Bird Conservation and Habitat Management
Written by Pardeep Chand (Biodiversity Projects Officer, North Lanarkshire Council)
Poland is a country rich in natural heritage. My initial impressions of Poland when driving from Poznań Airport to Słońsk were of a land dominated by large swathes of agricultural countryside intersected by large areas of woodland. The pockets of woodland and linear belts were impressive; impressive in that it provided significant wildlife corridors for dispersal as well as providing habitat connectivity through agricultural land. The scale of forested land alongside agriculture is greater than that in the UK. Approximately 30% of Poland is afforested, compared to 12% in the UK. Poland is a country of approximately 332,000km with a population of 39 million. It is split into 16 provinces, or Vovoidships, as they are known in Poland. During this trip we visited habitats associated with the Odra River in West Pomerania region, in particular wetland systems.
My particular interest lies in ornithology and wetland habitat management. This Nature Exchange, organised by ‘Society For The Coast’, allowed for a detailed insight into nature conservation issues in Poland and visited some key wetland sites not only in Poland but also in Europe. Poland has a rich assemblage of bird species, breeding, migratory and overwintering (see Appendix for a list of bird species recorded during this year’s Nature Exchange). Large, undisturbed areas are one of the reasons for this. Poland has 291 bird species, 8 of which are listed Globally Threatened and 175 IBA’s (Important Bird Areas). Poland has 23 National Park which receive the highest level of protection in Poland.
Poland has 8 sites designated as Wetlands of International Importance (RAMSAR), with a combined surface area of 90,455 hectares. Our first full day in Poland involved a visit to one of these RAMSAR sites, Ujście Warty National Park (Warta Mouth National Park). After a welcome from National Park staff, a comprehensive presentation was given and provided an overview of the history of the Park, key flora and fauna and habitat management.
Ujście Warty National Park was designated in 2001 and first became a nature reserve in 1977 when Słońsk Nature Reserve was formed due to its importance for migratory and wintering bird assemblage. The symbol of the park is a Bean Goose, of which this species makes up a large part of wintering wildfowl. In 1996 it was then designated as a Landscape Park, which is a regional designation. Only National Parks are afforded more protection. In 2004, it was designated a Natura 2000 site due to its birds and habitat. The presentation also mentioned key species.
The National Park has a buffer of 10453 hectares and split into 3 protection zones and exhibits annual changes in water level caused by rainfall, water fluctuation can reach up to 4m. Only 1% (18ha) is woodland. The Warta River and Postomia River run through the park and converge at the south west corner of the National Park. A levee runs through the site and essentially splits the site in two, with differing water levels on each side. There is no infrastructure to actively manage water levels within the whole park and water levels can change year to year as a result of rainfall. Historically, the site would have been covered in willow-poplar and ash-alder riparian forest but much of this was cleared during the 18th Century to make way for agricultural land. The semi-natural habitat, consisting of canals, flood banks and meadows creates a dynamic wetland ecosystem with a mosaic of habitats.
Following the presentation, we were treated to a spectacular boat trip through the National Park. In the afternoon, we were taken on a tour around the park by the Director to look at some of the management issues.
The abundance of birdlife was breath taking. I have never seen such a high density of White-tailed Eagle in one area, and was a stark contrast to the species abundance in Scotland, where it is has been recently re-introduced after being hunted to extinction. There was also large number of wildfowl, as was highlighted within the earlier presentation. We saw many species of terns, wildfowl and waders. A key species which we unfortunately did not see was Red-necked Grebe. Red-necked Grebe is a rare breeder in Poland. It is declining nationally but numbers are stable within the National Park with 10-20 pairs breeding annually depending on water levels. Birds are key species in terms of the overall management of the site. Around 270 species have been recorded within the park, with 70 breeding species. It is also an important site for migratory and wintering birds. Up to 19,000 migratory Common Crane have been recorded, with peak numbers at the beginning of October.
A significant number of Geese overwinter at the site, and it is of European importance. Up to 200,000 geese have been recorded, but numbers usually range between 40-60,000. The site is also important for moulting Swans, which we saw many of during the boat trip. It was interesting to note that Common Coot is a species of conservation concern in Poland. In the UK Coot numbers are stable, however, in Poland the species has been suffering from sustained decline nationally and on an annual basis. Within the National Park, there were 10-14,000 breeding pairs during the 1980s, now there are only 300 breeding pairs. The reason for this dramatic decline may be due to the impact of non-native invasive American Mink which have escaped or released from Mink farms. The park has received funding from EU Life to tackle invasive species such as Mink and Racoon. As in the UK, waders are declining in Poland. Both Lapwing and Redshank are declining nationally but numbers are stable within the National Park, which is an indication of the positive habitat management works undertaken. To ensure optimum conditions and prevent scrub from dominating open breeding wader habitats, an EU Life funding grant was awarded to prevent succession. A mowing and grazing scheme is implemented to create optimum conditions for a number of bird species, with land leased out to local graziers. Much of this habitat work is similar in nature to that in the UK. Other key breeding species within the National Park include Corncrake and Aquatic Warbler. Although much of the habitat works are focussed to maintain/increase numbers of key bird species, the overall biodiversity of the site was very impressive, with 35 fish species present and mammals such as Otter and Beaver thriving in the park.
