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The evolution of agricultural landscape in Oltrepò

The ortolan bunting is an important species for agricultural ecosystem because his presence - or absence - helps to immediately understand its health status, thus acting as a veritable "sentinel".


In fact, the ortolan bunting is a typical bird of very heterogeneous environments, characterized by gentle slopes and a mosaic made by grasslands, shrublands, small forests and not intensive agriculture. Up to the mid-50s, this sort of matrix was widely present in Oltrepò Pavese and the ortolan bunting flourished.



Ortolano: an endangered species


Today, unfortunately, the ortolan bunting is an endangered species, not only in Oltrepò but throughout Europe. An 89% decrease in its population has been observed in the last 30 years and, for this reason, it has been included in Annex 1 of the Birds Directive. But what are the reasons for this decline?


A study conducted by researchers of Lipu, Lombardy Foundation for the University of Pavia provides us with an explanation directly related to the change of land use, in particular the increase of intensive agriculture practices, urbanization and the abandonment of entire portions of territory.



The change of the agricultural mosaic Oltrepò


Since the mid '50s, the Oltrepò landscape has gradually but radically changed. The mix of habitats characterized by agricultural areas cultivated in the traditional way, low urbanization, extensive grasslands, bushes spots, hedges and rows has gradually been replaced by something quite different in many cases.


From 1954 to 2012, the open areas (both cultivated and non) decreased by 39%, while urbanized areas (+ 165%), vineyards (+ 144%), forests (+ 59%) and shrublands (+ 38%) increased dramatically. The trend has been particularly rapid until 2000, then it slowed down. In parallel, abandoned areas increased as well, as to be almost tripled (+ 173%) between 2000 and 2012.


This change in land use has significantly unbalanced the mosaic of environments that made the Oltrepò Pavese an ideal place for the "sentinel" ortolan bunting; as a consequence, reflecting the worsening of agricultural ecosystem quality, its potential distribution decreased by 75% compared to the mid 50s.




A possible solution: restore the balance


The study provides possible solutions to revive the ortolan bunting's population and, in parallel, to improve the state of health of agrarian ecosystems  within Oltrepò.


The key point is to restore the balance between different types of environments; first, those untouched areas characterized by traditional agriculture, low urbanization, grasslands, bushes, hedges and rows (mostly found in the foothills of the Apennines) should be maintained.


Starting from these areas and keeping them as a model, a comprehensive regional strategy able to counteract the abandonment of the territory, limit intensive agricultural practices and urbanization and fix the open areas should be implemented.


The ViNO project will contribute in this regard by reporting land-management practices shared among the different territorial realities Oltrepò able to recreate this virtuous balance.


Source: Sixty years of habitat decline: impact of land-cover changes in northern Italy on the decreasing ortolan bunting Bunting, Brambilla, M., Gustin, M., Vitulano, S. et al. Reg Environ Change (2016).