A grassroots push to save disappearing birds and bees forces change in Germany

Shocking declines in bird and insect numbers fuel a powerful, citizen-based movement for farms to protect nature, one that seems to be catching on across Europe.

By Bridget Huber
Published 9 Dec 2020, 16:51 GMT
Norbert Schäffer, chairman of the Bavarian Association for the Protection of Birds, and his assistant Paul ...

Norbert Schäffer, chairman of the Bavarian Association for the Protection of Birds, and his assistant Paul Kasko visit a roadside area in Bavaria that's been left to grow wild. These untended flowering strips are an important habitat for insects and birds.

Photograph by Lena Mucha

When Norbert Schäffer was a child growing up in Bavaria, grey partridges picked through his parents’ garden, wetlands teemed with newts and toads, and birds like skylarks and lapwings were common over the fields. But when Schäffer moved back to the area in 2014 after nearly two decades of conservation work in Britain, those touchstones of his youth had become scarce.

“For my kids, it’s normal not to have grey partridge,” says Schäffer, a biologist who now heads the Bavarian Association for the Protection of Birds. “They can hear skylarks, but their kids might never.”

All across Europe, species are disappearing, and nowhere faster than on agricultural lands. Since 1990, the populations of common farmland birds and grassland butterflies, for example, have dropped by more than a third. Bees, which play a central role in pollinating crops, have suffered such dramatic population declines that the European Union banned neonicotinoids, a class of insecticides that harms them.

Rural havens for wildlife—hedgerows, swamps, meadows, even rock walls—have been removed to expand cropland. In Germany and globally, the vast fields of industrial farms devoted to a single crop are sometimes called "green deserts”—which isn’t fair to deserts, says Guy Pe’er, a conservation biologist in Leipzig. “There are more butterflies in some desert areas that I’ve been to than you would find in farmland in Germany,” he says.

But a fresh wind is blowing across this damaged landscape. The EU, which positions itself as a world leader on environmental issues, has lately recognised its failure to promote a food system that safeguards nature. And over the last couple of years, several regions have shown how the declines in wildlife populations might be reversed—with Bavaria a leading example of the trend.

That this would happen in the most conservative state in Germany is surprising. The way it happened suggests to conservationists like Schӓffer that broader change is afoot, because the move was propelled by a groundswell of public support.

In Bavaria, a grassroots movement did what seemed impossible: It took on the state’s powerful farming industry—and won.

A sudden awakening

Schäffer, 56, says the public’s concern about biodiversity loss markedly changed about three years ago. For years, evidence of Europe’s biodiversity crisis had accumulated, but the public just didn’t seem to pay attention. Then, a study appeared in late 2017 that jolted Germany awake: It found that the biomass of insect populations within nature preserves had declined by 75 percent in 27 years.

In local and international news outlets, headlines warned of an “insect Armageddon.” Even German chancellor Angela Merkel spoke of the need to protect bugs. “It was astonishing,” Schäffer says.

A butterfly pauses on 14-year-old Viola Heigl's hand on her family's farm in Kallmünz, Bavaria. Her parents have run the farm organically for decades. Grassland butterfly numbers in Europe have dropped by a third in the last 30 years.

Photograph by Lena Mucha

The next summer, a small group of politicians with pro-environment platforms, but no seats in the Bavarian parliament, started collecting signatures on a petition aimed at reforming the law to change farming practices in order to protect biodiversity. The measure would nearly triple the amount of organic farming to almost a third of all acreage, create a network of linked wildlife corridors, delay mowing on a portion of fields to preserve birds and insect life, and protect more grasslands and old orchards, among other actions.

At first, Schäffer was skeptical about the petition’s prospects, since Bavarian farmers are politically powerful in the state. But soon the organisation joined the efforts, as did the Green Party and a private foundation. The campaign had two weeks, in the dead of winter, in which to gather almost a million signatures—10 percent of the state’s electorate.

And it wasn’t just a question of getting people to sign a petition at home or in the street; voters had to go to their town hall with their passports to support the measure. The campaign adopted the honeybee as a mascot and posted dozens of volunteers in bee costumes at Bavaria’s town squares and plazas. Soon it became known as the Save the Bees campaign.

From morning till night, people queued to sign. That’s when the Bavarian Farmers Association, which has 140,000 members and had largely ignored the petition, started lobbying to squash it. They argued that it unfairly scapegoated farmers for biodiversity losses while ignoring other industries like building and construction that were expanding into open lands.

Activists dressed as bees in Munich, Germany, during the rally to launch the "Save the Bees" petition in January 2019.

Photograph by Lino Mirgeler, picture alliance/Getty Images

“The farmers hadn’t any idea why they should change,” says Markus Drexler, a spokesman for the farmers' association, since Bavaria’s fields tend to be smaller than in other parts of Germany and more than half of farmers already took part in conservation programs.

