Semi-natural dry grasslands and scrubland facies on calcareous substrates (Festuco-Brometalia) in Poland

Photo: © Katarzyna Baranska

Calcareous Festuco-Brometalia grasslands and scrubland facies are among the most species-rich plant communities in Europe and contain a large number of rare and endangered plant species. Their conservation status in the EU is assessed as unfavourable-bad and deteriorating, mainly because of the abandonment of low intensity grazing and succession of the habitat into scrub and woodland. Poland, however, reported an improving trend for the estimated 30 km2 of habitat in its Continental biogeographic region. This is due to restoration of the condition of several hundred hectares of the grassland, together with uptake of agri-environment agreements for extensive grazing on a much larger proportion of the habitat area since 2014. The key restoration methods were removal of shrubs and trees and reinstatement of extensive grazing, but other innovative methods have also been successfully trialled including top soil removal, sowing seeds and transplanting pieces of sod; and recovery of grasslands overgrown by expansive bushes using black foil lining.

Challenges addressed

Poland reported the following pressures on this particular habitat: abandonment of pastoral systems and grazing and the resulting succession, accumulation of organic material and in some places lack of mowing or burning down of vegetation.

The habitat is under pressure from the spread of invasive alien species. The Black Locust tree (Robinia pseudoacacia) has a highly negative impact by increasing the soil fertility through nitrogen fixation. Abandoned grasslands are also subject to invasion by expansive rhizomatous native, which may be somewhat poisonous to sheep although they will eat it.

The habitat is very sensitive to eutrophication from airborne nitrogen deposition and fertiliser drift, and to acidification from planted conifers. This is a problem in all areas of Poland. Other localised pressures are high levels of recreational/tourist use and trash dumping.

Objectives

In Poland, the habitat has been targeted by five LIFE projects since 2008. These have aimed to restore around 462 ha of xerothermic grassland habitat complexes in Poland. Three of the projects are still ongoing. Project objectives of the finalised XericGrasslandsPL LIFE project focused on improving habitat conditions and restricting succession of undesirable species on selected areas of dry grasslands by active conservation. Specific project objectives covered: the reintroduction of traditional agriculture (mainly extensive grazing) on parts of the targeted habitat, to ensure their lasting and effective conservation; enhancing biodiversity on the project sites by forming a dynamic mosaic of habitats; and creating a knowledge base for the complete and complex conservation of these dry grasslands in Poland. The project planned to conserve eight Natura 2000 sites, five habitats listed in Annex I of the Habitat Directive (including three priority habitats) and nine species listed in Annex II of this directive.

The main objectives of LIFE project Ochrona obszaru PKOG were to preserve and protect the valuable habitats of the Czestochowska Upland in four Natura 2000 sites, to form a network of landscape and natural ecological corridors; and to gain the active support of the local community of the need to protect and preserve the region’s typical natural features.

Planned and implemented measures

The LIFE project ‘XericGrasslandsPL targeted around 225 ha of xerothermic grassland habitat mosaics in 8 Natura 2000 sites by removing scrub or tree thickets, removing invasive alien herbaceous plant species  and reinstating grazing. In degraded areas, xerothermic grasslands were experimentally restored by removal of the topmost soil layer, sowing xerothermic species' seeds, transplanting well-preserved patches of grasslands etc. The project also removed illegal landfills, created management plans for four Natura 2000 sites, channelled tourist traffic with signage, information and paths, and raised awareness of the Natura 2000 network in more than 15 000 persons. By 2015, the condition of the grazed grasslands was significantly improved, with a reduction in the share of expansive species (ryegrass, sand reed and shrubs). The grazing period was cut to 3 months (June-August) partly as a result of the improved condition, and partly due to drought, which further limited the expansive species and allowed the development of xerothermic species. The LIFE project ‘Ochrona obszaru PKOG’ targeted around 100 ha of the most valuable xerothermic and rock grassland ecosystems located in four Natura 2000 sites in the Orle Gniazda Landscape Park, by coordinating and streamlining recreational activities such as rock climbing, and by removing invasive alien species.

