Wildlife Habitat Capacity on Farmland Indicator

The Wildlife Habitat Capacity on Farmland Indicator summarizes the availability of suitable habitat on Canadian farmland for vertebrate populations, from 1986 to 2011. It is important to note that the main objective for this indicator is for the majority of agricultural working landscapes to provide a stable or improved level of habitat capacity, thus avoiding further significant habitat degradation.

What are Agri-Environmental Indicators?

Agri-Environmental Indicators (AEIs) are measures of key environmental conditions, risks, and changes resulting from agriculture and of the management practices that producers use to mitigate these risks. They help explain:

  • how the agriculture sector is performing,
  • why it is performing as it is,
  • whether that performance is satisfactory, and
  • how it is likely to evolve in the future.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) has been compiling and analyzing data and reporting on AEIs since 1993, but uses data from as far back as 1981. The Wildlife Habitat Capacity on Farmland Indicator is one of several national indicators being tracked by AAFC.

Overall state and trend

In the last 15 years, the majority (85%) of Canada’s farmland has maintained its habitat capacity, and a small proportion (1%) has seen an increase in capacity. However, 14% of farmland has seen a decrease in capacity over that period. This decrease was predominantly driven by the loss of natural and semi-natural land cover, as well as by conversions from pasture and forages to annual crops, following the decline in livestock production, particularly since 2006. Most of these declines occurred in the Mixedwood Plains region of Eastern Canada. The Prairies, which account for the majority of Canada’s agricultural lands, have had pockets of decline, but have remained relatively stable in terms of their ability to provide wildlife habitat.

Use the interactive map below to zoom in and explore different regions.  Note that much of Canada’s agricultural land shows a very low capacity for wildlife, particularly in the Prairie region, as well as in the Lake Erie Lowlands and Manitoulin-Lake Simcoe Ecoregions of Ontario. Conversely in eastern Quebec and in the Maritimes there are areas of moderate and high capacity, with the exception of PEI, which has low or very low capacity.

In addition to exploring the 2011 values, click the play button to view changes over time. Since 1986, there has been a significant decline in wildlife capacity on farmland, most notably in the Mixedwood Plains Ecozone of Ontario and Quebec.

Figure 1: Wildlife habitat capacity for terrestrial vertebrates using agricultural land for breeding and feeding, 2011

Legend: legend

Use the interactive map in Figure 2 to explore the change wildlife capacity between 1986 and 2011. It is apparent that the decrease in capacity is most significant in the Mixedwood Plains region of Ontario and Quebec, while land on the Prairies has remained stable for the most part.

Figure 2: Change Wildlife Habitat Capacity, 1986 to 2011

Legend: legend

Wildlife Habitat on Farmland performance index

The state and trend of the Wildlife Habitat on Farmland Indicator can also be seen in the performance index below.

Figure 3: Wildlife Habitat on Farmland index
Description of this image follows.
Description - Figure 3
Year Index Value
1986 40
1991 39
1996 40
2001 38
2006 37
2011 36

In 2011, the state of the environment from the standpoint of wildlife habitat capacity on farmland in Canada was "Poor". Between 1986 and 1996, wildlife habitat remained stable on 97% of Canadian farmland; however, there was a decline in habitat capacity between 1996 and 2011, as illustrated by the drop in index values. In the last 15 years, the majority (85%) of Canada's farmland has maintained its habitat capacity, and a small proportion (1%) has seen an increase. However, 14% of farmland has seen a decrease in capacity over that period, representing a decline in habitat availability or suitability. This decline is primarily attributable to the loss of natural and semi-natural land and the intensification of farming. Within some regions, most notably the Mixedwood Plains Ecozone, the loss of perennial hay and pasture habitat was a major contributor to decline in wildlife habitat capacity. It is important to emphasize that a "Desired" or even "Good" state is likely unattainable for this indicator, as annual cropland in particular is generally quite low in its ability to provide habitat. As demand for food grows, more land may be brought into production, causing further habitat loss.

The index tends to aggregate and generalize trends and so should be viewed as a policy tool to give a general overview of state and trend over time.

How performance indices are calculated

Specific trends

Declining habitat capacity in Eastern Canada

Eastern Canada has seen the greatest declines in wildlife habitat capacity, particularly over the past 15 years. You can explore these trends in the 3-panel map featured below.

Figure 4: Change in wildlife habitat capacity in Eastern Canada for the years 1986, 1996 and 2011
1986 1996 2011

Legend: legend

Reasons for this trend

The primary reason for the decline in this indicator in Eastern Canada is due to significant changes in crop distribution, with relatively large shifts from pasture and forage production to annual crops during the period under study. Much of this change occurred after 2006, reflecting the decline in beef cattle production. Similar trends occurred in parts of the Maritimes, notably in PEI, and for the same reason. The graph below shows the importance of pasture – unimproved pasture in particular – for breeding and food supply. The "all other land" category is a Census of Agriculture category that includes woodlands, wetlands and all other agricultural land not explicitly mentioned in the list below, such as farm yard sites and gardens.

Figure 5: The number of wildlife species using each of the cover types for breeding and feeding on agricultural land in Canada
Description of this image follows.
Description - Figure 5
Land cover type The number of wildlife species using each of the cover types for feeding The number of wildlife species using each of the cover types for reproduction
Cereals 127 19
Winter Cereals 93 14
Oilseeds 56 10
Corn 77 9
Soybeans 41 8
Vegetables 51 7
Berries 86 31
Fruit Trees 117 62
Other Crops 60 10
Pulses 45 7
Summerfallow 69 13
Tame Hay 145 61
Improved Pasture 101 86
Unimproved Pasture 263 193
All other Lands 552 517

Figure 6 shows the change in agricultural land-use intensity, measured by the increase in total cropland area (compared to all other agricultural land uses). Note that while the Prairies have seen a shift towards greater intensity, the main driver behind this shift is the reduction in area under summerfallow – a practice of leaving fields bare – which offers very little benefit to wildlife for either feeding or breeding (refer to Figure 5). A portion of this area has shifted to tame hay and improved pasture, which has had a positive impact on the wildlife habitat rating in this region. In Eastern Canada, these land-use changes have generally involved a shift from pasture and forage towards field crops with a lower wildlife habitat ranking, such as corn, soybeans and potatoes.

