Ornis Hungarica. vol.28(2). (2020) p.74-84.
Impact of agriculture irrigation on the habitat structure and use by Great Bustards (Otis tarda) in a Natura 2000 site
As the whole Palearctic steppe system, its iconic bird, the Great Bustard has also suffered from the expansion of intensive agriculture. The species now typically has stable or growing populations only in protected areas, but negative processes are still prevalent even there. In this study, we present a recent change in a part of the Natura 2000 site designated for the isolated West Pannonian population. In recent years, a total of 2.3 km Center-pivot and laterally moving linear irrigation systems have been built and 4.7 km of underground pipelines have been laid, with which more than 52% of the 1245,5 ha study area was irrigated by 2020. In comparison to 2009, when the study period has started, the sown area of autumn cereals, one of the main breeding habitats, was roughly halved and the proportion of crops unsuitable for breeding was increased. New crops requiring irrigation have emerged with a rate of 30.6% in the last year. Despite the available support, the area of alfalfa, which is the most significant breeding habitat, and is grown almost exclusively in the agri-environmental scheme, has decreased. As a result of habitat degradation, the number of Great Bustard females observed in the area in spring decreased to a small fraction of the beginning. Irrigation farming is expected to increase, as a response to the climate change, but in order to save agro-steppe habitats and their species, the adverse effects of agricultural intensification need to be urgently addressed at both local and European levels.