Biodiversity challenges – Poland – 2016

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Archnetwork visit to NW Poland, 18-25th July 2016.

Biodiversity challenges and conservation management in West Pomerania.

Introduction

This study tour of West Pomerania (NW Poland/Eastern Germany) focused on the Odra/Oder river valley. It extended along some 150km of the Odra valley and floodplain, from its confluence with the Warta River near Kostrzyn to its outflow into the Baltic Sea at Swinoujscie/Miedzyzdroje. Extensive floodplain wetlands are a characteristic feature of this landscape.

The three authors of this report are all professionally involved in biodiversity planning and wetland management in Scotland. This report captures some of the key issues experienced in West Pomerania which are comparable and transferable to wetland management in Scotland. It focuses on the issues associated with wetland management along the Odra floodplain. In particular, it considers:

  • Protecting nature and places in Poland – the various strategic biodiversity and conservation designations that have been used
  • Process vs State – some of the ecological drivers and challenges, and
  • Intervention – conservation management in practice – some of the practical management techniques that are employed to maintain current biodiversity value.

Lead authors:

Section 1 – Neil Mitchell (Scottish Natural Heritage);
Section 2 – Chris Waltho (Sponsored by SNH, South Lanarkshire Council);
Section 3 – Mark Mitchell (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds).

  • Protecting nature and places in Poland.

 Across Europe a network of ‘protected areas’ has been a key mechanism for delivering species and habitat protection and achieving EU 2020 biodiversity strategy targets. During our visit we were fortunate to meet many practitioners involved directly in the management of a range of valuable protected areas and discuss their approach to management.

Photo 1. A typical landscape in the Oder valley

It was immediately evident to the group the biodiversity of the country, rural roads bounded by wildflower rich roadside verges and lush waterside ditches, were teeming with insects and birdlife, agriculture was low intensity with set aside and fallow land being abundant and the wetland areas extensive. Seeing this rich biodiversity prompted the question – what mechanisms are in place to protect this biodiversity?

The principles of a tiered system of protection would be one familiar to conservationists across Europe and probably much further afield. As a group on the Erasmus programme we were from diverse backgrounds and it was interesting to see even within our own group how awareness of our own network of protected areas varied. Whilst all were familiar with the concepts of a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), National Nature Reserves (NNR) and National Parks (NP) for some in the group Natura 2000 was a new concept.

The pan European network of Natura 2000 sites is lauded throughout Europe as the keystone of species and habitat protection with the majority of sites wearing their ‘Natura badge’ with pride. Whilst the accolade itself is perhaps relatively unknown in the UK and we have our own SSSI legislation which underpins and pre-dates the Natura 2000 legislation. Its value in terms of protecting our most valued species and habitats cannot be understated even within the already well regulated UK context.

The following are some of the main protected areas recognised in Poland;

National Parks

Highest levels of protection are afforded to the country’s 23 National Parks which cover c1% Poland’s area. The first to be designated and which is probably still the most famous; Białowieża, was established in 1932. Unlike in Scotland legislation dictates that all National Parks in Poland should be owned by the state and mechanisms are in place by which the state can take over land. They are managed by the Ministry for the Environment each with a director responsible to the state. There is a buffer zone surrounding each one, and within the parks there are designated intervention and non-intervention areas.

Nature park/reserve

Fitting in just beneath national parks in terms of their protection levels are Nature parks or reserves. There are 1,481 nature reserves in Poland. These are established by the state guided by scientific recommendation and common with much of Poland many, although not all are owned by the state. Some are categorized as ‘strict’ nature reserves and in these areas no public access is allowed however in some instances scientific monitoring and it seemed to us some active management for example reed cutting, mowing of meadows is permitted where it fitted in with objectives. Mostly smaller in scale and tending less to encompass landscape scale processes than National Parks these designated areas seem similar at to our own SSSI.

