Nature

I have more than two-and-a-half years experience writing about environmental projects and eco-innovation for the LIFE Communications Team of the European Commission’s DG Environment.

LIFE is the European Union’s financial instrument for the environment. As well as writing and editing thematic publications for the LIFE Nature strand of the programme, I have also been responsible for coordinating freelancers in three countries working on a compendium of new LIFE projects, helping to update LIFE’s Facebook and Twitter feeds and producing news items for the monthly LIFENews newsletter and LIFE programme website.

Below is a small selection of practical feature, news and policy-related articles that I have produced LIFE Nature unit in the period from January 2008 to present.

BUILDING GREEN INFRASTRUCTURE INTO URBAN PLANNING

In order to enhance connectivity between protected areas, there must be greater connectivity at the planning level between the various policy sectors and decision-makers. The LIFE programme has been an important pump primer for the concept of green infrastructure at local and regional levels.

With the support of LIFE, Cheshire County Council in the Northwest of England developed ECOnet  (LIFE99 ENV/UK/000177) one of the earliest projects dedicated to connectivity at a municipal level. “Back then eco-networks were not on the UK radar at all,” explains Alun Evans, Project Leader (Natural Environment), Specialist Environmental Services, Cheshire West and Chester Council (CWCC), who worked on the LIFE ECOnet project from 2000-2003. Mr Evans recalls that prior to ECOnet, project manager Ian Marshall had spent “a lot of time firefighting against development…There were islands of biodiversity that we wanted to link up.” Cheshire County Council had earlier been a partner to the Pond LIFE project (LIFE94 ENV/UK/000651), so was aware of the opportunity of using LIFE funding to integrate ecology into land-use planning.

The council and its project partners from Emilia-Romagna and Abruzzo provinces in Italy used the latest information technology (e.g. aerial photography, Geographical Information Systems – GIS) to analyse their landscapes. This information was used to identify concentrations of habitats of high value for wildlife, potential areas for the creation of new habitats and corridors for the movement of species.

LIFE ECOnet successfully carried out its five main tasks: Technical development of GIS and the application of landscape ecology principles; assessing and influencing land use policy and instruments; demonstrating integrated land management; engaging stakeholders; and dissemination.

Mr. Evans recalls that one of the biggest challenges was the logistics of running several programmes simultaneously across two countries and three regions. Nevertheless, he says, “At a European level it was interesting to see what our counterparts were doing. We were trying to connect butterflies and small mammals; in Abruzzo they were dealing with megafauna!”

Despite the achievements of ECOnet, “We were only – however successfully – demonstrating a model,” recalls Mr. Evans. “There was no funding for practical implementation.” However, he notes that such was the expectation raised among local groups by ECOnet, that towards the end of the LIFE project additional funds were secured from The Forestry Commission North West to do some small-scale practical demonstrations (planting trees in buffer zones around forests).

“Since 2003 we have explored further funding, including a feasibility study backed by the North West Development Agency. Creating a network in Cheshire has been very useful for bringing additional funds in (e.g. for meres and mosses),” believes Mr. Evans.

CWCC has also used the model developed by the LIFE project for land-use planning to influence quarry restoration. For instance, a disused sand quarry owned by the company, Tarmac, was originally going to be restored back to agriculture; instead Tarmac agreed to restore about half the area back to heathland and acid grassland.

Functional ecological frameworks for the future

In addition to inspiring actions on the ground, the ECOnet methodology has fed into planning structures, including local plans for waste, district nature conservation strategies, the Cheshire 2016: Structure Plan and at a wider level the Regional Spatial Strategy for the North West of England (which states that local authorities “should develop functional ecological frameworks that will address habitat fragmentation and species isolation, identifying and targeting opportunities for habitat expansion and re-connection”).

Mike O’Kell, Natural Environment Manager, CWCC is currently drafting such a functional ecological framework for the council. This will feed into its Local Development Framework (LDF), a document that will guide urban planning decisions through to 2026. “The LDF will hopefully enable us to balance the needs of economic development, homes for people and ecological networks,” says Mr. O’Kell.

He also points to the importance of linking CWCC’s network with those of neighbouring regions, particularly as Cheshire is “a bit of a weekend playground for the cities of Liverpool and Manchester”. Mr. O ‘Kell notes that The Mersey Forest – a network of woodlands and green spaces in Cheshire and Merseyside backed by funding from the North West Development Agency – is taking the lead in the task of joining up green infrastructure across those the wider region. There is also a green infrastructure guideline for Northwest England, one of a number of “things out there that are helping to create a dialogue,” he says.

