Agriculture and wildlife: A two-way relationship

by Sarah Jeswiet and Lisa Hermsen, Agriculture Division

[Release from The Daily] [Full article in PDF]

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Highlights

Agricultural land provides important habitat to a variety of wildlife species, with natural land for pasture, woodlands and wetlands having the highest habitat value. Wildlife supplies many ecosystem services to the Canadian agricultural industry, and Canadian farmers can adopt several agricultural practices that enhance wildlife habitat.

  • In 2011, nearly one-third (30.2%) of agricultural land in Canada was wildlife habitat, which represented 19.6 million hectares.
  • Three-quarters of wildlife habitat reported by Canadian farmers was natural land for pasture (75.0%), and the remainder was woodlands and wetlands (25.0%).
  • Two in five farms (40.3%) reported natural land for pasture while one in two farms (49.9%) reported woodlands and wetlands in 2011.

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The relationship between agriculture and wildlife is a complex blend of co-operation and challenges. As agricultural land and wildlife habitat are converted for other uses, the co-existence of agriculture and wildlife could become increasingly important. This article examines the wildlife habitat available on agricultural land, the benefits that agriculture receives from wildlife, and mutually-beneficial farming practices.

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What you should know about this study

This study is based on data from the 2011 Census of Agriculture, which collected data from all agricultural operations that grow or raise livestock, poultry, crops or other agricultural products intended for sale. Respondents were asked to enumerate their commodities, land use and farming practices. This study does not include farms in the territories.

While this article focuses on agricultural land type, it should be noted that other factors such as landscape diversity and connectivity are also important to wildlife habitat availability on agricultural land.

Definitions

Agricultural land represents the total farm area reported in the 2011 Census of Agriculture and includes the following land use categories: cropland, summerfallow, tame or seeded pasture, natural land for pasture, woodlands and wetlands, and all other land.

Cropland represents the areas reported for field crops, hay, vegetables, sod, nursery products, fruits, berries and nuts.

Wildlife habitat refers to two agricultural land use categories: woodlands and wetlands, and natural land for pasture. The category woodlands and wetlands is a combined variable and it is not possible to determine the relative contributions of the two components.

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What is wildlife habitat?

The Canadian agricultural landscape is a mosaic of different types of land cover, ranging from cropland to wetlands. The Census of Agriculture collects data on different types of land use, comprising the following six categories: cropland, summerfallow, tame or seeded pasture, natural land for pasture, woodlands and wetlands, and all other land.

Wildlife habitat is any land that can be used as a shelter, breeding ground or a food source for wildlife. While most agricultural land provides at least one of these requirements, woodlands and wetlands, and natural land for pasture support more species and rank higher in terms of habitat value.Note 1 When combined, these two categories represent the second largest use of agricultural land in Canada after cropland (Chart 1).

Chart 1 Agricultural land use, Canada, 2006 and 2011

Description for Chart 1

The woodlands and wetlands category includes forests, woodlots, tree windbreaks, hedgerows, ponds, rivers, marshes, bogs, riparian areas and other wetlands. These habitats are used by a variety of wildlife including birds, small and large mammals, fish, amphibians, reptiles and insects. Wetlands remain one of the most important habitat types in the category. They support a large and diverse number of animals, and many species depend on wetlands for all of their shelter, breeding and feeding needs.Note 2

The natural land for pasture category represents pasture land that has not been cultivated, drained, irrigated or fertilized. It includes grasslands and woodlands used for pasture. Grasslands provide habitat to a diversity of wildlife such as small and large mammals, grassland raptors, nesting birds, songbirds and pollinating insects.Note 3

For the purposes of this article, the term “wildlife habitat” will refer to these two agricultural land use categories: woodlands and wetlands, and natural land for pasture as reported in the Census of Agriculture.

Where is wildlife habitat found?

Using data from the Census of Agriculture, wildlife habitat represented 30.2% of all agricultural land in Canada, accounting for 19.6 million hectares in 2011. Looking at individual census divisions,Note 4 wildlife habitat ranged from less than 10% to more than 90% of agricultural land (Map 1). Census divisions with more than 60% of agricultural land considered as wildlife habitat tended to be concentrated in the Atlantic provinces and British Columbia. However, Alberta and Saskatchewan, with 70.0% of agricultural land in Canada, reported the largest wildlife habitat areas at 7.3 million hectares and 5.8 million hectares, respectively.

