Athos peninsula is located on the southern part of Chalkidiki in the northeast of Greece. This peninsula is a mountainous area which dominates the sea and is home to large forests consisting mostly of deciduous species (Castanea sativa, Quercus sp, Fagus sp.) as well as some conifers (Pinus halepensis, P. nigra ans Abies borissii-regis). The site is very important for the conservation of Quercus frainetto woods. A habitat of community interest (9280), Mount Athos is home to a quarter of the total area of this habitat in Greece.
Due to the presence of the monasteries in the area, the number of visitors and land uses have been controlled since the 9th century. Until now, oaks forests have been managed as coppice for fuel for the monasteries. Such a management practice maintains an unmixed, even-aged make up of the forests, substantially reducing biological diversity. It results in large surfaces of totally bare understory soil with no vegetation and leads to drastic impairments to the soil and water retention of the forest. Additionally, this type of woodland can spread very quickly and is prone to fires, which are difficult to extinguish due to the dense vegetation.
The objective of the project was to change the coppice Quercus frainetto and Quercus ilex woods to high forest in the pSIC Athos peninsula. The main task was the implementation of selective-inversion thinning on an area of 500 ha during a three-year period. This action would be facilitated by a preliminary technical study and a wide knowledge of the inversion thinning process. The impact of this rehabilitation would increase diversity by enhancing flora, especially understory vegetation, and by increasing the structural diversity of the forest. Rehabilitation would also reduce fire risk to these habitat types.
A monitoring system was planned to assess the results of this action. Members of the target groups of professionals working in the forest and nature conservation sectors would become acquainted with the benefits of this process for sustainable management. Finally, the project would produce a guide to forest rehabilitation that could become a valuable tool for the restoration of all coppice forest habitat types. These woods are important for nature conservation on a European scale, and very few occur in Natura 2000 sites. The conversion aimed to return the woods to their natural condition as of the end of the 19th century.
The rehabilitation of Holm oak and Hungarian oak woods on Mount Athos was achieved through pilot applications at 45 plots. 15 of the 20 monasteries that belong to the Holy Community of Mount Athos participated in this work. 19 of the 20 monasteries took part in training and helped raise public awareness of the project's actions. The restoration (over 500 ha) improved the structure of the forest, enhanced biodiversity, reduced the risk of fire and rehabilitated the landscape. The benefits to biodiversity are high, since the single-age coppiced forests will eventually be replaced by mixed-age and mixed-species forests which will reach maturity. It also helped to restore the image of the peninsula's once flourishing virgin forests, creating a landscape worthy of the spiritual and cultural importance of Mt. Athos and its monasteries.
The need for coppiced wood has been reduced, and as a result it is likely that more of the forested areas will be converted to high forest as demonstrated through this project. The monastic community is receiving training along with the workers. It will continue to manage the forest in this way in the future. Monitoring programmes have been established for the forest understory, and a regular review period is in place.
Another positive achievement of the project was the identification of an important ecological area which was not originally designated as a Natura 2000 site, although several of its habitat types are listed in the Habitats Directive. As a result, the area of the original site(SCI GR 127003) was expanded and it is now included in the Natura 2000 network, enabling the Holy Monastery of Chilandariou and other holy convents to better manage their forests.
The After-LIFE conservation plan details the resources that would be required to convert all the remaining Holm oak and Hungarian oak woods on Mt. Athos to high forest. The plan includes the establishment of a management body for the Natura 2000 site and guaranteed funding for its operation for at least five years; the development of a Special Environmental Study for the Natura 2000 network site; and the development of a business plan for the entire peninsula. The Holy Community intends to seek funding in order to accomplish this goal.
A follow-up ex-post evaluation visit was carried out by the LIFE external monitoring team in May 2015. Nine years after the project was completed the results of the thinning in the 530 ha area are still visible. In the short term the work has provided a clear conservation benefit for the oak trees which have grown significantly. In order to achieve long-term success, however, a management strategy, recurring thinning and other follow up activities are needed. These are currently not planned because of a lack of funds for follow-up actions. Conversely, the will for the area?s continuous sustainable management remains: thanks to the awareness-raising activities carried out during the project, the Holy Community of Mount Athos is very keen to continue with conservation activities as well as the preparation and implementation of a management plan for the site.
Further information on the project can be found in the project's layman report and After-LIFE Conservation Plan (see "Read more" section).