Wetland & Coastal Management in the Odra Delta – a model for Mersehead?

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By Lana Blakely, RSPB

In June I was fortunate enough to be able to attend an Erasmus + funded NET programme, which is run by Archnetwork. To give a bit of context Erasmus + is an EU programme managed in the UK. It gives UK organisations and individuals the chance to gain new skills, study, or volunteer abroad. Archnetwork was established in 2001 and is best known for its Nature Exchange and Heritage Interpretation and Sustainable Tourism training trips which focus on the fields of nature conservation, management and interpretation.

During the week we visited a variety of reserves, from National Parks to Landscape Parks. Poland has a variety of different types of designations which each have varying levels of protection.

As well as seeing the fantastic wildlife and habitats that Poland has to offer, we also got to hear about the unique and all too familiar challenges that the conservation sector in Poland faces.

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Our trip was mainly focused on the area surrounding the Odra Delta. To give a wider context this area is located in West Pomerania, in North West Poland. On the western banks of the Odra River lies Germany, and to the North, the Baltic Sea, where the Odra River ends its journey.

The first leg of our trip saw us predominately in the South of the region where there is a mix of extensive wetlands, lowland farmland, forests, and the Odra River and its tributaries.

In the latter half of the week we visited a variety of different wetland habitats as well as the coast.

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The region has a turbulent past; during the 18th century West Pomerania was part of Prussia, then Germany invaded at the start of WW2. Post war, the region came under occupation of Soviet Rule. Many Germans in the area were either deported or fled, and people from other parts of Poland were brought in to settle the area and start new lives. Because of this there was a lack of connection to the land, both historically and culturally and so when the communist regime collapsed, much of the land was abandoned. This has given rise to a wide variety of landscapes that benefit wildlife, from wildflower rich verges, mixed scrub, and wetland and forest.

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As with the UK, there are varying levels of protection in Poland and large areas of the province are designated. Below is the list of designations for the West Pomeranian region. As mentioned before, the variety of wildlife is diverse not just in these protected areas, but outwith in the wider landscape as well. Farmland is mainly low input and extensive, which gives wildlife a chance to coexist alongside humans. Even driving through ‘normal’ villages and towns, birds such as Common Redstart, Black Redstart and White Storks were common occurrences.

Here is a quick overview of the different Parks and reserves that we visited throughout the week. I will go through some my personal highlights of the trip, giving an overview of the habitats and wildlife that can be found in these places, the challenges that are being faced, and what type of protection that designation affords.

Ujscie Warty National Park is located in the South West corner of West Pomerania. The Park borders the Odra River and Germany to the East. It is a huge wetland complex with the Warta River running through the middle of it.

National Parks in Poland offer the highest level of protection and are designated for their social, cultural, educational, environmental or scientific value. The overarching piece of legislation that guides nature conservation in Poland is called The Protection of Nature Act which was established in 2004. This Act defines Poland’s protection aims, conservation principles, types and levels of designation, and has the overall aim of protecting wildlife, living resources, landscapes and ‘inanimate nature’.

National Parks in Poland can be no less than 1000ha. They are largely owned by the state and managed by the Ministry of the Environment, whereas in the UK National Parks are designated areas that contain towns, villages, individual landowners, NGO’s, estates, and many more. Each Park in the UK has a National Park Authority team that try to manage and look after the landscape within the Park and work with other organisations to achieve this. A critical difference in how the two different countries protect and manage their National Parks comes down to the small print. Where Poland’s National Parks are broadly designated to preserve the wildlife and landscapes within the park, the UK’s National Parks have the added aims of conserving and enhancing the areas cultural heritage and in Scotland ‘to promote sustainable economic and social development of the area’s communities. Scotland has the additional aim of ‘promoting sustainable use of the natural resources of the area’. Poland also has the additional benefit (in a wildlife conservation sense) of designating areas of the Park as ‘Strict Reserves’. This is an area that is restricted to Park staff only, meaning that disturbance is kept to a minimum. I found the Polish National Park’s model much more favourable and beneficial to wildlife than the UK’s version. There seems to be a lot of conflict in the UK between conserving natural heritage and cultural heritage, where nature seems to be on the losing side in a lot of areas.