Stakeholder involvement

A number of conservation programmes by NGOs and managers of landscape parks and national parks have cleared shrubs and invasive species and restored grazing on Natura 2000 sites in the last decade. Key NGO stakeholders are the Polish Naturalist’s Club (Klub Przyrodników) in several regions, Klub Gaja in the Pomeranian region, the Wetland Protection Centre (Centrum Ochrony Mokradel CMOK) and the Polish Birds (Ptaki Polskie) in north-eastern Poland, the Polish Society for Birds Protection (Polskie Towarzystwo Ochrony Ptaków), and the Wildlife Society Bocian. Landscape park authorities that have restored management of the habitat include Chełmiński and Nadwiślanski, the Silesian Voivodeship Landscape Park Complex, the Wyżyna Lubelska Landscape Park Complex, the Kazimierski Landscape Park (together with Lublin Botanical Garden), as well as Ojcowski and Pieniński National Parks. The Regional Directorate for Environmental Protection in Krakow (Regionalna Dyrekcja Ochrony Środowiska w Krakowie RDOŚ) has initiated large-scale actions Natura 2000 sites in Kraków region, and the Regional Directorate for Environmental Protection in Lublin similarly in the Lublin Voivodeship. Several other RDEPs (e.g. Katowice, Szczecin) are also very active in protection of Natura 2000 sites. The key land-owning stakeholders may be individual farmers, farming communities, or public entities.

Key achievements and impacts

The XericGrasslandsPL LIFE project significantly improved the condition of several hundred hectares of grazed grasslands by 2015, with a reduction in the share of expansive species (ryegrass, sand reed and shrubs). This represents the restoration of around a tenth of the calcareous grassland habitat (H6210) in the Natura 2000 network. The project resulted in the reintroduction of extensive grazing on over 67 ha of target habitat; and restoration of over 20 ha of target habitat. Agri-environment uptake for semi-natural dry habitats significantly improved in the 2014-20 period. By 2017, the area under the schemes for xerothermic and sandy grasslands and heathlands both inside and outside Natura 2000 sites had increased to 4,951 ha.  As a result of the extensive preparation of Plans of Conservation Measures (a form of simplified management plan) for more than 400 Natura 2000 sites, at least part of the conservation needs of xerothermic grasslands has been identified, which is being followed by the development of conservation projects and application for implementation funds. The roll out of protection measures that prevent the conversion of grasslands to scrubland and forest communities in the main habitat areas have given rise to the habitat’s future prospects being assessed as favourable.

The XericGrasslandsPL project also boosted and stabilised the population of Echium russicum on the eight Natura 2000 sites targeted by the project (through planting of ex situ cultivated seedlings followed by dispersal of the seeds of these plants). It also had an indirect positive influence on populations of other species from the Annex II of the Habitats Directive, including: European Ground Squirrel, Southern Birch Mouse, Danube Clouded Yellow, Scarce Large Blue (Maculinea teleius), Dusky Large Blue (Maculinea nausithous), Carlina onopordifolia and Cypripedium calceolus. It can be expected that the other LIFE project and agri-environment conservation measures for the habitat also had similar wide biodiversity beneficial impacts.

Costs and financing

The main funding source has been the Polish agri-environment programme. The 2007-13 agri-environment programme contained a package of schemes designed for semi-natural habitats and similar options within Natura 2000 sites. The Variant 4.5 and 5.5. sub-schemes supported grazing (with stocking of 0.3 to 1 LU per ha and no fertiliser) or in justified cases mowing from mid-July to end September (with 15-20% of land left unmown in any one year, removal or stacking the cut biomass within a period no longer than 2 weeks after mowing) of xerothermic and sandy grasslands and heathlands. The area under Variant 4.5 or Variant 5.5 peaked at 460 ha in 2014. To carry out these variants, a preliminary habitat assessment by a certified expert, contracted by the farmer, was required; the cost of which was reimbursed to the farmer as a flat payment. However, this still only covered a small fraction of area of the eligible Annex I habitats. Whilst the payment amount was attractive in some conditions, it was not for grazing small grassland areas on steep slopes.

The Operational Programme Infrastructure & Environment 2007-2013 included funding for the protection of Annex II species and non-forest habitats in Natura 2000 sites on state owned land (planning of protective measures, protection and restoration of degraded habitats and some land purchase from private landowners). Funding was administered by the state forestry entity. However, opportunities were not highlighted so uptake was low.

The two EU-funded LIFE projects which restored significant areas of habitat 6210 in Poland in the last decade provided a total of around €3 million, although it should be noted that both projects addressed habitat mosaics of a number of different habitat types and not just 6210.

Lessons learned

The key targeted conservation measures that led to the improvements

  • The key restoration methods were removal of shrubs and trees and reinstatement of extensive grazing, but other innovative methods have also been trialled including top soil removal, sowing seeds and transplanting pieces of sod; and recovery of grasslands overgrown by expansive bushes using black foil lining. The purchase of 25.62 ha of the most valuable xerothermic grassland was also a key factor in the restoration success.
  • Mobile sheep pasturage has been established as a conservation measure for small, highly isolated patches of grasslands; the animals are transported from patch to patch throughout the growing season. This activity is contracted by the conservation authority or grassland owner and funded with national or EU funding, as it does not provide a sustainable farming income.
  • Innovative methods have been trialled to control invasive alien Heracleum sosnowskyi and Robinia pseudoacacia, including mowing of suckers several times a year, cutting trees to a height of 120 cm, plucking plants with roots, top soil removal contaminated by Robinia.