Landscape parks

These were mostly established during the 1970’s and 80’s, and are areas where people’s interactions with the landscape have directly impacted upon the species and habitats within. To maintain them there is a greater acceptance of human processes (IUCN cat. V). The aims of these sites are protection of both nature & landscape and cultural & historical value alongside tourism, education and community co-operation. Poland has 122 landscape parks covering 7.9% of the country’s area. On the ground they were somewhat akin to our own NNR’s but with a slightly lower profile however having the same ethos of balancing people and wildlife together as compared to the higher tiers of protection where access and recreation is more considerably restricted than it is in Scotland.

There are other types of protected area in Poland however the list outlined above covers the highest designations and those relevant to the sites we were fortunate enough to visit.

It was interesting to note that Poland and Scotland are not that dissimilar in terms of the evolution of protected areas and in fact perhaps Poland could pre-empt some of our own designations. Whilst there are of course both similarities and differences in the way protected areas are managed between Scotland and Poland the one common theme in the management of all the most valued sites was Natura 2000 it did provide us with a common framework which we could all converse upon.

When Poland joined the EU in 2003 it had only 3 months to establish the country’s Natura 2000 network. In order to meet these time restraints the delineation of Natura sites in Poland broadly followed the boundaries of existing designated sites rather than following more precise habitat boundaries. It would seem from our discussions with Polish colleagues that whilst it has meant large areas are designated Natura 2000 it has meant that there are some areas within Natura boundaries which are not feature habitats or home to feature species. This had been identified as an issue by the pro development lobby and some regional councils.

Poland now has 141 (55,222 km2, 15.6% land cover) designated Special Protection Areas (SPA) designated under the Birds Directive and 823 (38,003 km2, 11% land cover) designated Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) totalling an area of land greater than Scotland, many of which do not yet have plans with detailed objectives for conservation. The issues surrounding having defined protection areas but without defined objectives for managing the site prompted some interesting discussions within the group about management of the wetland succession, and prioritisation of habitats at the sites we visited particularly when considered at a strategic (national/global) level. Some of which are outlined in part 3 of this report.

At Wolin i Uznam we visited the Natura site which had very recently been developed with the construction of a new Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) plant. Our guide Kazimierz explained that the area which had been developed was in fact beyond the boundary of the Natura feature habitat and did not impact upon the feature habitat. Although it seems likely that in any case it would have been a contender for being a development in the ‘overriding public interest’ category we understood the Natura boundary had been redefined. Whilst this may be an instance where the exact mechanism through which the development went ahead was somewhat lost in translation it was interesting and reassuring to hear Kazimierz’s support for the way this project had been dealt with from someone who was clearly so passionate about the coastline. It is easy to see similarities between the pressures on our own Natura sites and those in Poland and in both instances the legislation prompts a much higher level of protection against environmental impacts than might otherwise have been the case even if the process of adherence to Natura 2000 may differ slightly between Scotland & Poland. For a nation that is looking to develop its economy through both industry and tourism there will doubtless be some challenges ahead.

 

Photo 2. The busy beach at Wolin I Uznam with the LNG plant in the background.

The differences between our own protected areas and those for example of the American National Parks are already well documented; similarly there are many differences between our own and protected areas in Poland. It was common place to see signs restricting entry to areas, prohibiting camping, fires, and dogs, all activities that post the land reform act Scots expect to be able to carry out in a responsible manner. These regulations escalate as the level of environmental protection on a site increases. We did have opportunity to experience this first hand when in the Warta Mouth National Park when a fisherman narrowly avoided a fine from one of our guides for swimming in the river something it is difficult to envisage ever happening in Scotland. Following on from the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 and the Scottish Outdoor Access Code in Scotland we still have a lively debate regarding the pros and cons of our own right to responsible access but in Poland it seems that access rights are very much still restricted.

Photo 3. Signs prohibiting activities such as camping & fire lighting or dog walking were commonplace.

Protected areas into the future

Summarising our extensive discussions on protected areas within Poland it was evident that Natura 2000 forms the basis of current protection and from the evidence we saw is at the fore of all site managers’ minds. These site managers saw the value of, and wished to promote further nature tourism and rightly so – Poland has much to offer. Having what could certainly be regarded as a robust set of protected areas will play a valuable role in protecting habitats and species as the country moves forward. We also briefly touched on the subject of habitat corridors beyond protected areas with our Polish colleagues. In the UK there is currently little legislation to adequately protect habitats beyond protected places and this is increasingly becoming a concern as links between protected places dwindle, in Poland it still seemed evident that there was a good network of corridors between protected areas but equally little to protect them in the future. For us it was inspiring to see what ecological corridors could look like in the future in a less managed countryside.

