1. The widespread declines of farmland birds have generally been linked to agricultural intensification. We tested the hypotheses that (i) changes in agricultural policy, through its effects on agricultural intensification and (ii) regional differences in agricultural intensification affect temporal and spatial population trends of farmland birds in Sweden. 2. We analysed regional bird population trends (1976-2003) for seven common farmland bird species: the migratory lapwing Vanellus vanellus, skylark Alauda arvensis, starling Sturnus vulgaris and linnet Carduelis cannabina and the resident tree sparrow Passer montanus, house sparrow P. domesticus and yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella. We identified three periods of agricultural policy in Sweden between 1976 and 2003: the intensification period (i.e. 1976-87; promoting increased production), the set-aside period (1987-95; promoting extensification of farming) and the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) period (1995-2003; promoting increased production). Population trends were compared between three types of Swedish farmlands: open plains (intensive farming with a marked intensification), mosaic farmlands (i.e. farmland-dominated forest mosaics, less intensive farming, but show moderate intensification) and forest regions (i.e. forest-dominated farmlands with low intensity farming and extensification/abandonment). 3. The four migrants displayed clear significant trend switches between the policy periods, with declines in the 'intensification period' and the 'CAP period' and less negative or even positive population trends in the 'set-aside period'. The population trends of the three resident species showed no clear pattern in relation to agricultural policy periods. 4. All species except tree sparrow displayed significantly different population trends between farmland regions. Four species (lapwing, skylark, linnet and house sparrow) declined most in the open plains and the forest regions, whereas two species (starling and yellowhammer) declined most in the mosaic farmlands. 5. Synthesis and applications. Large-scale changes in agriculture policy have a strong potential to change the present poor state of farmland biodiversity as shown by the generally positive population trends in the 'set-aside period'. It also suggests extensification to be beneficial to farmland birds. However, in regions of low profitability and an already ongoing extensification, a further extensification will lead to loss of both farmland habitat and bird diversity. In such regions mixed farming needs to be retained and hence should be supported.
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