Common Crane, Ujscie Warty National Park, 10-20 pairs breed annually
My overall impression of Ujście Warty National Park is that management for biodiversity is a priority. In a sense it is more ‘protectionist’ than say a similar nationally protected site in Scotland. For example, the boat trip is not possible to the public. In fact, there is no public access in the centre of the site and sensitive wetland habitat. This is to reduce human disturbance. In Scotland and through experience in my current job, it is very difficult to prevent access to sensitive wetland sites, even when managed. There are many stakeholders, whose interests at times are at stark contrast to conservationists
In terms of access and interpretation I was impressed with how well the site caters for nature based tourism. A site such as this provides a fantastic experience to view many species of birds within their natural habitat. Leaflets, bird lists and interpretation boards provide clear detailed information about the National Park. There is 60km of roads within the park that tourists can access as well as a number of birdwatching and cycle trails. There are also bird hides, viewing platforms and viewing towers allowing people to view birds without causing disturbance. Ujście Warty National Park is very popular with fisherman. Fishing can only take place within a specific season and it was interesting to note that in terms of visitor management, both wildlife enthusiasts and fishing is well catered for. In the UK, fishing within sensitive wildlife sites can lead to much friction between different user groups.
From the various sites we visited along the Odra Delta, I was impressed with the visitor infrastructure. This part of West Pomeranian Region has a large tourist industry and due to the nature of the sensitive habitat associated with landscape, a fine balance has been struck with access and wildlife. Nature based tourism in Scotland provides employment for 200,000 people and generates £4 billon in visitor spending. Although still regarded a niche market it still makes up 40% of all tourist based spending in Scotland. During our second day, we visited a number of sites within the Lower Odra Delta Landscape Park. Landscape Park is a regional designation, with only National Parks afforded a higher level of protection in Poland. Western Pomerania Regional Landscape Parks was founded in 2012 and manage 6 parks; Dolin Dolnej Odry, Drawski, Inski, Ujście Warty (small part of the National Park), Szczecinki and Cedynski. Despite only having 8 members of staff, I was very impressed with the knowledge and the number of projects carried out at some of the sites we visited. Each Landscape Park is unique with the main aim to protect nature and landscape conservation as well as protecting cultural heritage and promoting tourism. Information booklets produced by the Landscape Park authority provides detailed information to tourists about the different parks and activities which can be undertaken such as fishing, water sports and canoeing. Nature trails are promoted as well such as the Five Lakes Valley trail which is 5km long. We visited some of the lakes, a unique and pleasant habitat with Beech woodland and 5 ribbon lakes formed from glacial activity. In the UK, partnership working is an important part of conservation projects. We were shown partnership projects in the Lower Odra Delta where an NGO manages an area of dry grassland, a rare habitat under threat from agricultural intensification. It was also positive to note that the Landscape Park authority work closely with their German counterparts to ensure common habitat management targets is met. We were also shown some potential future projects aimed to boost tourism in the area. At Siekierki, there was an old railway military bridge which built post war due to its strategic location (40km from Berlin). It was never used and has fallen into disrepair. However, there are aspirations to repair and incorporate it into a long distance cycle/pedestrian route. The site was also rich in ornithology, with large numbers of White-winged Black Terns feeding over the Odra. We were also shown an agri-environment scheme where an area was mowed and grazed with aim to enhance biodiversity. Before, it was a monoculture landscape, but is now a mosaic of habitats. As I work in local authority, I know the importance of projects such as this and actively engaging with local landowners.
This mosaic approach to habitat management was again evident when we visited the Odra Delta Nature Park. Located near the village of Czarnocin, Odra Delta Nature Park covers 4000 Ha of coastal wetlands, forest and open water. It is managed by the Society For the Coast and ownership consists of Society For the Coast, National Forestry and the Maritime Office. The site is protected under Natura 2000. Since management works have been undertaken, the main aim has been to address impacts of enriched grassland and reeds. Much of the meadows became overgrown when many of the farms were abandoned during the early 1990s. Recent management through grazing (Highland cattle and Konik ponies) has resulted in open wet grassland with wet reed marshes, drier grassland and scrub. Effectively a mosaic habitat, this has been beneficial for a wide range of species. This ‘mosaic’ habitat approach differs slightly to site management commonly practiced in Scotland. In Scotland, management is guided by priority species and habitat action plans – with management objectives aimed at increase their numbers or improving their habitat. Like many of the sites we visited in Poland, interpretation and access through the Park were of a high standard. Two observation towers are within the park providing good vantage points over the reserve.
Observation Tower at Odra Delta Nature Park
I was particularly impressed with the community engagement programme undertaken by the Society of the Coast. In North Lanarkshire, community engagement is a key element to site management as well as when undertaking new projects. It seemed that Odra Delta Nature Park provides a focal point for the local area, as well as boosting income via ecotourism.
To summarise, I was hugely impressed with the dedication, enthusiasm and commitment our peers in Poland had towards improving biodiversity. We were provided with a comprehensive overview of nature conservation in Poland. From learning of Boleslaw Chrobry (976-1025) who is recognised as being the first conservationist in Poland (protecting Beavers when their pelts were used as currency) to learning about current conservation success stories such as the Wolf re-colonising former ranges.
I would like to thank our host Kazimierz Rabski and all the staff from the National Parks and Landscape Parks who made the visit a fantastic experience.