Agriculture and herbivorous waterfowl: a review of the scientific basis for improved management

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Abstract

Swans, geese and some ducks (Anatidae) are obligate herbivores, many are important quarry species and all contribute to a variety of ecosystem services. Population growth and shifting ranges have led to increasing proximity to man and thus increasing conflicts. We review and synthesize the role of these birds as herbivores on agricultural land (cropland, rotational grassland and pasture) and other terrestrial habitats where conflict with human interests may occur. A bibliographic analysis of peer-reviewed papers (N = 359) shows that publication activity peaked in 1991–2000 in North America and 2000–2010 in Europe, and has decreased since. Taxonomic and geographical biases are obvious in research to date: Snow Goose Chen caerulescens was the most studied species (N = 98), and Canada Branta canadensis, Barnacle B. leucopsis and Brent geese B. bernicla all featured in more than 40 studies; most studies originated in northwest Europe or North America, very few have been carried out in Asia and European Russia. On the basis of nutrient/energy budgets of herbivorous waterfowl, it is evident that dense single-species crops (such as rotational grassland, early-growth cereals and root crops) and spilled grain in agricultural landscapes offer elevated energetic and nutritional intake rates of food of higher quality compared to natural or semi-natural vegetation. Hence, although affected by seasonal nutritional demands, proximity to roost, field size, disturbance levels, access to water, food depletion and snow cover, agricultural landscapes tend to offer superior foraging opportunities over natural habitats, creating potential conflict with agriculture. Herbivorous waterfowl select for high protein, soluble carbohydrate and water content, high digestibility as well as low fibre and phenolic compounds, but intake rates from grazing varied with goose body and bill morphology, creating species-specific loci for conflict. Crop damage by trampling and puddling has not been demonstrated convincingly, nor do waterfowl faeces deter grazing stock, but where consumption of crops evidently reduces yields this causes conflict with farmers. Studies show that it is difficult and expensive to assess the precise impacts of waterfowl feeding on yield loss because of other sources of variation. However, less damage has been documented from winter grazing compared to spring grazing and yield loss after spring grazing on grassland appears more pronounced than losses on cereal fields. Although yield losses at national scales are trivial, individual farmers in areas of greatest waterfowl feeding concentrations suffer disproportionately, necessitating improved solutions to conflict. Accordingly, we review the efficacy of population management, disturbance, provision of alternative feeding areas, compensation and large-scale stakeholder involvement and co-management as options for resolving conflict based on the existing literature and present a framework of management advice for the future. We conclude with an assessment of the research needs for the immediate future to inform policy development, improve management of waterfowl populations and reduce conflict with agriculture.

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