Researchers of the ELKH Centre for Ecological Research (CER) have created 'biodiversity islands' for research purposes, i.e. wildflower meadows modelling natural local vegetation, in several fields in the Solt-Dunavecse region of the Kiskunság region of Hungary. By creating biodiversity islands, the first of their kind in Hungary, researchers are trying to counteract the significant loss of biodiversity caused by intensive agriculture, and provide data to show that restoring biodiversity on arable land supports both agriculture – and thus food security – and wildlife.
"The current dominant landscape of Kiskunság is arable land, which is a kind of biodiversity desert," says András Báldi, head of the Lendület Ecosystem Services Research Group at the Institute of Ecology and Botany (ÖBI). This is not surprising, as arable land is intensively managed to produce food more efficiently, and the number of plant species allowed to grow is severely limited. Recently, however, the conservation and restoration of biodiversity in these habitats has become an integral part of agricultural and nature conservation strategies.
"We must allow nature to find its place in the agricultural landscape, as many of the functions of semi-natural habitats are also useful for agriculture," argues András Báldi, "These services include pollination, for example. It is important to know that natural plants are needed for pollinator insects to survive, as are predators and parasites that provide biological protection against pests. These services can be restored by creating so-called biodiversity islands."
Leaving narrow, three to six-metre flowery or uncultivated strips of land open has long been part of agricultural practice in Hungary, but the ecologist says that this is not enough to maintain biodiversity in these habitats. Therefore in this experiment the researchers created fairly large patches of half an acre in the plots provided for this purpose, where they planted a mixture of seeds from 32 plant species. These included seeds of wildflowers that occur naturally in the Danube-Tisza region and flower throughout the whole vegetation season, meaning that the biodiversity islands created by the researchers have flowering species from early spring to late autumn.
"We planted sage, carnations and cornflowers, among many other species. We expect that where the landscape has been dominated by cultivated plants, we will see the emergence of a diverse wildflower plot," András Báldi added. "We expect that the planted species will be joined by many other plants, and the plot will be full of bees and butterflies (which can already be seen). Later, we will carry out a detailed survey of all insect species that are important for biological plant protection. We hope that soon the living organisms typical of Kiskunság will appear in large numbers and that they will enjoy this undisturbed habitat."
In addition to gains in nature conservation, these biodiversity islands can also benefit farmers, and this benefit can even be translated into productivity gains. Over the coming period, ecologists will continue to monitor how the yield of the area changes as a result of the island. They will investigate whether there is an outflow of pests into the field adjacent to the wildflower plot, or whether the biodiversity island is affecting yield averages in other ways.
The researchers hope the results will prove that these semi-natural patches are not harmful, and all the more, they are actually beneficial for agricultural production. Following the reform of EU agricultural subsidies, it may be possible to target larger such areas of uncultivated land.
"These trials are important because they will provide data that will clearly demonstrate to farmers that it is in their interest to cooperate with ecologists in the creation of biodiversity islands," says András Báldi. "We are confident that this intervention will be beneficial for both parties in the long term. It may easily occur that better pollination will increase the yield or quality of oilseed rape, for example, or that more predatory insects will mean fewer pests. It is clear that in the future we need to make agriculture work more effectively with ecosystems; simply by letting natural processes do the work for us. This is not an insurmountable challenge, as we are part of the same natural-social system."