There are 23 National Park’s in Poland, with Ujscie Warty being the youngest when it was established in 2001. It is a Ramsar and Natura 2000 site and at 8000ha/80.38 square kilometres is average size for a National Park in Poland.

This is a map from c.1720. At this time the Warta River wound its way towards the Odra River, creating a vast delta, where there were many tributaries, islets and shallow backwaters.

During the second half of the 18th Century Frederik the Great started a large land reclamation project as the area was deigned to be strategically important at the time. In order to settle people and start farming a number of works were carried out including:

  • The Warta River being straightened, widened and embanked to the north.
  • A network of drainage ditches were dug to the north of the river where the river was now separate from the influence of the Warta River and a series of dams and pumps which could still utilise the water but in a controlled way when the farmers needed it.
  • A channel was dug which is several kilometres long and which joins the river to the Odra and so became the new mouth of the River Warta
  • The old mouth of the river was blocked
  • Vast tracks of wet woodland were cleared
  • To the south of the river the habitat was left to a certain extent to act as a reservoir

As a result of all of this work 30,000ha was separated from the influence of the Warta’s floodwater.

This is the reserve today. You can see the remnants of where the Warta River used to flow and how straight and wide the Warta is. The wetland habitat is separated into two distinct parts; the Northern Polder, which is still transected by ditches and heavily influenced by man, and the southern section, which is designated as the strict reserve area and is largely left unmanaged and continues to act as a natural floodplain where water levels can fluctuate by as much as 4m in a year.

Here is a closer view of the southern section. You can see the area is a complex mosaic of wetland habitats, with large stands of reeds, open water, shallow, muddy edges along open areas which are great for breeding waders, oxbows and tributaries with dense areas of lilypads which attract species just as Black Tern and Black-necked Grebe.

We were lucky enough to be taken out on boats by the Rangers of the park in the restricted southern section. Here are a couple of pictures ‘on the ground’ where you can see the variety of habitats; on the left willow, deadwood and reed stands where we saw many White-tailed Eagles (at one point four flew out of a small stand of willow). In the photo on the right you can see an example of the more open areas with shallow muddy edges which are great for breeding waders such as Lapwing and Redshank. We were told that due to the heatwave they were experiencing the water levels were extremely low and areas that are usually cut off from predators such as in channel islets were now accessible leading to high rates of predation. The Black-necked Grebes failed to breed entirely. With extreme weather events becoming ever more common due to climate change the naturally fluctuating water levels could lead to many bird species populations becoming vulnerable.

Here is a close up of the Northern Polder. As mentioned previously, the Warta River you can see at the bottom of the slide is completely separated from the northern section and its ditch system. The ditches are regulated by various pumps as well as 3 dams and 50 sluices which can hold water back to keep ditches higher if needs be. Where the southern section is left to its own devices, the northern section is managed as traditional hay meadows for declining breeding birds so a regime of low intensity grazing and cutting is carried out. This type extensive farming is no longer commercially viable, so graziers are part of agri-environment schemes so grazing their animals is financially sustainable, but they are essentially paid to maintain the habitat for nature conservation.

5000ha are rented out to 55 farmers for grazing which is a massive logistical undertaking and incredibly is managed by only one ranger! This one ranger liaises with and organises all of the grazing lets every year and on top of that also has to maintain and manage 50 sluices! To keep the landscape open the waterways act as natural ‘fences’. Cattle graze at low levels (roughly 0.7 lsu/ha) from 15th June onwards, as per the agri-environment scheme prescriptions, until autumn or early winter depending on the weather. With just one person dealing with all those farmers and managing water levels you would imagine there would be some challenges that come with this and that is indeed the case. Whilst we were there (prior to 15th June) we noted that cattle were already on some of the sections. The ranger told us he is unable to have enough presence to enforce the grazing regime at times. He also said that some farmers ‘help out’ by adjusting the sluices to manipulate water levels that suits cattle but inadvertently may not suit the breeding birds at that point in the season.

