Vincent Bretagnolle, the director of the CNRS in France, explains the importance of management contracts in agricultural research. 

Vincent Breatgnolle, a research director at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), and in charge of the Zones Ateliers. He is responsible for both long-term social ecological research and for working directly with farmers. Bretagnolle explains the importance of management contracts in agricultural research.

How long have you been involved in this study?

I began work on the study site in 1994, nearly 25 years ago now. The site is quite a large one of 450 km2 and 40,000 hectares, and we have been studying its biodiversity in addition to agricultural activities and practices.

As well as carrying out research with these farmers you also establish agreements with them on a more practical level in terms of management contracts.

Yes, we have tried to persuade them to change their practices. I began working with birds inhabiting agricultural landscapes; during the first European project in 1995 (a LIFE project) together with the farmers we began to imagine a type of change in practice to benefit these birds.

We started with this project and in 2003 with the study area. Subsequently this study area was designated a Natura 2000 area, which opened up a completely new set of options for us as from then on we were in a position to propose contracts to the farmers.

Now I am in charge of negotiating the contracts with the farmers of this area. This is the fourth type of contract because every four or five years Europe and the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) change them completely; this makes it very difficult for us to adapt to these changes and we have to re-negotiate with the farmers based on the new system. 

Are there differences between contracts for agro-environmental schemes and contracts for Natura 2000 areas?

They are the same; in France we have a single catalogue of measures from which the various measures must be chosen. We can be more precise in some of the practices, but we have to adapt to the general framework. As far as financing is concerned we can adapt a little in accordance with local limitations.

Are farmers not eligible for these contracts if they are not within Natura 2000 areas?

In fact they are, but the contracts are rather different now. Basically we administer three contract types: firstly ecological agriculture contracts which are always accepted, which is why we have a large number of organic farmers in this area. Then we have measures that aim to safeguard water quality, reduce the use of nitrogen, reduce pesticides, and finally we have several contract types on biodiversity conservation.

Do you find that farmers adopt these measures without being paid for doing so?

That is an interesting question. We have carried out several surveys over the last 15 years on the reasons why they enter into these contracts. What we have found so far is that there has been a change as at first most of them did so for economic reasons. Now they do so increasingly for environmental reasons and also for health reasons, as part of the contract includes the reduction of the pesticides used.

Are these administrative and fiscal mechanisms effective for the environmental protection of agricultural ecosystems outside designations such as Natura 2000?

Many of the measures that were restricted to Natura 2000 spaces have been made available to other areas. This is mainly because there is a link between environmental matters such as water quality or the conservation of biodiversity. For this reason it was not just a question of the Natura 2000 designated areas.

Given that the measures have been made available to the whole of France, in terms of contracts with farmers the possibilities were reduced. In my opinion we must develop measures by means of work, i.e. if you are aiming for objectives in terms of the restoration or conservation of biodiversity, we have the measures for you to achieve this objective.

The problem is down to money. For example, we estimate that for bird designation offers it is necessary to serve approximately 20 per cent of the area of the contract. Suitable farmers number around one or two per cent and this does not affect the national level, does not affect biodiversity, and does not locate Natura 2000 areas where it may still be effective.

For this reason, about six to eight years ago I started to work in a completely different way, trying to persuade farmers to reduce their use of weed-killer or increase the protected areas in exchange for economic compensation. So we began to work on the economic problems, so that the farmers will not benefit directly from the contracts but will obtain an advantage.

This is a key objective from the point of view of pollinators. In France there are no contracts for pollinators which meant we had to do things differently. It is necessary to prove to the farmers that this will benefit them economically and then persuade them to establish strips with wild flowers or to reduce their use of weed-killer.

In your opinion, what would be the most important measure to take for the specific protection of pollinators?

The most important measure is to increase the food, which involves an increase in flowers. I think it is more important than reducing insecticide. It is a matter of pesticides, but not only insecticides but also weed-killers must be reduced.

The most limiting factor for honey bees and wild bees is that of flowers. I think that it is a question of flowers and natural spaces with this resource; this is the key, at least in our systems.

Do you think that having extensive monospecific crops such as sunflower or rapeseed is good for pollinators?

Yes, up to a point, but as we have time limitations mass flowering is not enough. We therefore try to organise the landscape so as to make flowers available not only to honey bees but also to wild bees anywhere and at any time; this is the biggest problem.

Floral resources and bees are completely disappearing. In some cases having sunflowers or rapeseed is only a resource of farmers. Beekeepers supply honey bees with sugar, but nobody provides wild bees with sugar, which means that they simply die and disappear.