Figure 6: Change in agricultural land use intensity between 1981 and 2011 as defined by the ratio of cropland to total farm area.

Legend: legend

The trend towards more land under annual crops can also be seen in the graph below, which shows changes by province for the years 1981 to 2011. While the Prairie Provinces have seen a decline in the area under annual crops, parts of the St. Lawrence Lowlands in eastern Ontario and western Quebec in particular have undergone relatively large shifts from pasture and forage production to annual crops during this period (in Ontario the percentage of land under annual crops increased from 59% to 70%, and in Quebec it increased from 32% to 53%). Much of this change occurred after 2006, reflecting the decline in beef cattle production. Similar trends occurred in parts of the Maritimes, notably in PEI, where the percentage of land under annual crops increased from 55% in 1981 to 62% in 2011. Over this same time period, the total area of potatoes, canola and soybeans in Canada increased from 2 million hectares to 11 million hectares.

Figure 7: Trends in annual crops, 1981 to 2011
Description of this image follows.
Description - Figure 7
Percentage of annual cropland in each province
1981 1986 1991 1996 2001 2006 2011
British Columbia 32 32 29 25 21 19 22
Alberta 73 74 72 69 63 61 64
Saskatchewan 90 91 90 88 85 79 78
Manitoba 83 83 80 79 75 72 76
Ontario 59 62 61 64 65 65 70
Quebec 32 35 39 43 51 50 53
New Brunswick 33 34 36 36 36 35 36
Nova Scotia 20 17 17 16 16 15 17
Prince Edward Island 55 58 59 62 60 57 62
Newfoundland and Labrador 16 11 10 12 12 14 10

Why this indicator matters

Canada’s diverse agricultural landscape provides habitat for close to 600 species of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. The vast majority of wildlife species (close to 90%) associated with agricultural land depend upon natural or semi-natural land-cover types, such as woodlands, wetlands or grasslands, to provide essential breeding and feeding habitat. Just 3% of the identified wildlife species could fulfill both breeding and feeding requirements on annual cropland alone. This indicates that the existence of viable wildlife populations on farmland is tied to the availability of natural and semi-natural cover types within the Canadian agricultural landscape.

Because farming is a business driven by markets and commodity prices, it can be challenging to balance high productivity with the long-term health of the agro-ecosystem as a whole. Wildlife habitat on farmland can be degraded through the conversion of natural and semi-natural areas to cropland, increased use of chemical inputs, drainage of wetlands, removal of shelterbelts and natural field barriers to accommodate larger machinery, and sometimes through an increase in livestock density. These changes can lead to habitat fragmentation and the loss of landscape heterogeneity.

Agriculture benefits from the important ecosystem services provided by wildlife, including crop pollination and natural pest control. The provision of wildlife habitat in agricultural regions, through the creation or maintenance of buffers, woodlots or wetlands, for example, can also provide other benefits such as improved soil and water quality, efficient nutrient cycling and carbon sequestration.

Agriculture has the potential to mitigate the loss of suitable habitat or to create new habitat by implementing beneficial management practices (BMPs).

Beneficial Management Practices

In the Prairies especially, producers can improve wildlife habitat by reducing summerfallow  and tillage intensity and by converting annual crops to perennial cropping systems.

Through environmental farm planning activities, producers learn about the impacts their farming operations can have on wildlife and about the BMPs they can implement to address these issues. These BMPs include managing riparian areas and woodlots; converting marginal cropland to permanent cover; planting or maintaining shelterbelts and hedgerows; delaying haying; and conserving wetland, wetland buffers, and natural and semi-natural lands. All these practices can have a substantial, positive impact on wildlife.

A number of species that are endangered or at risk are native to natural grasslands. Once grasslands have been cultivated, it can take decades or centuries for them to revert to their natural state. Maintaining grassland areas for grazing, combined with management practices conducive to restoring their natural state, represents an economically viable way to have a significant positive impact on wildlife habitat suitability in regions where natural grasslands are found.

How performance indices are calculated

The agri-environmental performance index shows environmental performance state and trends over time, based on weighting the percentage of agricultural land in each indicator class, such that the index ranges from 0 (all land in the most undesirable category) to 100 (all land in the most desirable category). The equation is simply "(% in poor class multiplied by .25) plus (% in moderate class multiplied by .5) plus (% in good class multiplied by .75) plus (% in desired class)." As the percentage of land in the "at risk" class is multiplied by zero, it is not included in the algorithm.

The table below shows the index classes. The index uses the same five-colour scheme as the indicator maps whereby dark green represents a desirable or healthy state and red represents least desirable or least healthy.

The index classes
Scale Colour scheme Class
80-100 Dark green Desired
60-79 Light green Good
40-59 Yellow Moderate
20-39 Orange Poor
0-19 Red At risk

The index tends to aggregate and generalize trends and so should be viewed as a policy tool to give a general overview of state and trend over time.

Related indicators

  • The Soil Cover Indicator summarizes the effective number of days in a year that agricultural soils are covered by vegetation, crop residue or snow. When combined with the Wildlife Habitat Capacity Indicator, it provides a snapshot of biodiversity potential on farmland in Canada.

Additional resources and downloads

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