Pilot projects demonstrate their value

“LIFE has been very much a pump primer to develop the other ideas,” believes Mike O’Kell. The demonstration value of the programme can be seen in the impact of other projects with an urban planning dimension.

Another UK-led project with an Italian partner, the “Sustainable Urban Planning Networks for Green Spaces” project (LIFE03 ENV/UK/000614) drew on some of the lessons of LIFE ECOnet to develop and test innovative tools for biodiversity action planning that allow municipalities to undertake urban planning more effectively, thereby supporting the policy objectives of the 6th Environment Action Programme (6th EAP).

The goals of the project, which was led by the Borough of Sutton in partnership with four other London boroughs, an NGO and the City of Rome, were to produce and implement a series of local biodiversity action plans in urban settings around London and Rome and to demonstrate innovative approaches to developing and testing transferable stakeholder engagement tools for urban green space management.

The beneficiary and UK partners each implemented at least four habitat or species management projects and the Italian authority three projects. These projects were divided into five categories:

  1. Volunteer/stakeholder management of urban green-space designated within the local development plan as a wildlife site.
  2. Individual species projects involving landowners, householders and individual (e.g. birdhouse schemes for back gardens).
  3. General habitat enhancement schemes involving green corridors or public open space (e.g. removal of invasive species).
  4. Access and interpretation projects (such as pram/wheelchair access improvements).
  5. School or sports club projects to enhance the biodiversity of school playing fields or sports grounds.

Many of the projects proved to be highly innovative, engaging with a wide range of stakeholders, including such disadvantaged groups as refugees and young offenders, and successfully integrating biodiversity strategy with other urban planning priorities. Four new biodiversity action plans were also produced and two more revitalised. The local communities are continuing with some of the action plans and projects after-LIFE.

The Gallecs project (LIFE02 ENV/E/000200), which took place on the fringes of the Barcelona metropolitan area, helped contain the fragmentation of natural landscapes and habitats by promoting a more rational and environmentally sustainable use of urban and peri-urban land. The pilot project has demonstrated that it is possible to achieve environmentally, socially and economically sustainable development in transition zones that face increasing pressures from settlements and industry emanating from the neighbouring city.

As with ECOnet, the success of this LIFE project depended upon the support and active participation of local farmers. Again like ECOnet, lessons from the Gallecs project are being integrated into urban planning decisions affecting the region today: Funding has been secured to implement the strategic development plan drawn up by the project.

For Mike O’Kell of CWCC, the green infrastructure approach has clear benefits: “Planning has become very joined up: interconnectivity is at the heart of it.”

(Originally published in “LIFE building up Europe’s green infrastructure”, April 2010).

DENMARK: FROM TIMBER TO BIODIVERSITY

With the aid of LIFE funding, the Danish Forest and Nature Agency has begun restoring dry grassland habitats at 11 sites around the country, work that will bear fruit 40 or 50 years from now. As well as providing a home to rare flora and fauna, the project sites demonstrate a successful blending of agricultural and ecological demands.

As in most parts of Europe, Denmark’s dry grasslands are under threat from the combined effects of scrub encroachment, lack of grazing and invasion of non-native species.

The LIFE Nature project LIFE04 NAT/DK/000020 has launched a national strategy to restore the most valuable Danish grassland sites within Natura 2000 to a favourable conservation status. The 11 project sites (see map) house some 70% of the xeric and calcareous grasslands (habitat type 6120*), 25% of semi-natural dry grasslands (6210*) and 20% of species-rich Nardus grasslands (6230*) in Denmark.

The project targeted an increase in the area of Annex I dry grasslands from 715 ha to 983 ha. A total of 178 ha of plantations and arable land would be reconverted to grasslands, with scrub clearance taking place on over 900 ha. In addition, grazing would be introduced on 599 ha, bringing more than 1,780 ha in total under conservation management by the end of this year.

By the chalk cliffs of Mon

The LIFE project site at Klinteskoven, on the island of Mon, borders the famous 100 m high chalk cliffs of the Hoje Mon. The site includes two outstanding areas of dry grasslands, Jydelejet and Hovblege. The latter is home to 18 species of wild orchid, as well as rare day-flying moths and butterflies, including the Large Blue butterfly (Maculinea arion), which is found nowhere else in Denmark (see box).

