DR. Don's Research Updates
November 1, 2002: The ecological importance of field margins.

By Don Lotter, Ph.D., post-doctoral researcher, Rodale Institute

Editor's NOTE

In addition to analyzing data from our research trials and developing new domestic and international research initiatives, Don reviews dozens of research studies each week. He'll present the most interesting of his findings every week on the web site.

Field margins, the areas along the edges of crop fields that are untilled and characterized by non-crop plant species, are important both ecologically and often agronomically.

In densely inhabited areas such as many areas of Europe, field margins are an important part of wildlife habitat. Farmland bird populations have shown marked declines in the last 40 years in Britain as a result of agricultural intensification. If the same studies were carried out in the US the same conclusion would likely be drawn. Field margins have been shown to be important foraging areas for birds, particularly in winter, and can be managed such that they provide nesting sites as well.

In France, the art of hedge design on the margins of crop fields is known as bocage, a reflection of its cultural importance. Field margins can be designed so that larger wildlife habitat areas can be connected, so that they function as corridors for migrating wildlife.

Field margins can provide important overwintering sites and both temporary and permanent habitat for organisms that are beneficial to agriculture. Important predators such as carabid beetles and staphylinid beetles and spiders depend on untilled natural areas such as field margins. These arthropods are voracious consumers of crop pests. “Beetle banks”, raised strips planted with tussock forming grasses within crop fields, have been promoted in Britain. Beetle banks favor the recolonization of crop fields by beetles in the spring, promoting biological control of pests.

Riparian areas, the areas next to waterways, are particularly important ecologically. Often, the vast majority of species in an area are concentrated in riparian zones. These areas are important for filtering out agricultural nutrients and other chemicals before they reach aquatic systems. In aquatic systems, agricultural nutrients become pollutants. Pesticides, even organically certified ones, when they reach aquatic systems, become hundreds and even thousands of times more powerful as killing agents.

The source for this research brief was a special issue of Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment (Elsevier Science) Volume 89, Issues 1-2. The issue is dedicated to agricultural field margins.


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