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Ecologists must work faster

With global farming projected to double by midcentury, researchers seek quicker ways to assess the impact of land use on wildlife.

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As farming ramps up to meet new demands for food and fuel, ecologists have to act fast to assess the impact on wildlife. Tim Benton at England's University of Leeds notes that "we may not have the luxury of spending years collecting biological information."

Ecologists need what he calls "quick and dirty" ways to give timely guidance for land-use policy.

They also need more knowledge of how land use changes affect food webs and other subtle wildlife interrelationships. Recent research reports illustrate how those needs are being met.

Writing in Science two weeks ago, Dr. Benton was commenting on the new "quick and dirty" risk-assessment technique reported in that issue. Simon Butler at England's University of Reading and colleagues have developed a strategy for using readily available information on farming practices to come up with numbers that correlate with species' risk of decline or extinction.

They tested their technique on bird species whose risk of decline had already been assessed by direct observation in the field. Their alternative assessment focused on six components of the intensified farming that has developed in Britain over the past 40 years – switching from spring to autumn sowing, using more chemicals, the loss of unfarmed land, increased drainage, switching from hay to silage for animal feed, and more intense grassland management.

The researchers used available data on how these practices changed the environment to assess how each of them would affect the availability of food and nesting sites for each bird species.

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