Clearance work of spruce plantations began in 2005. “It is vital we have animals to prevent regrowth,” explains Project Manager, Soren Rasmussen. “Getting farmers to participate is very important, but sometimes there is a contradiction between what we want and what the farmers want – sometimes the cattle weigh less after grazing grasslands.”

At Klinteskoven, many of the cattle are owned by a cooperative. This association of nature-loving city dwellers supports the aims of the grasslands restoration programme. Helpfully, its members care more about nature restoration than the weight of their cattle.

The 20 ha Hovblege site is being divided (by fencing) into three areas: a lowland area for summer grazing, a hilltop area for late summer/early autumn grazing, and an area from which cattle are excluded (here the regrowth of shrubs is removed by hand by local volunteers). The aim is that, within 40 or 50 years, the whole area will resemble the small area of mature dry grasslands today housing the rare orchids and butterflies, etc.

At nearby Havrelukke, the project team has been recreating the conditions of 100 years ago – removing pine forest to return the land to a hay meadow.

Galloway cattle have been introduced to graze the cleared areas at Jydelejet. There is also a special fenced area containing the rare Pyramidal Orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis). The LIFE beneficiary is also attempting to reintroduce Maculinea arion to Jydelejet (the species was present at the site until 1986), and has taken special measures to this end. “One male was spotted there this summer,” enthuses Mr Rasmussen. The project manager points out that clearing of the plantations lets people see the contours of the land. Not all trees have been removed, however – some stands of ancient woodland containing multi-stem beech trees have been preserved. As Mr Rasmussen explains, “100 years ago there was a demand for timber; now there is a demand for biodiversity”.

Mols Bjerge

Mols Bjerge, situated on the south coast of Djursland in eastern Jutland, is the largest of the 11 LIFE Nature project sites. Rising to a height of more than 130 m, this hilly (by Danish standards) area consists of a mosaic of old, dry grasslands, heathlands and plantations.  Species-rich Nardus grasslands on siliceous substrates (*6230) account for an estimated 359 ha within the 962 ha pSCI. Underscoring the importance of the site is the fact that Mols Bjerge is to form part of Denmark’s second national park.

The state forest district owns some 250 cattle and 200 goats, which graze the grasslands. “The cattle have been selectively bred over 25 years. “We want cattle that are hardy and like to eat shrubs and which pay little or no attention to people,” explains Mr. Rasmussen.  “We are trying grazing with different animals – including sheep and horses – to see which work best for different areas,” adds the Project Manager. “One of the big topics for the next 10-15 years is how to keep shrub vegetation down. We are considering buying some hard-working sheep. Combining different animals would also be good.”

Working with landowners

Since 53% of the total area covered by the 11 project sites is in private ownership, co-operation with landowners is essential to its final success, particularly with regards to preventing fragmentation of grasslands area. The project has therefore placed a strong emphasis on stakeholder dialogue and awareness-raising, and also on activities to encourage landowners to sign agri-environmental contracts (obliging them to keep the area grazed for a period of normally 10 years), as implemented in Denmark under the Rural Development regulation. The LIFE project has provided the basis for using grazing as a management method in the pSCI (through provision of fencing, material, shelter, water and power). As the beneficiary stated in its LIFE application, in order to motivate farmers to enter into agreements on grazing, “it is necessary to provide the basic infrastructure to allow grazing to take place. The clearing of various degrees of overgrowth will support this rationale.”

BOX:
The Large Blue butterfly

If the reproductive cycle of Lepidoptera is one of the wonders of the natural world, that of one of its rarest species, the Large Blue butterfly (Maculinea arion) takes fascination to new levels.

The Large Blue mainly lives in heaths, sand dunes and calcareous dry grasslands. The female of the species lays its eggs on wild thyme (Thymus pulegioides) buds and (less commonly) on the buds of wild marjoram (Origanum vulgare). The young caterpillars feed exclusively on these plants until after the third moult. At this point the caterpillar drops to the ground and waits to be picked up by a red ant of the species, Myrmica sabuleti. The ant collects the caterpillar and takes it to its nest because, when stroked (‘milked’) the caterpillar produces honeydew on which the ant and its larvae feed. As winter draws near, the caterpillar hibernates inside the nesting chambers and, upon waking, feeds on red ant eggs and larvae, all the while mimicking the behaviour of the ants in order to maintain its position. Three weeks after waking, the caterpillar forms a chrysalis on the roof of the nest. Once its transformation into a butterfly is complete, Maculinea arion is escorted to the surface by the red ants, which encircle it and ward off any predators while it dries out. The ants return to their nest when the butterfly is ready to fly off.

