After the Common Agricultural Policy reform of 1992 and the application of agro-environmental measures, most EU countries have introduced specific measures for wildlife habitat improvement. The aim of our study was to evaluate the effects of two habitat improvement actions on brown hare Lepus europaeus and roe deer Capreolus capreolus populations in two study areas in the hills of Emilia-Romagna in Italy. The study was carried out from October 1996 to October 1997. Data on brown hares were collected at night using spotlights. Density was estimated at 26 (area A) and 29 (area B) sampling sites. Data on roe deer were collected at 17 sampling sites (fields observed) during 2-hour periods, before sunset and after sunrise, respectively, using binoculars. We recorded 736 brown hares. Brown hare density was higher in study area A (0.27 individuals/ha) than in study area B (0.23 individuals/ha). We counted 153 roe deer during the diurnal surveys. The highest roe deer density was observed in February–March 1997 (0.306 individuals/ha). We used Bonferroni confidence intervals, Kruskal-Wallis and Mann-Whitney U tests to compare the densities in different habitats. Brown hares avoided uncultivated fields in both study areas, while they selected habitat improvements in area A and forage crops in area B. Roe deer selected habitat improvements and secondarily forage crops, but avoided uncultivated fields. Our study demonstrates that extensive cultivated fields (maintained or reintroduced according to EU agro-environmental regulations) can play an important role in territories with agriculture retirement and abandonment, acting primarily as a source of food (mostly green forage) for several herbivorous wildlife species.
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