The park has an incredible variety of wildlife, both in terms of diversity and sheer numbers. Below is an overview as well as some of the highlights that can be found at the Park:

  • 5 frog species; the most common of which is the edible and Marsh frogs.
  • Two species of toad; including the Natterjack Toad which is a key species for us at RSPB Mersehead, so it was interesting to see the different habitats that the toads were utilising there, such as reedbed pools. At Mersehead the toads only utilise dune slack pools.
  • Key mammal species include Beavers, Otters, Stoat, Badger, Wild Boar and Deer.
  • The main draw to the park for many people is the incredible variety and amount of bird life, with over 280 species recorded, 170 of which are breeding including rare species such as Aquatic Warbler, Black Tern, Whiskered Tern, Corncrake and Spotted Crake.
  • It is an important site for many waterbirds, especially during spring and autumn migration, for example 60,000 White-fronted Geese, 130,000 Bean Geese (which happens to be the parks emblem), 500 Great White Egrets, 3000 Whooper Swans, and 19,000 Common Cranes.
  • In winter the southern section becomes for all intents and purposes a lake. 50,000 geese remain throughout the winter including 5% of the European population of White-Fronted Geese, 30% of the European population of Bean Geese. It is also an important wintering ground for White-tailed eagles which are attracted by all the other wintering birds.
  • There are 35 species of fish recorded including Northern Pike, Bream, Perch, as well as declining species such as Brown Trout and Salmon that use the area to migrate through and spawn in.

Unfortunately, as with many areas in the UK, including Mersehead, Ujscie Warty has a problem with invasive species such as American Mink. Poland still has fur farms, including a huge one only 5km away which is absolutely huge at 3km long! Inevitably, escapes do happen and Ujscie Warty is a great habitat for them. There are also invasive plants such as Canadian Goldenrod and surprisingly (to me) American Racoon’s. The populations of mink and racoon are quite large and so there is massive pressure on the native wildlife including many species of ground nesting birds.

Ujscie Warty has the lowest number of staff for any National Park in Poland and so although this is one of the biggest challenges for the park, they are unable to make a real impact due to staff numbers and lack of funding and resources. Currently, staff carry out roadkill survey’s to and from work to make the most of staff time. There has also been a project of monitoring mink by putting out floating rafts. Both the mink and racoon are controlled at the start of the breeding season but despite this the population is unfortunately still rising.

On a slightly more positive note, the park has had some major EU Life funding in the last few years. This has been targeted at the northern section of the park. As the traditional hay making and extensive grazing that so many breeding waterfowl and waders find so attractive to nest in, became commercially unviable, the habitat turned from open hay meadows to dense reedbed and willow scrub. This project is restoring and maintaining the wet hay meadows for the benefit of birds like terns, plovers, gulls, and in some areas Corncrake, through extensive grazing and cutting, and removing tree and scrub encroachment.

Next, we visited Insko Landscape Park. This park is situated in the eastern part of West Pomerania and contains three nature reserves and the town of Insko itself. It protects a diverse mix of habitats including a large part of the lake itself, known for its population of Noble Crayfish, which symbolises the cleanliness of the water. Other habitats include wet wooded valleys and bogs, and wet meadows. It holds a number of important breeding birds such as Black Stork, White Stork, Marsh Harrier and Lesser Spotted Eagle. It also has one of the highest densities of breeding cranes in Poland.