But a broad share of the public did think farmers needed to change. The campaign ultimately gathered 1.75 million signatures—some 750,000 more than it needed. At that point, the government could have put the proposal to a public vote, or accepted the results and enacted the proposal as law. Bavarian premier Markus Söder, who had initially sided with the farmers, reversed course, vowing not just to make the proposal law, but to strengthen it.

“He wanted to be seen as driving the process,” Schäffer says, “as being the better conservationist, greener than the Greens”—perhaps fitting for someone viewed as a potential successor to Angela Merkel.

For Schäffer, the win went much deeper than the new law. It signalled that concern about nature had gone mainstream and that politicians could no longer ignore it. “It really is the middle of general society saying—as it has for climate change—we are not accepting this anymore,” Schäffer says.

Going organic

One of the most ambitious goals in the new Bavarian law was to expand organic production to 30 percent of the state’s farmland by 2030, up from 11 percent now. To put this in perspective, Europe overall had only 7.5 percent of organic farmland in 2018. To reach its goal, Bavaria won’t force farmers to convert to organic; instead it will provide financial incentives and other help to convince them.

To see what that might look like, I meet Schäffer in Bavaria on a hot, bright day in September. He has a broad, genial face and a notably cheerful demeanour for someone who’s been working in conservation biology during a protracted period of ecological decline. Schäffer calls himself a fanatical conservationist, but he seems more attuned to delight than doom—of course, he wants to save nature for his grandkids, he says, but he also really likes to see butterflies. On the day we meet, he’s wearing binoculars and hiking boots, and he often pauses mid-sentence and points to the sky with a slightly dreamy smile to call out a bird he’s spotted.

Hubert Heigl inspects a field planted with a cover crop on his organic pig farm. Cover crops, which aren't meant to be harvested, help improve the soil's fertility.

Photograph by Lena Mucha

Schäffer takes me to an organic farm about an hour’s drive from Nuremberg, where Evi and Hubert Heigl breed pigs and grow grain on about 250 acres of hilly land. Though the farm is tidy, there are patches of nettles, tall grass, and wildflowers. To feed their 90 sows and 500-or-so piglets, the Heigls grow oats, spelt, and other grains in a seven-year rotation that helps maintain soil fertility while keeping weeds at bay. In the summer, the grain grows out of an understory of flower blossoms that now grow in the fields

Evi grew up on the farm, which transitioned to organic production in 1992. When asked what has changed since she was a girl, she says: “There’s more life.”

The Heigls embody a shift in thinking about what it means for a farmer to be productive—one that doesn’t only measure how many bushels of grain or pounds of meat a farmer can get out of the land, but sees protecting nature as a productive act, too. They practice a less intensive kind of farming, and receive conservation subsidies that have increased under Bavaria’s new law. Hubert believes that farmers, who collectively get billions of euros in subsidies each year, shouldn’t get paid based simply on how much land they manage, but rather on how well they protect the air, water, and ecosystems that sustain life.

Standing at the edge of a field, Hubert says: “The benefits produced here in terms of water quality and biodiversity benefit society as a whole, so society should subsidise and support it.”

That idea, that public money should go to support public goods like clean air and water, underpins Bavaria’s new legislation. These days, Schäffer and the campaign’s other organisers are making sure the government fulfils its promise. In July, the first progress report on the Bavarian law came out, based on an analysis by independent researchers. The results were mixed but generally moving in the right direction, Schäffer says. The share of land managed organically, like the Heigl’s farm, is increasing, and tens of thousands more acres of forest have been protected since the law took effect.

Evi Heigl feeds the pigs. The organic farm has 90 female pigs and about 500 piglets.

Photograph by Lena Mucha

A lack of baseline data has made it difficult to evaluate other key measures, but conservationists, including Schäffer’s group, are monitoring the populations of farmland birds and insects, as they have for years. That should, in time, let them draw some conclusions about how well the law is protecting or restoring biodiversity.

Europe hangs in the balance

Bavaria is not alone in its efforts. In the Netherlands, an ambitious plan is underway to rethink food production, creating habitat corridors and even introducing a biodiversity-friendly food label. The government of Brittany, in northwest France, is helping nearly 20 percent of its farmers transition to practices that enhance wildlife, though the region also struggles with the adverse health effects of agricultural runoff from livestock farms. Some farms in Britain are “rewilding” to show that it's possible to bring back nature and still produce food. And more than 400,000 people have signed onto a European Citizens Initiative called Save Bees and Farmers. It aims to phase out synthetic pesticides and restore biodiversity on farms.

Around a year ago, the European Union also adopted a European Green Deal, a strategy for green growth that aims to make Europe carbon neutral by 2050. Two of its pillars, the Farm to Fork Strategy and the Biodiversity Strategy, deal directly with the way food production has harmed biodiversity. The measures aim to boost organic production, reduce pesticide use, and support wildlife-friendly farming.

