Biomass crops could provide unexpected wildlife benefits

A biomass crop could be providing unexpected ecological benefits, according to a new study published in the European Journal of Wildlife Research.

The authors of the study say that elephant grass (Miscanthus), which is commonly planted as a biomass crop, could serve as a vital habitat for the brown hare. The scientists say that the crop could support brown hare populations, but only if planted on the correct scale.

Despite biomass energy crops leading to major changes in agricultural land use across Europe, few studies have been carried out to evaluate the interactions crops such as elephant grass have with farmland wildlife. Silviu Petrovan from the conservation science group at Cambridge University, along with colleagues from the University of Hull and the Open University, set out to analyse the ecological and biodiversity impacts of biomass plants.

“Understanding ecological impacts of bioenergy planting schemes is vital for mitigating potential negative effects on already declining farmland biodiversity and for maximising any benefits from these low-management, structurally diverse crops”, they write in the study.

The scientists radio-tracked brown hares in elephant grass blocks of various sizes, analysing their diets for evidence of consumption of the biomass crop.

Although the hares would never feed on the grass, they did often sleep in it during the day time. Blocks of grass as small as ten hectares were found to be home to the hares, although large swathes of the crop became inhospitable to the animals.

With brown hare populations declining in the UK, the discovery could be significant. However, the scientists say that the scale dependency highlighted is an important consideration.

They write in the abstract to their study: “As a component of a mixed farming landscape, Miscanthus may provide biodiversity benefits by increasing spatial heterogeneity and refuge areas for declining farmland species like brown hares but any effect is likely to be strongly scale-dependant.”





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