Why wetlands and steppes?
Wetland and xerothermic (subxerothermic) biotopes currently represent only fragments of the original range of these natural biotopes in our landscape. The biotopes belong to some of the most species – remarkable, but also the most vulnerable communities of Central Europe. Avoid
Wetland communities once formed extensive, contiguous areas in floodplains or in foothill areas. They have been, however, disappearing for centuries now. Being generally perceived as "useless" areas (often literally considered harmful and threatening to humans), wetlands were drained, cultivated or turned into ponds. The destruction culminated in the second half of the 20th century as the intensification of agricultural production took place, especially in the 80s during so-called “compensatory” recultivation and a real melioration madness. Locations unfit to be drained were left to no management (even the small economic role of hay from wet meadows – as a litter for livestock – ceased to be useful with changes in livestock production practices, another factor that add onto it was being able to use concurrent modern heavy technology) which was as deadly for the wetland as the wetland reclamation, asthe localities were suppressed by expanding shrubs and woody species, often of an invasive character that outcompeted the original species. Though still wetlands in theory, (in these cases it is virtually impossible to speak about the loss of wetland habitats) these localities turned into degraded biotopes lacking much of its original biodiversity andas such wereincapable to fulfill its natural functions. Transformation into a pond may appear as a more favorable optionat least at first, however, unfortunately, these areas are often degraded by intensive fish farming often lacking a proper littoral zone, therefore turning into an unfeasible habitat for most amphibians and invertebrates. A lot of the localities have been also suffering from illegal (and unfortunately sometimes even legal) landfills and dumping of various materials. In addition to floodplains, this also affects often secondarily spontaneously established wetland sites in abandoned quarries.
A similar situation is at "the other end" of the biotope spectrum - the xerothermic and subxerothermicbiotopes(here for simplicity inaccurately called "steppes"). These had never been as widespread on our territory as wetlands (and are completely missing in some areas), though they form an integral part of our landscape and an important part of our biodiversity. Their primary importance dwells in plants and invertebrates. Fragments of steppes have been generally preserved on steeper slopes, where were mostly used as pastures for smaller livestock (sheep, goats) in the past. With the retreat of grazing in the second half of 20th century, the former grasslands started to overgrow with shrubs and other woody species, which causeda considerable impoverishment to the species diversity. Organisms of such extreme sites tend to be very sensitive to changes; a number of invertebrates has its development tied to a particular habitat or a certain type of a plant, which disappeared from the localities due to the shrub expansion. Grazing operated by commercial entities is currently mostly focusing on mesophilic positions that offer greater efficiency. The problem of steppe localitiesis also their reforestation. It has been taking place since the turn of the 19th and 20th century, when it was mostly led by efforts to have more aesthetic landscape, i.e. rocky steppes were perceived as something ugly at that times. The press back then reported for ex. about the “hideous” rocky cliffs above the river watercourse nearby Prague (the legacy of those times has been carried over until these days in areal plantations of acacia). With the abandonment of grazing, land owners usually considered reforestation as the only suitable fit for this type of land. Sadly, reforestation in such valuable areas has been still often supported by government subsidies today. Fragmentation or complete destruction of a number of prairie sites was aided by quarrying (karst regions, Českéstředohoří)
Recent decades brought efforts to conserve or revitalize the remnants of these communities on the national and international level (some were included in specially protected areas, international treaties, such as the European Directive on the Conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora and in case of wetlands in Ramsar Convention; some gained subsidy titles), though the situation currently remains unsatisfactory. The culprit is a lack of funds invested in the care for these locations; persistent misunderstanding by the public of why these "useless" sites need to be protected and not used in a more efficient manner; and ultimately, unfortunately, the incompetence or lack of conception of the public administration. Furthermore, many valuable areas have still not been considered by the conservation authorities. A real hinder to the persisting problem is often a very complicated ownership(multiple owners, old pending heritageand unsearchable owners).
Why land trusts?
Land trusts are non-governmental, non-profit organizations that care for valuable natural sites and/or historic buildings based on property rights, user rights or other long-term contractually basedcooperation with the landowners. The land trust movement in the Czech Republic has been spreading since the mid 90-ties, led by the Czech Union for Nature Conservation since its beginnings. Currently, land trusts in the Czech Republiccare for more than 3000 ha of valuable natural sites. Land trusts comprise the majority of the project partners.
Land trustssearch fornaturally valuable and interesting locations in the country, negotiate with the landowners and subsequently take the site into a long-term care. Land trust care for valuable natural sites hasmultiplebenefits, such as:
- Land trust base their work on cooperation and not on directive bans and orders like the state conservation authorities, as such this approach is usually more acceptable for the public and especially the owners and users of land. The cooperation between the land trusts and the state administrationmay then mitigate the negative perception of the "state nature conservation" in the community.
- The land trust activities also often serve as good examples to other owners of how to care for land/buildings in accordance with the principles of conservation of natural heritage. The landowner may be also actively involved in the conservation, such as in the case of contractually based cooperation. The owners then perceive the cooperation positively and not as an interference with their property rights.
An important aspect of land trusts in relation to this project is the “longevity” of the managementactivities on the sites. Activities implemented by the land trusts were not designed for this specific project only, but rather have resulted from previous experience of the land trusts and will continue after the completion of the project.
We would like to emphasize the fact that a number of sites included in the project were bought into the ownership of the Czech Union for Nature Conservation or individual land trusts in order to be protected.
One of the priorities of the land trusts is to set the right type of management on the valuablesites, neverthelessan insufficient funding and lacking equipment are often a big challenge. Thus, the efforts to stop the dramatic loss of species or at least to avoid massive reductions in populations of some species,has failed so far as has been observed elsewhere in Europe as well. This grant may allow us to improve the management of sites and also to add some new elements. Considering the bond between the sites included in the project and the land trust, the proposed measurements to be a part of long-term activities and the tight link of the project to the public society – landowners and the local community – we consider the proposed project as one of a significant added value.
Do measures to protect the wetland and steppe locations make sense?
Though the question seems unnecessary, it pops up all the time. Why do conservationists prevent nature to "do it its own way”? Is this a waste of money just for fun of couple of freaks? Some of the arguments, why not to let grassland communities to develop naturally, were already mentioned above, others are explained next to the description of specific activities (in the Intended Project Activities section). At this point,instead of writing down a long list of arguments, we would like to point out the publication Ecological restoration in the Czech Republic (eds Ivana Jongepierová, Pavel Pešout, Jan Willem Jongepier and Karel Dust, published by the Agency for Nature Conservation and Landscape Prague in 2012, available electronically on www.ochranaprirody.cz /res/data/008/004093.pdf?seek=1369389611), which summarizes the results of a number of different restoration measureson wetland and steppe areas, among other things,clearly and objectively. Incidentally, a number of authors of this publication, including three of the four editors, are members of land trusts and were directly involved in many of the activities described in the publication.
What is to be done in order to save the wetland and steppe sites?
- Avoid direct destruction of localities
- To provide lasting care for these biotopes and sites
- Ensure consistent eradication of invasive species
- Increase the biotope diversity on sites
- Reduce the "island" effect on the valuable sites in the landscape and create a mosaic landscapewith abundant opportunities for migration in the landscapefor various organisms,i.e. reduce the distance between the sites to avoid insolation of some of the species
- Improve the perception of the public on these habitats and their importance