The adult Large Blue has a wingspan of up to 5 cm. Its wings are speckled with black dots.

Maculinea arion’s very restricted home range and inability to migrate over longer distances makes it extremely vulnerable to fragmentation of its habitats. The population in Denmark is restricted to 100-300 specimens in Hovblege on the island of Mon.

(Originally published in “LIFE and Europe’s grasslands: Restoring a forgotten habitat”, 2008).

BLOCKING DITCHES TO BRING BACK AAPA MIRES

Finland’s aapa mires are under threat from inappropriate land use and management. LIFE is helping to improve the ‘unfavourable-inadequate’ status of this important habitat.

Within the habitat group of bogs, mires and fens, aapa mires (7310) are limited to the northern Boreal region and the adjacent part of the Alpine region. They are complexes of several types of mire, such as string fens, flarks and unraised bog moss (Sphagnum species) dominated bogs. While the conservation status of this habitat is ‘favourable’ in the Alpine region, it is assessed as ‘unfavourable-inadequate’ for the Boreal region, with ‘structure’ and function’ and ‘future prospects’ considered poor in both Finland and Sweden, and ‘area’ also poor in Finland. Threats and pressures are mostly related to inappropriate land use and management, including drainage.

A number of LIFE projects in Finland have targeted this important habitat. Restoration of mires in each case was achieved through blocking and filling of ditches and, in some cases, through the removal of excess trees.

LIFE and Finland’s aapa mires

The LIFE Nature project LIFE02 NAT/FIN/008469 (Protection of aapa mire wilderness in Ostrobothnia and Kainuu) drew up 12 restoration plans for mires, forest, old forest roads and meadows. These plans have been nearly fully implemented. Some 924 ha (mainly aapa mires) were acquired by the state for nature conservation purposes and a total of 606 ha of aapa mires were restored. (In addition, the project restored 154 ha of forests through controlled burning and increasing the amount of deadwood, 10 km of old forest roads and 2.4 ha of meadows). In addition, extensive basic inventories of habitats, bracket fungi, birds, epiphytic lichens and historical land use were taken for the basis of management plans.  An ecological survey and conservation plan was also drawn up for the moss species, Hamatocaulis lapponicus.

LIFE03 NAT/FIN/000036 (Karelian mires and virgin forests – pearls in the chain of geohistory) set out to restore the  boreal old-growth forests of northern Karelia, which act as ’stepping stones’ for species between Russian forests and those of Finland. The mires of this region are equally important since they make up the transition zone between aapa mires and active raised bogs.

As part of a wider series of actions, the project restored a total of 479.1 ha of mires  by blocking and filling approximately 125 km of ditches. As a result of these actions the water level in the restored mires has increased, leading to the recovery of typical mire vegetation, butterflies and birds.

The LIFE04 NAT/FI/000078 (Natural Forests and mires in the “Green Belt” of Koillismaa and Kainuu) project was focused on the conservation of forests and mires in 13 Natura 2000 sites in Koillismaa and Kainuu in eastern Finland. This included restoring 390 ha of aapa mires and bog woodlands by filling and blocking ditches and by clearing excess trees. Innovative methods were used to recreate ‘flarks’, peat banks and former streams.

An earlier project, LIFE00 NAT/FIN/007060 (Protection and usage of aapa mires with a rich avifauna) targeted the central Lapland aapa mire zone, which is important as a nesting, resting and feeding area for birds. The 48 200 ha area covered by the project includes 1 800 pairs of wood sandpipers (Tringa clareola), 400 pairs of ruffs (Philomachus pugnax) and 180 pairs of golden plovers (Pluvialis apricaria), as well as bears, wolves and wolverines. The Annex-II listed  plant species Hamatocaulis lapponicus, Ranunculus lapponicus and Saxifraga hirculus grow in the area.

The project drafted management plans for five areas. These were approved by the Finnish Ministry of the Environment. More than 6 300 ha of land was acquired for nature conservation purposes and a further 225 ha leased on a five-year contract. The project restored some 80 ha of mires, as well as wet meadows and forests.

(Originally published in LIFE News, the newsletter of the European Commission DG Environment LIFE unit, November 2009).