Landscape Parks differ from National Parks in that they are owned by many different bodies, from private landowners, local authorities and NGO’s, and communities instead of the Ministry of the Environment. They have much more provision for infrastructure and tourism. I really liked the fact that they have areas that are geared towards sustainable tourism and protected areas such as nature reserves that are not promoted at all but are not restricted like the Polish National Parks. To me, Landscape Parks are similar to National Parks in the UK.

One example of these important habitats is the Borbagno Mialka Nature Reserve which was established in 1981. It is predominantly a peat bog with beech forest surrounding the area. Not only is it an important carbon sink but the surrounding beech forest provides the ideal breeding ground for a large population of breeding Crane.

Beavers are also present across the site, as can be seen from the picture on the right. We were told by our guide that many people, himself included, consider the population of Beavers in Poland to be too big and are causing issues to humans and animals alike. Things like power lines being felled and or obstructions being created is probably to be expected to some extent but what I personally hadn’t factored in was the potentially negative impact that Beavers can have on other declining species such as breeding and migrating Brown Trout and Salmon. We were shown a slow meandering river that had multiple Beaver dams on it but were told that it used to be a fast flowing river with gravel beds which were perfect for these species to spawn in but the dams had slowed the flow of the river and so had silted up the gravel beds and made the conditions unsuitable for spawning.

This is Insko Lake and the area where sustainable tourism is being promoted. As the park only employs 10 members of staff the only way to achieve anything is to work with other Partners. This has been very successful for the team as they have worked with the local community to revitalise the town. This has included erecting a viewing tower which you can see in the background of the photo amongst the trees, a boardwalk, some really nice interpretation, and electric powered motorboats.

Here is the tower and its amazing view. All the projects mentioned came about after the landscape park staff organised multiple community engagement meetings, asking how they would like to develop their area. Due to this engagement with the community, the town now feel a real sense of pride and ownership of the infrastructure.

Again, as with many other places, the lake is facing issues from invasive non-native species; in this case the American Signal Crayfish. This large Crayfish is outcompeting the native Noble Crayfish that the town is famous for.

Another Landscape Park we visited was Ujscie Warty Landscape Park. Adjacent to the Odra River, this used to be a sand quarry which was then flooded when quarrying finished. Terns (such as Little and Black) and gulls attempted to nest on small sandy islets that had formed but generally failed as predators were able to access the island. Three year’s ago the Landscape Park team came up with the idea to create floating rafts that have a small fence around it that would deter predators. The mayor of the region was initially set against the idea but after much persuasion from the Landscape Park team they were able to secure funding. The rafts have been successful from the off, and now regularly attract around 200 breeding pairs of Black Tern and 70 Common Tern, as well as breeding Little Tern and Ringed Plover. As an added bonus, the mayor has been very impressed with the project and now sings their praises!

Situated in the North-east of the region is Dabskie Lake, and as well as being one of Poland’s largest lakes at 56skm, it is also interesting as it is teeming with wildlife but has the city of Szczecin right on its shores. One of the star species on the lake is its population of White-tailed Eagles, which is one of the largest in Poland, if not Europe; over 150 spend the winter there. It also has a huge cormorant colony, which reaches a staggering 30,000-50,000 pairs according to our guide. Amphibians such as Edible and Marsh Frog were abundant whilst we explored the tributaries around the numerous islands, as well as abundant birdlife including Whiskered and Black Tern, and Great Reed Warbler.

The above two slides show the city of Szczecin and the heavy industry on the lake shores.

The above slide shows how tranquil the lake is just a five-minute boat ride from the city. Another reason wildlife is abundant is the islands on the lake are owned by the forestry and are not accessible; meaning despite wildlife being in close proximity to the city, it was left undisturbed. People were able to fish on the lake and there were pontoons with benches that had been installed where people could moor up and have a picnic. I thought having the pontoons was a great idea as it works for both wildlife and people; the wildlife is not disturbed with people mooring up anywhere and people are able to spend a day out on the lake and connect with nature, with the infrastructure to support that.