Photo 4. Species rich roadside verges, hedges and ditches were all abundant in the Oder valley

 

One of the great challenges and dilemmas that conservation managers face is how much to intervene and manage natural processes. Knowledge and understanding of natural succession is important to inform these decisions. The study visit provided extensive field evidence for this issue and generated much discussion.

Wetland succession

On wetter sites, the early succession from hay meadows is to reedbeds Phragmites. This was widely observed and was especially obvious at the Odra Delta Nature Park (Photo 5), in the Lower Odra Landscape Park (Photo 6), and in the Warta Mouth National Park (Photo 7).

 

Photo 5. Reedbed Phragmites in Odra Delta Nature Park

Photo 6. Reedbed Phragmites in Lower Odra Landscape Park

Photo 7. Reedbed Phragmites in Warta Mouth National Park

Cutting reedbeds can encourage Reed Canary Grass Phalaris arundinacea dominated meadows to form on more nutrient rich soils, or Sedge Carex spp. dominated on less nutrient rich sites. This management intervention was observed at the Odra Delta Nature Park (Photo 8) and the Lower Odra Landscape Park (Photo 9). The Phalaris and grass meadows provide better quality grazing than the sedge dominated meadow.

 

 

Photo 8. Sedge Carex spp. dominated meadow on less nutrient rich sites in Lower Odra Landscape Park

Photo 9. Reed Canary Grass Phalaris arundinacea dominated meadow in Lower Odra Landscape Park

Cessation of traditional management facilitates natural succession, leading to the inexorable march towards woodland formation.

Willow colonisation/Wet Woodland formation

Mature White Willows Salix alba, are a common landscape feature along the banks of the major river channels of the Odra/Oder and Warta rivers. Lower shrubby willows, mainly Osier S. viminalis, and Sallow, S. cinerea, sometimes with fewer Purple Willow, S. purpurea and occasional Almond Willow, S. triandra, are common around oxbows, but are more limited along the main channels. Within active hay meadows, willow scrub is largely limited to these peripheral oxbow habitats. However, once meadows are abandoned, and especially where fresh silt is deposited to create good seedbeds, the light-seeded willows can quickly colonise across the floodplain. Willows can also readily root and shoot from fragments of wood deposited on the floodplain following floods. Within a few years the habitat is being transformed into wet woodland.

Photo 10. 22 years of willow colonisation on the Odra floodplain at Gryfino in the Doliny Dolnej Odry (Lower Odra Landscape Park)

Photo 11. Willow woodland at Ujscie Warty (Warta Mouth National Park)

Process

Management that values the safe-guarding of ecological processes inevitably has to accept that natural succession takes place, and that habitats with their associated biodiversity will change over time. Here, it is the protection of the process that is important. Non-intervention becomes the conservation philosophy, and this underpins the rewilding agenda that has been recently gaining some momentum across Europe, including Scotland. While rewilding often focuses upon reintroductions of missing fauna, especially large herbivores and carnivores, it is the concept of non-intervention that is the key.

State

In contrast, much traditional management has focused upon maintaining a preferred state (a stage in succession), that can sustainably provide products (agricultural or biodiversity). These can be products like hay from meadows, grazing for domestic animals, or hunting or conservation of wildlife. For example, the traditional management of hay meadows has been undertaken for hundreds or thousands of years in western Pomerania. A wide variety of wildlife has become associated with this land use, and as this management has declined across much of Europe, so has much of this wildlife. Consequently, the remaining areas have become increasingly valued for nature conservation, attracting a series of designations. These designations recognise an intrinsic value, at a particular stage in succession, adding a time dimension as well as a space dimension to conservation management. As a result, management intervention will be required to maintain these in the preferred state in perpetuity.

In west Pomerania, there were good examples of both of these approaches: process/non-intervention; state/intervention.

