Agri-environment schemes (AESs) are designed to create landscape-scale improvements in biodiversity. While the specific aims of AESs do not always include the enhancement of species of conservation concern, associated conservation strategies, such as the UK Biodiversity Action Plan, often rest on the assumption that AESs enhance environmental conditions and thereby improve the conservation status of target species. However, there is little evidence for the general efficacy of AESs in this respect. To evaluate the effects of the Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) scheme, a widespread AES in Northern Ireland, a spotlight survey of the relative abundance of three mammal species, Irish hare Lepus timidus hibernicus, European rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus and red fox Vulpes vulpes, was conducted. Of these, the Irish hare is a priority species for conservation action and the focus of a species action plan, while rabbit and fox are commonly considered agricultural pests. The effects of ESA designation and habitat on each species were assessed at 150 ESA and 50 non-ESA sites, matched for landscape characteristics. The ESA scheme had no demonstrable effect on the abundance of Irish hares, and this agri-environment scheme did not target the landscape and habitat variables associated with hares. In contrast, the abundance of rabbits and foxes was significantly greater within ESAs than the wider countryside. Agricultural factors such as reduced livestock stocking density, reduced overgrazing and field boundary enhancements may create more favourable conditions for both species. Aside from the implications for farm economics, the proliferation of rabbit populations within conservation areas may raise issues concerning the grazing of important plant communities, while increases in fox populations may adversely affect ground-nesting birds and other animal species of conservation concern. Synthesis and applications. The abundance of rabbits and foxes corroborates recent work that suggests AESs may benefit common species but can not be relied upon to encourage rarer species. The Irish hare species action plan relies on agri-environment schemes to enhance the species' status and realize the target of increasing the hare population by 2010 by promoting suitable habitat. However, the ESA scheme is unlikely to help in achieving these objectives. Targeted and evidence-based agri-environment prescriptions are clearly required in order to ensure the realization of species-specific conservation targets.
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