.


08 Dec 2016


Evelyn Underwood