Rewilding Europe is a network of organisations that promotes rewilding projects and ecotourism across Europe. They identify the Oder Delta (Poland and Germany) as (currently) one of nine key rewilding sites in Europe. Their 10 year vision (by 2025) is that the Oder Delta will become a region where the return of nature creates new sources of income and pride. They currently promote seven charismatic species – the Big Seven of the Oder Delta – to serve as the main attractions for ecotourism visitors: white-tailed eagle, European bison, beaver, elk, wolf, Atlantic sturgeon and grey seal. The vision of rewilding now has some traction in both German and Polish parts of the delta.

Photo 12. The Wild Hub along the Green Highways of Europe – Making the Oder Delta a wilder place for the benefit of nature and people. (Rewilding Europe 2015)

On the Polish side of the Odra River floodplain, the Doliny Dolnej Odry (Lower Odra Landscape Park) had seen a cessation of hay-meadow management (especially following the 1989 political changes), leading to a non-intervention process-based approach. This appears to have more to do with financial expediency (lack of resources) rather than a philosophical decision to rewild.

However, in the Ujscie Warty (Warta Mouth National Park), an EU funded LIFE project (Project LIFE09 NAT/PL/254) has recently been established to restore hay-meadow management from reedbed and willow scrub, recognising that maintaining state is important there. The aim of the project is to restitute (restore) and maintain the habitats of breeding waterfowl birds, nesting on the meadows (gulls, terns, plovers, some ducks and some other birds like corncrake) through keeping a specific stage of succession.

The key words are restore and keeping a specific stage of succession. Restoration is achieved by felling and removing tree and scrub encroachment, and the future maintenance at a specific stage of succession will be through hay cutting and grazing management. Some of the techniques used are covered in section 3 of this report.

On the German side of the Odra River floodplain, the Nationalpark Unteres Odertal (Lower Oder National Park) now proposes to allow 51% of the National Park to rewild. This will allow reedbeds and willow scrub/woodland to form, thus recognising that process is important there.

So paradoxically, the German side that had had more intervention management in recent decades is now going to allow substantial non-intervention/rewilding, while the Polish side that has been non-intervention for several decades is now beginning to promote intervention/restoration.

Ultimately, there is likely to be a blend of both intervention and non-intervention areas on each side of the Odra/Oder and on the Warta, with intervention being required to maintain the specific features, species and populations required to meet international conservation obligations such as Natura 2000 and Ramsar, while non-intervention is a low-cost pragmatic management choice to rewild in some areas. It remains to be seen whether the various site managers in western Pomerania can achieve an appropriate and sustainable balance between both approaches that is compatible with landscape scale and conservation designations.

Within the study team it was felt that in the small-scale and fragmented wetland sites that are managed directly by them in Scotland (lower Clyde floodplain and Loch Leven National Nature Reserve), intervention is inevitable to maintain intrinsic value and meet conservation obligations, but recognising that declining resources may inevitably lead to more non-intervention options being adopted.

Herbivores

Succession is kept in check by large herbivores. A limited number of species are referred to as keystone species or ecosystem engineers. That is they have a greater impact on the ecosystem than their size alone would imply. During the site visit we were delighted to see three herbivore species that have been classified as keystone species by Wildwood Trust (UK): beaver; wild boar; wild horses.

 

Photo 13. Beavers, through their dam building and tree-felling, alter local hydrology and remove trees from around wetlands that they create.

 

Photo 14. Wild boar, disturb shrub and herb layers of woodland and open areas, and especially soils, creating space for new seed beds

 

Photo 15. Wild horses graze and physically break-up vegetation stands, creating more diversity and arrest succession from scrub development.

In addition, cattle, simulating wild auroch, is also a significant grazing impact. These include a range of breeds including the familiar Scottish highland cattle.

Other large herbivores that currently have a limited presence in Western Pomerania are Bison and Elk. Both species are expected to benefit through site management and become more widespread in the future. Both of these species are significant keystone species, and will constrain succession to woodland even further.

The long-term ecologically sustainable management of the wetland landscape of the Odra will involve all six of these key herbivores.

