PhD candidate, Natalia, from the University of East Anglia is teaming up with Sustainable Wines of Great Britain (SWGB) to study birds in UK vineyards. Global biodiversity needs protecting more than ever before, and there’s a lot of pressure for agriculture to become sustainable. The key to achieving sustainability is to farm with nature in mind, and understanding the interactions between winegrowing and diversity is necessary for informing sustainable practice. This article is the introduction to the new blog series, which will follow Natalia’s research adventures in UK vineyards and bring the latest research about birds in fruit farms to you.
The unprecedented times
If you’ve watched the Prime Minister speak at all in 2020, you’ll be well aware that we are living in unprecedented times. But I urge you to look beyond the pandemic. You now know how to do your bit at keeping yourself and others safe, patting your coat pocket in panic whenever you leave your house to check your facemask is still there. I wonder however whether you know how to protect the biodiversity on your vineyard? You’ve probably heard a news piece about the vaccine trials or the new tier system within the past hour, but when was the last time you heard anything about addressing the biodiversity crisis or sustainable agriculture?
“Biodiversity as we know it today is fundamental to human life on Earth, and the evidence is unequivocal – it is being destroyed by us at a rate unprecedented in history.”
That quote, from the Living Planet Report 2020, will stick with me for life. Globally, species populations have declined by 68% since 1970. In Europe, this decline over the past five decades has been lower, but this is largely because biodiversity here has already suffered substantial declines pre-1970 due to land use change, habitat degradation and unsustainable use of pesticides and fertilisers that polluted our soils and waterways.
The loss of biodiversity means more than the loss of the morning chorus. It means the loss of nature’s functions. The loss of ecosystem services. The loss of money. Our livelihoods, both as producers and consumers, are embedded within nature and we need to recognise this in order to protect biodiversity and economic prosperity. Nature is crucial for the functioning of agriculture through biological pest control, pollination or water retention, just to name a few.
Though this is not making the daily headlines, the UK government recognises the necessity to change how we produce food. The 25 Year Environment Plan calls agriculture to put the environment first. The government has promised us a Green Brexit, making use of the “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to reform how we farm and care for our land. This is going to be reflected in the new Agricultural Bill, which promises to reward land managers for the delivery of “public goods”, which will encompass ecosystem services.
How do I manage my vineyard in a way that nurtures biodiversity and delivers those promised nature’s functions, I hear you ask? Many of you as winegrowers, and us as scientists, don’t know all the answers to this question – yet. A new research collaboration between researchers from the Universities of East Anglia (UEA) and Cambridge and the SWGB scheme is going to address these questions when it comes to birds and wine.
A silly question, I know. We all love wine. And actually, that is partly the reason why this research is important. The UK winegrowing industry has been growing and the quality of British wines has been increasingly recognised. The number of British wines being awarded increased from fewer than 5 in early 2000 to 50-75 (!) in recent years. As the UK wine industry grows, so does its impact on biodiversity, making it even more important that the effect is positive. Despite this, no research has studied birds in UK vineyards.
The second reason is climate change, which counterintuitively might benefit the British wine industry. Grapes are a climate-sensitive crop, and an international team of researchers has recently shown that many current wine growing regions will no longer be climatically suitable under 2-degree C warming. However, UK, and much of Northern Europe, will become more favourable regions for growing a wide variety of wine grapes. This is likely to mean a further growth of the British wine industry.
Perhaps yet another silly question, but why should one be interested in studying birds and not bees or mammals? There are two answers to this question. The first one is that it’s simpler and logistically easier to study a single group of animals than multiple groups at the same time, and birds is where my expertise lies. Secondly, birds are an interesting group to study as they can take on a wide range of behaviours within an agricultural system.
Within crop-systems, birds can be both friends and enemies. The below graphic, produced by an American team of researchers lead by Karina Garcia, neatly summarises the main ways in which birds can affect crop yield and quality. The graphic includes behaviours of birds that help production and those that reduce yield. In ecological terms, the positive behaviours are termed “ecosystem services” and the negative behaviours “ecosystem disservices”.
I encourage you to have a look at the graphic and though I know it looks complicated, it’s really worth understanding how dynamic bird communities within fruit farms can be. How many of these behaviours have you seen in your vineyard?
But we’re looking at strawberries, I hear you say! Yes, and that’s part of the issue that this new research collaboration is trying to tackle. The roles of birds within UK or European vineyards have rarely been studied*. Studies from key winegrowing regions (Australia, US) have shown similar behaviours of birds to those observed in strawberries, so we can assume that many of these behaviours also apply to UK vineyards and are worth investigating.
* the few studies that have studied birds in European vineyards will be discussed in future blogs.
Birds’ behaviours within farms are complex and it is crucial that we understand them so that we can “farm with nature in mind”. We ultimately want to protect biodiversity, whilst producing high yields of high-quality crops. Managing birds may be necessary in order to balance their net effect on production by enhancing the positive behaviours and decreasing their negative impacts. And that’s exactly what this study is aiming to inform by:
- understanding how bird diversity varies across UK vineyards,
- quantifying birds’ net impact on wine grape production,
- testing approaches to managing birds within vineyards.
The results of this study will contribute to SWGB’s guidelines for managing bird diversity in vineyards.
Spreading knowledge is another aim of this research collaboration and through these blog posts, Natalia will be bringing exciting research about birds in fruit farms to you. If there are any questions or topics you’d like to see being explored, please let Natalia know!
About the author
My name’s Natalia Zielonka, and I’m a PhD candidate at the University of East Anglia. I’m supported by the UKRI BBSRC Norwich Research Park Biosciences Doctoral Training Partnership, and my great supervisors are Dr Lynn Dicks (based at the University of Cambridge) and Dr Simon Butler (UEA). If you have any questions then please don’t hesitate to contact me on [email protected] and via Twitter: @Nat_B_Zielonka.