Fate of unproductive and unattractive habitats: recent changes in Iberian steppes and their effects on endangered avifauna
Steppe ecosystems worldwide are affected by agricultural development and generally unprotected. Spanish shrub-steppes contain endangered avifauna, and this paper analyses their state of habitat conservation, the changes that have occurred in the last decade, primary productivity and its relationship with land exploitation and the richness of threatened birds, and avifauna responses to habitat loss. Fifty steppe remnants distributed throughout Spain and inhabited by Dupont's lark Chersophilus duponti, an endangered passerine representative of shrub steppe-like habitat, were studied. The study fragments were generally affected by agriculture exploitation, and steppe cover had significantly decreased in several isolated patches during the period 1991–1999. Steppe habitat recovered slightly in areas with low plant productivity indices, and decreased in extent in the most productive areas, in line with EU (European Union) agricultural policy recommendations to abandon marginal land of low productivity. The low overall primary productivity of Iberian steppes opened the way to industrial activities (mining, waste collection and wind-farming), which in the study areas occurred more frequently in steppe than in other habitat types that are more attractive to the public (woodland) or more productive (farmland). The emerging wind industry little affected the study plots, but the presence of anemometers suggests that the impact is likely to increase in the near future, especially in the largest steppelands. Dupont's lark was sensitive to the fragmentation of its habitat; crowding occurred in isolated and small fragments, possibly as a consequence of habitat constraints and species dispersal dynamics. Fragments inhabited by Dupont's lark also hosted other steppe birds with a high conservation value; the community of endangered birds, mostly adapted to arid conditions, was richest in the less productive sites. Only four shrub-steppe fragments are given some kind of protection throughout Spain, testifying to the limited public awareness about the value of this habitat. Urgent action is required to restore this habitat through abandonment of less productive farmland, and to create a network of protected and connected steppelands, in order to assure the long-term viability of steppe specialists and the preservation of a habitat that is unique in Western Europe. This should be coupled to an effort to increase social consciousness of the ecological value of steppes and arid landscapes in general.(Received August 31 2005)
(Accepted May 10 2006)
(Published Online August 8 2006)
Key Words: agriculture intensification; birds; Dupont's lark; habitat loss; industrial development; steppe; wind farms.
c1 Correspondence: Paola Laiolo e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org