One of the sites I was most interested in seeing was Odra Delta Nature Park, that was founded by our host for the week, Kazimierz Rabski. The reserve is based in the north of the region and is 4000ha in total; 1000ha are owned by the Society for the Coast, 400ha Forestry and a further 2600ha of lagoon, which is owned by the state maritime.

The area was intensively farmed under Soviet rule, with milk, beef and hay-making being the main forms of income. Lots of fertilisers and pesticides were used and large numbers of livestock were grazed across the site. We were told that because of the lack of connection to the land as well as lack of skill of workers due to coming from a non-farming background, the land was abandoned after the regime collapsed.

The Society for the Coast bought the site in the mid-90’s, when 70% of the site was reedbed. As the site is an important migration route for many species of birds, the charity wanted to open up the site for breeding and migratory birds.

The site is actively managed but in a very hands-off way. Konik ponies and Highland cattle were introduced; Roe deer, elk and wild boar also frequent the park. As there was so much reed initially, the team made the decision to carry out a regime of cutting for the first couple of years in order to open up the landscape enough to allow the livestock to graze the site effectively.

As you can see from the slide above, the site is now much more open and as a result supports a variety of breeding waders and migratory birds. The grazing is especially important in creating a varied sward structure which benefits a variety of wildlife.

Above are the Highland cattle. The park aims to keep grazing levels fairly low but in recent years, due to the herd being left to manage itself naturally, numbers have become completely unsustainable, having gone from 40 koniks and 17 Highlands originally, to 200 cows and 190 horses at present. This is having a negative impact on the habitats, with overgrazing apparent in certain areas. By the end of the year the team want to decrease the herd to 70 horses and 100 cows, then to continue to sell off a number of individuals each year thereafter.

The last stop on our tour was Wolinksi National Park. This was the furthermost north we had been. It covers an area of nearly 11,000 ha including 4530 ha of forests (41%), 4710 ha of water (43%). It is the first park where the largest percentage is sea. The rest of the habitats cover saltmarsh, reedbeds, wet meadows, dry dune grassland plus a 95m high terminal glacial moraine which is the remnant of 3km thick glacier that once flowed across the Baltic sea.

The majority of wet meadows, reedbed and saltmarsh is present on Wolin Island. The habitats are grazed with cattle from May to October on a rotational basis so as not to affect the breeding birds. As mentioned before the grazing creates a mosaic sward structure that benefits rare breeding birds such as the Aquatic Warbler.

Due to the diversity of habitats over 230 bird species have been recorded across the National Park.

As with all of the Parks and reserves we visited, Wolinski has its own challenges. Being right next to a popular tourist town that sees a large influx of tourists and holidaymakers, the park is put under pressure from things like disturbance to breeding birds from walkers, predation and disturbance from increasing numbers of cats and dogs, invasive species escaping from gardens, and the high levels of tourism mean increased pressure from development, which is currently right up to the border of the park.

It was a great opportunity to be able to spend a week looking at the various types of parks and reserves in the Odra Delta and seeing the benefits and challenges of each. I think we were all blown away by how rich and diverse the wildlife and landscapes are, not just within the protected areas, but in the general landscape of the region as a whole.

The main issues facing protected areas and wildlife in general in Poland seems to be a familiar one, lack of funding, staffing and awareness, which is all too familiar a problem in the UK as well. Due to Poland’s history, many people do not feel a connection to the land and so one of the results is that volunteering is nearly non-existant, which is a shame as this could be a rich source of help that is currently unavailable. It will also be interesting to see how the reserves will cope with climate change; increased pressure from predation and invasive species is tied in to this (as seen at Ujscie Warty NP) and subsequently pressure on staff time and funding for projects to deal with this. Hopefully the diversity of the landscapes means that they are slightly more resilient than they are here in the UK and that people can be inspired to protect the amazing wildlife and landscape that they currently have.

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