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Biodiversity on agricultural lands

Озеркинский степной массив. Шипуновский район, Алтайский край. Июнь 2011. Фото А.Н. Барашковой From a legal standpoint, more than 90% of the remaining steppes in Russia fall under agricultural land, such as pastures, hayfields and, to a lesser extent, lands under fallow. Land-use on steppes corresponds to this legal status in that most of the lands are currently being used, or have been used until recently, for grazing and, to some extent, hay production. Not only steppes, but many other types of ecosystems inRussia are mainly associated with agricultural land, some of them almost exclusively.  They occupy almost half of the total agricultural land in the country.

In Russia, all steppes on the plains and many variants of mountain steppes, riparian forests and island-like forests, various steppe shrublands, the most northern in Eurasia halophytic desert on the salt marshes (Caspian Sea region,Western Siberia, Dauria) are found almost exclusively on agricultural lands. Low-lying marshlands, or floodplain meadows, and relict raised bogs in western Siberia are also mostly found on agricultural land. Consequently, all the species inhabiting these ecosystems inRussia occur only on agricultural land. More than 6,000 species of plants, 100 species of mammals, 150-180 species of birds and thousands of insect species and other invertebrate species are dependent on grassland ecosystems.

Вторичная степь на поздней стадии залежной сукцессии. Терраса озера Айке, север Тургайского плато. Светлинский р-н Оренбургской области. Июнь 2010. Фото И.Э. Смелянского In addition, Russian agricultural lands play a key role in maintaining the populations of many species whose general distribution is not limited to agricultural landscapes. Striking examples of these are almost all the different species of geese and many species of cranes, including the endangered lesser white-fronted goose (Anser erythropus) and the Siberian crane (Grus leucogeranus). Agricultural lands, including croplands, are critically important to these species as stop-over points during migrations.

There are whole regions and even biomes within in Russia where agricultural ecosystems are almost the only refuge for biodiversity. The main agricultural belt of the country is confined principally to the arid regions.  They also cover neighbouring temperate areas in which forests were cut down a long time ago and the lower reaches of southern mountain ranges extending from the Caucasus to the Far East. In these regions, most species and ecosystem diversity remains within the agricultural lands.  For example, in Stavropol and Rostov Provinces, which total ​​more than 167,000 km2 in area, forests occur on less than 3% of the land, while agricultural land covers approximately 85% of the total area.  Approximately a quarter of the territory in these regions is represented by semi-natural ecosystems on agricultural land, namely,  steppe and meadow pastures, hayfields and shrubland and other ecosystems on the land that are unsuitable for crops ,as well as fallow lands at various stages of recovery.

The existence of many semi-natural ecosystems that include steppes is maintained through traditional agriculture.  Discontinuing agricultural practices therefore represents a threat to such ecosystems and the species living in them. For example, the globally threatened Imperial eagle (Aquila heliaca) and the sociable lapwing (Vanellus gregarius) are associated with intensively grazed pastures.  Furthermore, the western subspecies of the great bustard (Otis tarda tarda) has during recent decades bred primarily in agricultural fields and fallow lands where its success depends on the timing and technology of agricultural work.

Examples of whole communities that have become dependent on agricultural practices are true steppes and, in particular, meadow steppes.  Due to the absence of wild ungulates, the sustainable existence of these communities is only possible if there is a degree of grazing pressure.  It is also dependent on a deliberate grass fire regime.  In the absence of such disturbances, weed species penetrate significantly into the communities, shrubs begin to dominate, the vegetation loses most of the typical native species and plant diversity decreases due to the suppression of some ecologically-important plant groups, such as spring ephemeral plants and even dense bunchgrasses.

On the other hand, natural ecosystems within agricultural landscapes are critical to the normal functioning of agriculture as well as to the lives of rural people.  Most of the ecosystems are productive lands and are used for farming, primarily for livestock but also for beekeeping and fish farming.  According to rough estimates, the total value of agricultural produce generated by natural and semi-natural ecosystems in Russia is comparable to the value of produce derived from arable land, although the cost of maintaining the productive capacity of natural ecosystems is about ten times less. More importantly, however, is that natural ecosystems work as stabilizers for agricultural landscapes. The natural fertility of steppes significantly helps to maintain all agricultural lands including cropland. In addition, natural ecosystems in agricultural areas serve as a source of natural control agents for crop pests and of genetic material for improving varieties of crops and breeds of domestic animals.  They also provide additional food and other resources to local residents and are very important to residents for recreation and tourism development.

Steppes in Russia contribute the most to the biodiversity on agricultural land. Unfortunately, all natural ecosystems within agricultural areas have virtually no legal protection. Steppe communities are also among the most disturbed and most threatened of all ecosystems associated with agricultural landscapes. To save steppes in Russia, it is first of all necessary to ensure the conservation of biodiversity on agricultural land.

See also:

Biodiversity of Agricultural Land in Russia: Current Status and Trends  (PDF, 500 Kb, Russian) 

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