Map 1
Wildlife habitat on agricultural land, Canada, 2011

Map 1 Wildlife habitat on agricultural land, Canada, 2011

Description for Map 1

The majority of wildlife habitat reported by Canadian farmers was natural land for pasture, which represented 22.7% of all agricultural land, and the remainder was woodlands and wetlands, which accounted for 7.6% of all agricultural land.

Natural land for pasture is largely found in western Canada (Table 1), with Alberta reporting the most amount of natural pasture area in 2011 (6.4 million hectares), followed by Saskatchewan (4.8 million hectares), Manitoba (1.5 million hectares) and British Columbia (1.4 million hectares). British Columbia reported the largest area of natural land for pasture as a proportion of total agricultural land (53.1%).

Table 1
Agricultural land use by province, 2011
Table summary
This table displays the results of Agricultural land use by province Area of agricultural land, Cropland, Natural land for pasture and Woodlands and wetlands, calculated using hectares and percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
  Area of agricultural land Cropland Natural land for pasture Woodlands and wetlands
hectares percent hectares percent hectares percent
Canada 64,812,723 35,350,270 54.5 14,703,330 22.7 4,897,367 7.6
Atlantic provinces 1,063,343 430,363 40.5 65,711 6.2 450,031 42.3
Quebec 3,341,333 1,874,760 56.1 134,147 4.0 1,057,417 31.6
Ontario 5,126,653 3,613,821 70.5 398,538 7.8 646,578 12.6
Manitoba 7,293,839 4,348,869 59.6 1,466,968 20.1 549,444 7.5
Saskatchewan 24,940,023 14,728,934 59.1 4,816,782 19.3 1,009,381 4.0
Alberta 20,436,150 9,753,849 47.7 6,435,825 31.5 893,436 4.4
British Columbia 2,611,382 599,674 23.0 1,385,359 53.1 291,079 11.1

Woodlands and wetlands represented a larger proportion of agricultural land in eastern Canada. More than 40% of agricultural land in the Atlantic provinces was reported as woodlands and wetlands in 2011. The next largest proportions were in Quebec (31.6 %) and Ontario (12.6%). In terms of total area, however, woodlands and wetlands were spread more evenly across the country (Table 1). Quebec reported the largest area of woodland and wetland in 2011 (1.1 million hectares), followed by Saskatchewan (1.0 million hectares) and Alberta (0.9 million hectares).

What types of farmsNote 5 have wildlife habitat?

The agriculture industry varies widely across Canada, with a diversity of products and farm sizes. This section summarizes the characteristics of farms reporting natural land for pasture, and woodlands and wetlands in the 2011 Census of Agriculture.

Natural land for pasture

Natural land for pasture was reported on 40.3% of all farms in 2011. In general, natural land for pasture was more commonly reported by larger operations and the average area increased with farm size (Table 2).

“Beef cattle” operations had the largest proportion of farms reporting natural land for pasture, followed by “other animal”Note 6 farms, and “sheep and goat” farms (Table 3). “Beef cattle” farms also reported the largest total natural land for pasture in 2011 (10.1 million hectares).