Nutrients (Eutrophication)

An important ecological impact has been water quality, specifically the nutrient status. Large amounts of fertilisers were used on agricultural land on both sides of the Odra from 1945 until 1989, when large-scale abandonment led to reductions of these inputs. This also coincided with widespread reductions in fertiliser application across Europe from the 1990s, following a 1991 EU directive. Reductions in nitrates and phosphates impact on the wetlands by reducing homogenisation from a small number of fast-growing species that can form dense stands with high levels of fertilizers; these include Phragmites and Phalaris. This enables a wider range of plant species to coexist.

 

Of the many Natura 2000 sites visited during the week-long trip, we learned the management of some was often guided by plans which detailed protection activities rather than the exhaustive management measures we are used to in Scotland. This difference generated much discussion throughout the week, encouraging participants to compare and contrast their own experiences of the management of nature conservation sites in the UK with the ones we visited in Western Pomerania. The other key theme which arose time and again during the trip was that of resource and funding. It was apparent through the whole trip that the cultural make-up of the area, and therefore the prevalent attitudes towards nature conservation were drastically different to what we are used to in Scotland and the rest of the UK. It is important that this understanding offers a backdrop to the focus of this report. It is also important to note that the enthusiasm, passion and determination of the individuals of all the conservationists we met were infectious.

Cultural context and conservation techniques

Many of the sites this trip encompassed were historically managed agricultural sites which existed under the Kolkhoz system of farming; a collective farming initiative adopted during the soviet communist dominance of the area after the Second World War. After 1989 however, and the cessation of the kolkhoz system in Western Pomerania, the meadows which had been managed extensively for many years were abandoned, allowing much of the vegetation to succeed to tall, rank grassland of a homogenous nature and scrub, offering little in the way of biodiversity and no longer able to support the assemblage of wildlife that once lived there.

The Odra Delta Nature Park was one such site. Situated in the lowland area between the Odra River and the south – eastern corner of the Szczecin lagoon, it encompasses parts of two Natura 2000 sites and covers approximately 1,000 ha. It is made up predominantly of meadows and pastures and is managed by the EUCC-Poland (Society for the coast). The organisation is headed up by Chairman Kazimierz Rabski; our lead guide for the duration of the visit. Kazimierz and his team graze the meadows with 139 Konik ponies and 229 head Scottish highland cattle and cut the meadow for hay in the autumn. The main management objectives for the site are to re-wet the meadows to a more wet grassland make-up, through a low intensity regime of grazing at a rate of 0.5 – 0.7 livestock units per hectare, alongside cutting combined with managing the existing hydrological system to develop habitats that promote an increase in the diversity of flora and fauna.

Both grazing animals used offer distinct behaviours which produce a varied sward height; generally each animal selects certain more nutritious and palatable grass and flower species and allows a myriad of other species to remain and flourish alongside high and low grasses, herbs, clumps of turf exposed as a result of treading, divots and tussocks, all of which are important for invertebrate species.

Photo 16. The Konik ponies were a novel sight for many among the group

 

The koniks (meaning ‘small horse’), are acknowledged as playing a key role in terms of altering their surroundings as they graze, in this instance for the benefit of other wildlife such as breeding and wintering wildfowl and wading birds. The Konik breed descends directly from the Tarpan, a wild European forest horse which survived in central Europe and in Poland specifically, until the early 20th century. Being a native breed, the Koniks are well adapted for life out on the West Pomeranian meadows all year round, and, like their ginger Scottish counterparts, move through the vegetation slowly, allowing breeding birds time to alert them to their presence and avoid a nest getting trampled.

The highland cattle offer a subtly different grazing technique to the Koniks, and the two animals maintain the height of vegetation and the make-up of species in a more favourable state than cutting alone would allow.

Photo 17. Highland cattle are hardy enough to stay out on the meadow year round

The use of Konik ponies for conservation grazing has gained interest and intrigue in other parts of Europe in the nature conservation world too – there has for some time now been a herd of Konik Horses at two RSPB Nature reserves, namely RSPB Blacktoft Sands in Yorkshire and RSPB Scotland Loch of Strathbeg in Fraserburgh. There, the large herbivores are delivering for conservation. It was in Wicken Fen, Cambridgeshire, in 2001, that the National Trust became the first of what are now a handful of users in Britain.

