Intensive agriculture homogenizes butterfly communities

by: Pavel Stoev

Increased efficiency in the use of agricultural farmland is resulting in homogenisation of butterfly communities and a lower number of butterfly species. As cultivated areas grow in size, important butterfly habitats, such as field margins, meadows and open forest boundaries, are correspondingly contracting. Particularly sensitive to this change are species such as the purple-edged copper and the small heath butterfly, which are considerably specialized in terms of their habitat requirements and have low mobility.

An extensive research project conducted by the Finnish Environment Institute and the University of Helsinki studied day-active butterfly species in 134 agricultural areas in Finland. The results of this project were published in the March issue of the Journal of Applied Ecology.

‘The results of the research show that the diversity of butterfly species dwindled in direct proportion to the extent of land area cultivated. This reduction in species diversity accelerated whenever cultivated land coverage exceeded 60% of the total landscape area', states Senior Researcher Mikko Kuussaari.

Simple measures to protect butterflies

The homogenisation of butterfly communities has increased significantly in the intensively cultivated areas of Southwestern Finland and the Uusimaa region, for example. Species which exhibit high sensitivity in terms of their habitat, and the related low mobility, are particularly vulnerable to such change.

‘Greater efficiency in land utilisation not only reduces the number of butterfly species, but also leads to homogenisation of butterfly communities. In many sizeable areas, only a few common butterfly species can now be found, such as the small tortoiseshell, the green-veined white and the peacock butterfly. Rare and sensitive species may be missing altogether', explains researcher Johan Ekroos.

Concerning the preservation of butterfly species, significant variation was noted across Finland. The butterfly communities of agricultural areas have remained diverse in Åland, for example, where an exceptional number of habitats created by traditional agriculture, such as meadows and natural pastures, have survived. No disappearance of the most sensitive species was evident in areas where farmland covered less than 50% of the landscape on average.

Butterfly diversity can be maintained through fairly ordinary measures, such as flower-rich fallows, the extension of uncultivated field margins, and the establishment of flower strips on sunlit forest boundaries. New, more efficient measures in support of biodiversity should be taken in use in agri-environment schemes.

Further information

Mikko Kuussaari, Senior Researcher, Finnish Environment Institute
Tel. +358 40 525 6249, firstname.lastname@ymparisto.fi

Johan Ekroos, Researcher, Department of Biosciences, University of Helsinki,
Tel. +358 50 353 5031, firstname.lastname@helsinki.fi

Johan Ekroos, Janne Heliölä & Mikko Kuussaari: Homogenization of lepidopteran communities in intensively cultivated agricultural landscapes. – Journal of Applied Ecology 47:459-467. http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/123237342/abstract?CRETRY=1&SRETRY=0

Figure caption: The purple-edged copper, a highly sensitive meadow butterfly, has suffered from increased agricultural efficiency. Photo: Janne Heliölä

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