Table 2
Natural land for pasture by farm size, Canada, 2011
Table summary
This table displays the results of Natural land for pasture by farm size. The information is grouped by Farm size (hectares) (appearing as row headers), All
farms, Farms with natural land for pasture, Natural land for pasture, Area, Average area per farm and As a percentage of agricultural land area, calculated using number, percent and hectares units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Farm size (hectares) All
farms
Farms with natural land for pasture Natural land for pasture
Area Average area per farm As a percentage of agricultural land area
number percent hectares percent
All farms 205,730 82,865 40.3 14,703,330 177.4 22.7
Under 100 105,169 33,915 32.2 470,698 13.9 12.0
100 to 199 34,182 14,408 42.2 625,001 43.4 12.6
200 to 299 15,226 6,985 45.9 518,719 74.3 13.8
300 to 399 10,730 5,290 49.3 558,330 105.5 14.9
400 to 499 6,650 3,348 50.3 455,551 136.1 15.3
500 to 749 11,918 6,324 53.1 1,209,269 191.2 16.6
750 to 999 7,075 3,838 54.2 1,033,186 269.2 16.9
1,000 to 1,999 10,145 5,742 56.6 2,678,327 466.4 19.4
2,000 or more 4,635 3,015 65.0 7,154,249 2,372.9 39.2
Table 3
Natural land for pasture by North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) farm type, Canada, 2011
Table summary
This table displays the results of Natural land for pasture by North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) farm type. The information is grouped by Farm type (by NAICS) (appearing as row headers), All
farms, Farms with natural land for pasture, Natural land for pasture, Area, Average area per farm and As a percentage of agricultural land area, calculated using number, percent and hectares units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Farm type (by NAICS) All
farms
Farms with natural land for pasture Natural land for pasture
Area Average area per farm As a percentage of agricultural land area
number percent hectares percent
All farms 205,730 82,865 40.3 14,703,330 177.4 22.7
Dairy cattle and milk production 12,207 4,104 33.6 108,162 26.4 5.0
Beef cattle ranching and farming, including feedlots 37,406 26,426 70.6 10,072,656 381.2 52.8
Hog and pig farming 3,470 620 17.9 31,730 51.2 5.0
Poultry and egg production 4,484 976 21.8 12,774 13.1 5.5
Sheep and goat farming 3,924 1,913 48.8 35,468 18.5 17.1
Other animal production 24,124 13,814 57.3 920,898 66.7 29.7
Oilseed and grain farming 61,692 16,644 27.0 2,119,863 127.4 6.7
Vegetable and melon farming 4,822 843 17.5 19,711 23.4 2.9
Fruit and tree nut farming 8,253 1,123 13.6 11,360 10.1 3.3
Greenhouse, nursery and floriculture production 7,946 1,168 14.7 20,388 17.5 7.4
Other crop farming 37,402 15,234 40.7 1,350,319 88.6 20.9

Woodlands and wetlands

Approximately half of all farms (49.9%) reported woodlands and wetlands in 2011. In contrast to natural land for pasture, woodlands and wetlands were more commonly reported on small to mid-sized operations (Table 4). However, the average woodlands and wetlands area for a farm in a particular size category increased with farm size.

Woodlands and wetlands were most commonly reported on “dairy cattle” farms, followed by “other crop”Note 7 farms and “hog and pig” farms (Table 5). “Oilseed and grain” farms, the most common farm type in 2011 representing 3 in 10 of all farm operations, also accounted for the largest area of woodlands and wetlands (1.5 million hectares).

Table 4
Woodlands and wetlands by farm size, Canada, 2011
Table summary
This table displays the results of Woodlands and wetlands by farm size. The information is grouped by Farm size (hectares) (appearing as row headers), All
farms, Farms with woodlands and wetlands, Woodlands and wetlands, Area, Average area per farm and As a percentage of agricultural land area, calculated using number, percent and hectares units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Farm size (hectares) All
farms
Farms with woodlands and wetlands Woodlands and wetlands
Area Average area per farm As a percentage of agricultural land area
number percent hectares percent
All farms 205,730 102,744 49.9 4,897,367 47.7 7.6
Under 100 105,169 50,058 47.6 722,610 14.4 18.4
100 to 199 34,182 19,864 58.1 765,816 38.6 15.5
200 to 299 15,226 8,552 56.2 509,738 59.6 13.5
300 to 399 10,730 5,684 53.0 393,563 69.2 10.5
400 to 499 6,650 3,305 49.7 272,839 82.6 9.2
500 to 749 11,918 5,797 48.6 517,592 89.3 7.1
750 to 999 7,075 3,262 46.1 369,410 113.2 6.1
1,000 to 1,999 10,145 4,547 44.8 692,727 152.3 5.0
2,000 or more 4,635 1,675 36.1 653,073 389.9 3.6
Table 5
Woodlands and wetlands by North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) farm type, Canada, 2011
Table summary
This table displays the results of Woodlands and wetlands by North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) farm type. The information is grouped by Farm type (by NAICS) (appearing as row headers), All
farms, Farms with woodlands and wetlands, Woodlands and wetlands, Area, Average area per farm and As a percentage of agricultural land area, calculated using number, percent and hectares units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Farm type (by NAICS) All
farms
Farms with woodlands and wetlands Woodlands and wetlands
Area Average area per farm As a percentage of agricultural land area
number percent hectares percent
All farms 205,730 102,744 49.9 4,897,367 47.7 7.6
Dairy cattle and milk production 12,207 8,513 69.7 362,675 42.6 16.9
Beef cattle ranching and farming including feedlots 37,406 17,133 45.8 1,133,451 66.2 5.9
Hog and pig farming 3,470 1,909 55.0 66,956 35.1 10.5
Poultry and egg production 4,484 1,789 39.9 36,634 20.5 15.8
Sheep and goat farming 3,924 2,002 51.0 48,670 24.3 23.5
Other animal production 24,124 10,940 45.3 310,442 28.4 10.0
Oilseed and grain farming 61,692 28,963 46.9 1,483,879 51.2 4.7
Vegetable and melon farming 4,822 2,410 50.0 96,694 40.1 14.4
Fruit and tree nut farming 8,253 3,587 43.5 165,263 46.1 47.5
Greenhouse, nursery and floriculture production 7,946 3,361 42.3 102,728 30.6 37.1
Other crop farming 37,402 22,137 59.2 1,089,974 49.2 16.9