2001. Eight Polish Konik horses were brought to Wicken Fen from a herd run by the Suffolk Wildlife Trust and now form a separate breeding herd.

2002. Introduced to wetlands at Stod Marsh and Ham Fen in Kent. English Nature & Kent Wildlife Trust & Wildwood Trust.

2009. Introduced to Wraik Hall nature reserve near Whitstable (Kent), which is known for its many nightingales and warblers.

2009. Seven Polish ponies introduced to RSPB North Warren nature reserve, near Aldeburgh to assist in managing habitat for lapwing.

2011. 4 introduced to RSPB Blacktoft Sands, Humberside.

2011. 8 introduced to RSPB Loch of Strathbeg, plus an additional 4 in 2012.

2012. 60 imported from Holland to the 150ha wetlands of Wicken Fen

Another topic which was discussed repeatedly during the trip was that of subsidies for graziers through agri-environment schemes and how the amounts paid can often make it difficult for conservationists to attract graziers to graze land for conservation aims. At the Odra Delta Nature Park, this issue wasn’t quite so prevalent because the animals belonged to the Park from what we could understand. That being said, translation was not at all times easy for either the Polish or English speaking of our party, so perhaps we didn’t understand this particular point accurately! At the Uneters Odertal National Park, it was certainly the case that the grazers could make as much money grazing on a designated site for conservation as on a commercial grazing site.

Hydrological management

Many of the habitat management challenges specific to the sites we visited during the course of the trip are similar to those faced by conservationists in the UK, and the issues we discussed certainly resonated with members of our group. As with all wetlands, hydrological management was repeatedly discussed as being the most important management tool with which the grazing and cutting regime acts in combination.

Photo 18. A ditch in which we saw snipe feeding

At the Odra Delta Nature Park, windmills were firstly utilised to draw in water from deeper ditches, and channel it into sections of the meadows that were drier, thereby wetting the vegetation and providing good feeding habitat for nesting wading birds such as redshank Tringa totanus and lapwing Vanellus vanellus among other species. In addition, this habitat would benefit dabbling duck species such as mallard Anas platyrhynchos and gadwall Anas strepera. This method of hydrological manipulation appears to have satisfied all the practical and conservation – aimed objectives. Indeed it is a technique utilised at sites in the UK. It offers a management – light, sustainable method which would also reduce the stagnation of water in the slow moving ditches we saw scattered around the site. Sadly however, we learned from Kazimierz that shortly after their installation, the windmills at the Nature Park succumbed to an all too familiar menace – theft. I was particularly interested to learn of this, as I, like other members of the group, have experience of working on sites in close proximity to urban populations and am used to the associated challenges this brings.

Whilst discussing the hydrology and how best to manage it for the biggest ecological benefit, our group was able to offer adequate experience of similar challenges faced in Scotland, and we contemplated how a similar effect could be achieved through the use of pipe dam – type structures. This approach would arguably be less conspicuous than windmills and would allow fine–tuned water management between wet ditches and individual management areas. This approach, used in conjunction with the outlined conservation grazing plan and cutting would achieve a viable solution to the current challenges. The benefit of this type of hydrological management regime is that grazing could then be introduced on prescribed management units when water levels allow, providing early access for the grazing animals, whilst other areas are kept wetter for longer, ensuring sufficient feeding areas for waders in to early summer. This technique would address the difficulties faced by Kazimierz and his team in attempting to wet the meadows, when the agenda of the local water management agency seems to be to keep the site dry.

We discussed with Kazimierz the artificial bund which was created as a flood defence and how, ideally, he would prefer this barrier between the park and lagoon was removed and the area left to flood naturally. This became an increasingly interesting debate as the week progressed and we visited other sites around the region which were opting for a much more ‘hands off’, zero intervention approach which led us to pose the question of whether or not there was a wider strategic direction driving the nature conservation movement in Poland.

