Modelling the impact of agricultural abandonment and wildfires on vertebrate diversity in Mediterranean Europe
Agricultural land abandonment, widespread in the Mediterranean, is leading to a recovery of scrubland and forests which are replacing open habitats and increasing wildfire events. Using published data, we modelled the global and regional impact of abandonment and wildfires on 554 species of terrestrial vertebrates occurring in Mediterranean Europe. For all groups except amphibians, open habitats or farmland sustained higher species richness. Open habitats showed regional differences in their conservation value, western areas being particularly important for birds and amphibians and eastern areas for reptiles. Scrublands hosted fewer species than open habitats, farmland and forest, but sustained several endemic birds and mammals. The greater species richness of forests was mostly due to species widespread in Europe. Wildfires promote scrubland expansion in detriment of forest; because more species are associated to eastern forests, fire is predicted to affect more seriously this region. Scrubland conservation value was found to be highest in the west, where fire might have a positive impact. Fire regime, however, plays a crucial role. Although large fires have a negative impact, small-scale fires may favour biodiversity in abandoned areas. Due to the intrinsic difficulty in managing abandoned land to preserve the original Mediterranean vertebrate diversity, the best option to achieve this goal is the development of policies designed to make farmers and traditional farmland survive.