How do farmers benefit from wildlife?

Wildlife provides many benefits to farmers that are not always obvious. These “ecosystem services” include crop pollination, breakdown of organic matter to provide nutrients for crops, contaminant degradation and agricultural pest control. For example, a member of the little brown bat species can eat 600 mosquitoes in an hour,Note 8 a breeding pair of ferruginous hawks can effectively control gophers,Note 9 and lady beetles are important predators of numerous agricultural pests including soybean aphids.Note 10

Agricultural dependence on pollinators

One of the valuable ecosystem services that wildlife provides to agriculture is pollination. While some food crops grown in Canada require insect pollinators to produce a crop or to achieve maximum yields, for other crops, pollinators have little effect on crop production.Note 11

The majority of the fruits, and certain vegetables and field crops reported in the Census of Agriculture, depend on pollinators for pollination. For fruits and vegetables alone, pollinators are required for maximum production of 14 food crops,Note 12 which totalled 119,418 hectares in 2011 (Chart 2).

Chart 2 The importance of pollinators on the production of fruit and vegetables, Canada, 2011

Description for Chart 2

Pollinators are also required for successful crops of buckwheat, sunflowers, mustard seed and caraway seed, and can increase the yields for some canola crops, as well as certain varieties of soybeans and dry beans.

In total, there were 9.8 million hectares of crops in Canada that benefited from pollinators, accounting for 27.8% of total cropland area and 35.9% of all farms in 2011. Of this, 0.3 million hectares were crops that depend on pollinators for pollination (Table 6).

Table 6
Area of crops that benefit from pollinators, Canada, 2011
Table summary
This table displays the results of Area of crops that benefit from pollinators. The information is grouped by Crop (appearing as row headers), Area, calculated using hectares units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Crop Area
hectares
Apples 18,243
Pears 944
Plums and prunes 684
Cherries (sweet) 1,951
Cherries (sour) 1,147
Peaches 3,154
Apricots 136
Strawberries 4,486
Raspberries 2,998
Cranberries 6,148
Blueberries 70,852
Cucumbers 2,339
Pumpkins 3,441
Squash and zucchini 2,895
Mustard seed 120,127
Sunflowers 31,480
Buckwheat 13,558
Caraway seed 5,209
Crops dependant on pollinators 289,792
Canola 7,838,354
Soybeans 1,601,653
Dry white beans 37,522
Other dry beans 60,174
Crops enhanced by pollinators 9,537,703
All crops that benefit from pollinators 9,827,495

The presence of wild pollinators and wildlife habitat has economic advantages for farmers. Some farms rely fully on wild pollinators, such as solitary bees, bumble bees, other wild bees, wasps and flies for pollination, while other farms bring in additional pollinators to achieve adequate pollination.Note 13

For many crops that benefit from pollinators, production is positively related to the availability of wild pollinator habitat. Wildlife habitat in the surrounding area can enhance pollination by wild pollinators and thereby increase yields.Note 14,Note 15 In Canada, wildlife habitat is present on 65% of the farms that benefit from pollinators.