Photo 19. Dominic discusses with the group the habitat requirements of aquatic warbler

In a more general sense, it was apparent through our discussions with Kazimierz, that he along with other conservationists in Poland, understands that despite local hydrological management initiatives, they are, as site managers, at the whim of the wider water catchment, i.e. the Odra River catchment and that if issues remain with the wider catchment it will always be challenging to manage the site as intended to create the ideal habitats for their priority species. However, it was very encouraging that, during the trip in general, it was clear that there is an understanding in the region that where the natural hydrological regime of a wetland remains intact the best conservation action is to understand and safeguard the naturally functioning hydrology.

 

Case Study – Aquatic warbler

At another site we visited near to the town of Gryfino, with representatives from Western Pomeranian Regional Landscape Parks and an ornithologist from the Western Pomerania Nature Society, we discussed the decline in aquatic warbler Acrocephalus paludicola from 70 singing males in the 1990’s to zero singing males on the site today. Aquatic warblers are a globally threatened and declining migrant passerine species which act as a good indicator species for the health of fen mire habitat. They are a specialist species, and are not particularly easy to manage for as different habitat requirements, such as vegetation height, available prey biomass and litter vegetation mass are more or less important as they switch from their first brood to their second. Dominic explained that a combination of recent dry years paired with a lack of management of the meadow habitat had resulted in poor habitat for this species in particular. In a wider sense, climate change could also be a key factor in the species’ demise, as could the myriad of threats encountered by any migrant species. A LIFE project was underway to attempt to understand and address the reasons for this decline and to introduce a more hands – on approach to habitat management on historical aquatic warbler sites. Apparent here once again though was the restrictions that loom over such projects in the way of funding and resource and it begged the question of what will likely happen once the funding stops?

Photo 20. This site is being managed to encourage a breeding population of aquatic warbler

One arm of the project here was focusing on maintaining sluice structures that had fallen into disrepair over recent years and that now either failed to hold water properly, thus struggling to keep vegetation wet enough, or that failed to allow water to flow properly out of management areas after high water events. In conjunction with this infrastructure maintenance, vegetation will be mowed in the winter and the arisings removed, to create ideally vegetation 60 – 70 cm in height, for the birds’ arrival in spring. The objective is to achieve 5 cm water over the majority of the site whilst maintaining an overall heterogeneity of habitat including tussocks of sedges and some dry plant material where they can nest.

Photo 21. Sluice gates like this one are due to be maintained

An interesting discussion point here was ‘how much resource should we put in to bring species back to areas from which they are now lost’? This region is, after all, the last large western population and is therefore of particular significance. This is also a species which is more likely to occur in areas where there is low isolation from other aquatic warbler sites, so as the western Pomeranian population declines; the likelihood of getting the species back dwindles. This debate was given particular significance at this site because of the globally threatened status of aquatic warbler and to what extent climate change in a wider sense might be affecting this species. This is certainly a topic that had a significant impact on many in our group who have experienced this challenge in the UK and it was interesting to hear how our counterparts in Poland are approaching such a paradox.

 

Key findings

  • A robust set of protected areas/legislation and powers have evolved in Poland, and these will play a valuable role in government-driven protection of habitats and species.
  • Natura 2000 now underpins current protection and, from the available evidence, is at the fore of all site managers’ minds.
  • Natura features vs. Rewilding dilemmas are evident in the biodiversity planning and in the site conservation management planning
  • Adequate resources and funding was a constant issue
  • Declining resources may inevitably lead to more non-intervention options being adopted
  • Intervention is necessary to maintain intrinsic value and meet conservation condition obligations required by Natura 2000.
  •  Maintaining, protecting and improving habitats beyond protected areas is a future challenge, which current legislation does not address.
  • Site management was often guided by plans of strict protection measures rather than the more wide-ranging management we use in Scotland

 

  • The enthusiasm, passion and determination of the individual conservationists we met was infectious.

 

We would like to finish off with a tribute to our Polish friends (with apologies to Winston Churchill):

“Never before in the field of biodiversity was so much protection owed by so many species to so few nature conservationists”.

 

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank Libby Urquhart & Kazimierz Rabski for all their work in organising this Arch network visit which was funded by Erasmus +. The visit was hosted by EUCC Poland. We are grateful to everyone who took time to show us around, participate in our discussions and answer our endless stream of questions.

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