Gailly R., Paquet J.-Y., Titeux N., Claessens H., Dufrêne M. Effects of the conversion of intensive grasslands into Christmas tree plantations on bird assemblages. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, accepted.
Over the last decade, the conversion of annual-rotation based crops or grassland areas into non-food perennial crops has been increasingly prevalent in European farming systems. This shift is associated with major changes in management practices and has created new environmental conditions and resources for wildlife. Impacts on birds have been examined for bioenergy agricultural systems, such as miscanthus plantations and short-rotation willow coppice. However, they remain largely unknown for Christmas tree plantations (CTPs) that have recently increased considerably in some European countries. We examined the extent to which CTPs alter bird species assemblages in the farmland areas of southern Belgium, where they mainly replace intensive grassland. The abundance of birds was recorded during the breeding season in randomly selected sites located in grassland and in CTP. Results show that introduction of CTP into landscapes dominated by grassland with low hedge densities locally increases bird species richness and abundance without leading to biotic homogenization. Differences in species richness and abundance between grassland and CTP decrease with increasing hedge densities. A community analysis indicates that the plantation of Christmas trees enriches the bird assemblage of intensive grassland areas. In intensive grassland with few hedges, small-size CTPs could constitute an option to increase structural heterogeneity and provide new potential breeding conditions for some farmland birds. However, questions remain about the genuine quality of the resources available in CTP and further research is needed to examine the breeding success and survival of birds that settle in this type of habitat.