Yet while new policies win headlines, what really shapes European food production—and the fate of more than a third of its territory—is the Common Agricultural Policy, launched in 1962. The CAP cost more than £52 billion in 2019 and consumes more than a third of the EU budget. The bulk of it goes to direct payments to farmers based largely on how much land they hold—not on how well they protect the environment.

The EU government is currently hammering out the next version of the CAP, which will largely determine the fate of European food systems and the environment until 2027. Environmental groups hoped for reforms that would bring the policy in line with the Green Deal’s lofty goals, many of which are nonbinding and underfunded.

Photograph by Lena Mucha

The stakes couldn’t be higher, says Celia Nyssens, who works on agricultural policy at the European Environmental Bureau, a network of more than 160 groups. “The next 10 years are crucial to reign in the loss of biodiversity," she says, "to really prevent mass extinction beyond what we’ve already seen.”

But farm groups and the pesticide industry have fiercely lobbied against reducing subsidies or putting more restrictions on farmers. In a blow to environmental groups, the European Parliament and European Council this fall voted down most of the environmental provisions of the proposed new CAP, including amendments that would have required it to meet the Green Deal’s goals.

Negotiations continue, but many environmental groups and scientists such as Pe’er, a butterfly specialist and agricultural policy expert at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research and the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig, say the version of the CAP under consideration is a step backward for the environment and small farms. They say it could even damage public support for the EU itself, since there is strong demand on the ground for a more sustainable food system.

“If they do not manage to come out of the negotiations with something better, it will definitely be a lost opportunity,” Pe’er says.

Bee-saving has ripple effects

Even if an EU-wide approach is lacking at this point, the Save the Bees campaign has had a ripple effect across Germany. In at least three other states (of 16 in all), environmental groups have proposed similar referendums, prompting some state governments to preemptively strengthen environmental laws. Bavaria also helped lay the groundwork for the German government’s insect protection program. It aims to increase habitat, cut pesticide use, and reduce light pollution, which interferes with the behaviour of insects and makes them easier prey.

At the same time, however, farmers across the EU are increasingly fighting back against what they consider unfair environmental laws and the public’s denigration of their work. Farmers have blocked streets with massive tractors in a number of European capitals to protest new regulations. In Germany, they have put green crosses in their fields as a sign of their martyrdom to environmental rules. In France, farmers decry "agri-bashing," complaining that they’re being blamed for all of society’s ills even as they feed the nation.

This clash of worldviews, and the tension between people who make a living from the land, and the plants and animals that exist there, is evident at my next stop with Schäffer, a big cornfield beside a small stream. Separating the two is a 16-foot-wide fallow strip—a requirement of the new Bavarian law. When farmers plow right up to the bank of a stream or river, Schäffer explains, soil washes into the water and fills the spaces between rocks, burying fish eggs. Fertilizer seeps in too, promoting algal blooms downstream that choke off aquatic life.

Schäffer says that even if the Save the Bees campaign had only succeeded in protecting streams like this, it would have been worth the effort. Schäffer calls these stream margins “lines of life,” because they give animals and insects a place to survive, especially when fields are left bare in the winter. They also act as a corridor that allows movement through an often hostile landscape.

But this particular line of life has a glaring interruption: Someone, presumably the farmer, has destroyed a beaver lodge that had been built in the stream. Beavers, which are protected in Bavaria, can back up streams and flood fields with their lodges, but this one doesn’t appear to have done so, at least recently. All that is left are mud, sticks, and chewed corn stalks, a reminder of the new law’s limits.

Schäffer examines thistledown from an untended strip next to a street. "A few years ago, you wouldn't have seen these dry flowers next to a street," Schäffer says. "People here in the region have changed their perception of esthetic and understand that these flowers are important for insects."

Photograph by Lena Mucha

Toward the end of a long day, Schäffer pulls over to the side of the road near a highway on-ramp. One of the most visible changes that has come to Bavaria since the Save the Bees campaign, he says, is one that wasn’t even required by the law: Many towns are now leaving their roadsides wild.

It doesn’t look like much, Schäffer acknowledges, grabbing a handful of desiccated stalks. But caterpillars hang their cocoons on dry stems, and goldfinches and other birds eat thistle and poppy seeds in the winter. Schäffer says he’s heard from some mayors that people now complain if the roadsides are mowed too often.

It’s a small change, but to Schäffer it heralds a bigger shift in public opinion. If people can see the beauty or at least the utility in roadsides like these, maybe they’ll start mowing their lawns less. Maybe they’ll push for new laws to protect more habitat. Maybe they’ll realise that nature isn’t just something to be protected “out there,” in the Alps or the jungle, but something all around us, braided into the most familiar of landscapes—if we make room for it.

“This is the new normal,” Schäffer says.

This story was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, a non-profit news organisation.
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