Can the targeted deployment of agri-environment schemes around nature reserves benefit wildlife?

“However beautiful the strategy you should always look at the results”

Sir Winston Churchill

In 2010 Sir John Lawton and colleagues published “Making Space for Nature”, a report for the government which reviewed the state of wildlife sites across the UK.  The report outlined 24 recommendations on how to turn the nations’ typically small and fragmented sites into a contiguous, resilient ecological network. The report distilled all these recommendations into a single phrase; more, bigger, better and joined, which is visualised neatly in the figure below.

Various approaches to enhance ecological networks (Lawton et al., 2010)

Amongst the recommendations was the idea that agri-environment schemes (AES) could be deployed more strategically as ‘buffers’ around nature reserves to reduce negative impacts on the wildlife found within them. Whilst this seems like a sensible suggestion, what evidence is there to support this assertion?

My masters project, carried out at the University of East Anglia in conjunction with the RSPB, set about trying to test this strategy. The project was carried out at Berney marshes, a wet grassland reserve in Norfolk, which is an important site for a number of breeding wader species. However, this site like many others across the UK and Europe, suffers from high levels of  nest and chick predation, which is limiting conservation efforts to increase wader populations. The RSPB has been working with nearby landowners to enter commercial grassland into AES schemes designed to benefit breeding waders. Some of the land that had been entered into these schemes was located right next to the reserve. However, some parts of the reserve was also adjacent to fields that were being grazed commercially or were in arable production.


This presented a fantastic opportunity for us to explore how the impact of AES as opposed to commercial land adjacent to the reserve edge would affect wader nest predation rates on the reserve itself. So, after spending several months locating, logging and monitoring the fate of lapwing and redshank nests across the reserve we measured the shortest distance from each nest to the reserve edge and at that point, recorded the management of the field immediately adjacent to the reserve. This allowed us to make predictions about what nest predations rates would be at different distances from the reserve edge as well as the effect of different types of management outside the reserve.

lapwing on nest
Nigel Blake

The results were not we expected. The probability that a nest would suffer predation if located close to the edge of the reserve and adjacent to a) commercially managed land was ~10-20 times lower than if the nest was located close to the reserve edge where the adjacent habitat was in an b) agri-environment scheme. Although the probability of nest predation in areas of the reserve adjacent to AES were typical of probabilities found across the reserve, it was clear that foxes in particular were being attracted to these AES schemes and then spilling over into the reserve to predate nests. Is this evidence that using AES as buffers is actually a bad idea?

Of course this is a single case study many more studies looking at different impacts, on different species will need to be carried out before we have a clear answer. Nonetheless, placing AES around the edge of nature reserves will increase the contiguous area of suitable habitat for wildlife. This study shows that, at least in this case, that for this approach to be effective the overall productivity of a species on a reserve and buffer areas will need to outweigh the negative impact of predation.

To learn more  about more this research please read the paper:

Leigh, S.G., Smart. J., Gill. J.A., (2016)  Impacts of grassland management on wader nest predation rates in adjacent nature reserves. Animal Conservation. DOI: 10.1111/acv.12283


Lawton, J.H., Brotherton, P.N.M., Brown, V.K., Elphick, C., Fitter, A.H., Forshaw, J., Haddow, R.W., Hilborne, S., Leafe, R.N., Mace, G.M., Southgate, M.P., Sutherland, W.A., Tew, T.E., Varley, J., & Wynne, G.R. (2010) Making Space for Nature: a review of England’s wildlife sites and ecological network. Report to Defra.