Conservation measures that have not been sufficiently effective

  • Patches of naturally valuable habitats located on private lands are virtually unprotected. Private landowners in Natura 2000 sites often have little contact with management agencies or other local conservation organisations. In Natura 2000 sites that have no other designation, landowners may still be unaware that their land is within a Natura 2000 site). Owners of small grasslands are usually not interested in farming activities on such grasslands, even if supported by agri-environmental schemes.
  • Shrub cutting and cutting of invasive alien species must be immediately followed by grazing and/or by spot herbicide treatment or several mows, as otherwise the shrubs will grow back more vigorously than they were before. Although it is preferable to cut shrubs in winter to avoid negative impacts on breeding birds and invertebrates, it is much more effective to cut them during the growing season when they are more weakened, and when grazing can immediately follow.
  • Small remnants of grassland that have become severely overgrown are likely to have lost a significant part of their xerothermic species seed bank. It is therefore not sufficient to cut down the scrub. Species can be reintroduced through the transfer of hay from more species rich grassland areas with similar environmental conditions, or through the movement of sheep flocks that transport seeds in their fleece and digestive tracts.

Factors that supported the conservation measures

  • Management under agri-environment contracts has expanded significantly in the previous and current Rural Development Programme periods Funding from the Operational Programme Infrastructure & Environment was very low in 2007-2013 but opportunities are being highlighted in the current period.
  • A number of Polish nature conservation NGOs have taken the lead to establish restoration and management projects in Natura 2000 sites in partnership with key staff in some landscape park authorities and several of the Regional Directorates for Environmental Protection who are active in the protection of Natura 2000 sites. However, this opportunity declined after 2015, as a result of government decisions and changes to the terms of operation of environmental funds, which made it more difficult for NGOs to access funding.

Factors that constrained conservation measures

  • The remaining patches of grasslands, remnants of former vast pastures, are often very isolated and located in hard to reach places, in the middle of the forest or far away from any buildings, and the traditionally used old tracks traditionally used to move livestock have been lost. There are few people who still have the appropriate expertise to conduct traditional grazing, husbandry of traditional animal breeds and to produce traditional products associated with pastoralism. These challenges make it is very difficult to reinstate and maintain large-scale transhumant grazing on these grasslands.
  • In many regions farmers do not have enough animals to restore grazing, even if supported by agri-environment contracts. Small grassland patches and grasslands on steep slopes are usually considered by farmers as ‘useless grounds’, and they have no interest in expanding farming activities on them, even if there is no cost to them.

Quick wins that could be applied elsewhere for the habitat

  • A number of innovative conservation methods were successfully trialled and could now be rolled out to the remaining unmanaged habitat areas. These are:

o    mobile grazing (transporting animals between isolated patches of habitat), implemented and funded as a conservation measure by nature conservation bodies, adapted for managing small, highly isolated patches of habitat; and

o    restoration methods for removal of soil contaminated by invasive plant species; sowing seeds and transplanting pieces of sod; recovery of grasslands overgrown by expansive bushes using black foil lining; and various methods of dealing with invasive species (described above).

Examples of good practice, which could be applied to other habitats

  • The combination of a LIFE project to undertake restoration, in collaboration with park managers etc, followed up and complemented by ongoing and wider-scale tailored agri-environment schemes.
  • The preparation of the Habitat Action Plan was a useful process that gathered and summarised the state of knowledge on protection of xerothermic grasslands in Poland, and involved stakeholders in defining the actions required to protect and manage xerothermic grasslands in the whole of Poland, and discussing the problems. However, as there is no legal requirement to implement the plan it is uncertain to what extent it will be implemented, and recommendations taken up by government and at site levels. There is also no clear mechanism of regular plan implementation assessment and plan update.
  • The innovative conservation methods described as quick wins are easy to replicate not only on the xeric grasslands, but also on other habitats that require restoration and reinstatement of extensive grazing.

Reference information

The information presented here is based on the work done as part of the European Commission study on identifying the drivers of successful implementation of the Birds and Habitats Directives (under contract ENV.F.1/FRA/2014/0063), carried out by the Institute for European Environmental Policy, BirdLife International, Deloitte, Denkstatt, Ecologic, ICF Consulting Services and PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. The information and views set out in this case study are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the Commission.

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