What farm practices benefit wildlife?

There are several agricultural practices that enhance wildlife habitat. Examples include rotational grazing, windbreaks, winter cover crops, buffer zones around water bodies, and tillage practices that retain most of the crop residue on the surface. These practices are mutually beneficial to both the farm and wildlife.

Hedgerows and tree windbreaks

Hedgerows, fencerows and windbreaks can provide shelter, food and breeding sites to many wildlife species. They can also serve as valuable travel corridors that allow animals to move between habitats. For farmers, the advantages of these agricultural features and the wildlife they support include pollination, reduced soil erosion and natural agricultural pest control. In 2011, windbreaks or shelterbelts were reported on 29.7% of all farms, down from 36.9% in 2006.

Tillage

Crop residue are materials, such as straw, stalks and stubble, that are left on a field or orchard after a crop has been harvested. The amount of crop residue that remains on the surface after harvesting depends on the type of tillage used to prepare the soil for the next crop.

Conventional tillage incorporates most of the crop residue into the soil, whereas conservation tillage and no-till retain most of the crop residue on the surface. Several wildlife species find refuge, feed and nest in crop residue, therefore these species benefit from no-till and properly timed conservation tillage.Note 16 From the perspective of the farmer, no-till and conservation tillage can reduce soil erosion, increase soil organic matter and help retain soil moisture. One of the negative aspects of no-till seeding is that farmers will typically rely more heavily on pesticides to control weeds and insects.

The total area of agricultural land prepared for seeding has remained relatively constant over the past two decades, rising slightly from 29.0 million hectares in 1991 to 29.6 million hectares in 2011. However, the methods used to till the soil have shifted (Chart 3). Conventional tillage is no longer the most common method used by Canadian farmers and, in 2011, it represented under 20% of all land prepared for seeding. It has been surpassed by conservation tillage (24.6%) and no-till seeding (56.4%) as the most common methods of tillage.

Chart 3 Tillage practices, Canada, 1991 to 2011

Description for Chart 3

Grazing

Farms use both natural and tame pasture land for livestock grazing. Both types of pasture are also used by wildlife, although natural pasture is considered more valuable as both feeding and breeding habitat. Grasslands, in particular, provide habitat for a large diversity of wildlife, including many grassland birds that benefit from well-managed livestock grazing.Note 17

For pasture land in general, wildlife habitat and the quality of livestock forage can be improved by implementing rotational grazing. Rotational grazing involves alternating use of two or more pastures at regular intervals, or temporary fences within pastures to prevent overgrazing. This allows pastures sufficient time to recover and improves soil and plant health. In 2011, 49.4% of all farms with cattle and pasture land reported practising rotational grazing, down from 54.4% in 2006.

Buffer zones

Buffer zones are strips of land around water bodies including streams, rivers and wetlands. They prevent sediments and contaminants from entering water bodies, provide wildlife habitat, and act as travel corridors between habitats. This, in turn, improves water quality for livestock use and protects fish stocks for recreational use. In 2011, buffer zones were reported on 20.7% of all Canadian farms, up from 19.6% in 2006.

Conserving natural pasture, woodlands and wetlands

Conserving natural pasture, woodlands and wetlands in the agricultural landscape is an important step to maintaining these valuable habitats. Recent challenges faced by Canadian farmers coupled with increases in cash crop prices have made this a difficult task. Stewardship programs, such as community pastures, have played an important role in maintaining natural pasture land in Canada.Note 18,Note 19 For example, 468 community pastures reported over 2.4 million hectares of natural pasture on the 2011 Census of Agriculture. Overall, however, there was a 4.8% decrease in natural pasture land between 2006 and 2011.

Woodlands and wetlands reported in the Census of Agriculture also decreased between 2006 and 2011. Across Canada there was an 8.8% decline in woodlands and wetlands area on agricultural land, amounting to a decrease of approximately 0.5 million hectares.

With important wildlife habitat representing 30% of all agricultural land reported in the Census of Agriculture, and wildlife providing invaluable ecosystem services, the relationship between agriculture and wildlife might be described as co-dependent.

Producers are increasingly being recognized as stewards of biodiversity. Through conservation and proper management of the agricultural landscape, this relationship can continue to be beneficial to both producers and wildlife.

Notes

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