The Po Delta Park is a protected wetlands region of 53 653 ha at the mouth of the River Po. It is the most complex system of wetlands in Italy, also containing forests, dunes and salt pans. It has a rich biodiversity, with around 1 000 plant and over 350 vertebrate species, and provides locations suitable for bird nesting and for the reproduction of amphibians and reptiles. However, vast portions of the wetlands have been drained and reclaimed. The remaining wetlands - known locally as “valli” - are used for extensive fish farming activities. The main threat to the wetlands is water eutrophication, mainly caused by poor water circulation and salinity. Within the Po Delta Park, the Valli di Comacchio Natura 2000 network site comprises two main basins and is 90% public property, with about 80% devoted to fish farming. In the Veneto Region, the valli are privately owned and occupy approximately a third of the entire area of the Delta del Po: tratto terminale e delta Veneto and the Delta del Po Natura 2000 network sites.
The objective of the Natura 2000 in the Po Delta project was the conservation of habitats and species of the River Po Delta, in four Natura 2000 network sites, by developing joint conservation actions between multiple public and private owners. The project specifically aimed to improve water circulation and reduce eutrophication in the two main basins of the Valli di Comacchio site, to allow the restoration of several important habitats: coastal lagoons, Salicornia and other annual colonising mud and sand banks, Mediterranean salt meadows, Mediterranean and thermo-Atlantic holophilous scrubs, and Mediterranean salt steppes. Planned species conservation actions included establishing about 8.7 ha of land and twenty artificial floating sites suitable for nesting of tern species (Sternidae), creating eight freshwater ponds to promote amphibian reproduction, installing two embankments for common kingfisher (Alcedo atthis), and implementing measures to favour reproduction of European pond terrapin (Emys orbicularis) and common spadefoot toad (Pelobates fuscus insubricus).
The Natura 2000 in the Po Delta project successfully developed and implemented a series of actions that protected habitats and species in four Natura 2000 network sites in the Po Delta. These actions resulted in appropriate improvements in water circulation and water quality inside the “valli” of these sites, which contributed to the conservation in a favourable state, in terms of the Birds and Habitats Directives, of a number of wetland habitat types, and various species of birds, amphibians and reptiles. Ex-post monitoring verified the positive effects on the target habitats and species due to the field interventions, in the first year after the interventions.
The project recognised the value of extensive fish farming as a productive activity that has contributed to the preservation of these wetlands. Key for the preservation of these areas is therefore the continuation of fish farming, and the involvement of all stakeholders involved in this activity in conservation actions.
The project partners excavated over 8 500 m of channels, with 1 400 000 m3 of earth being moved. Siphons and drains were renovated for water regulation, with the right balance of saltwater and freshwater, which enhanced water circulation capacity and enabled water to be better managed to improve the conservation status of coastal lagoons. As a result of the creation of more than 8 ha of suitable habitat for the nesting of the target gull and tern species, in Valle di Comacchio in 2012, over 1 200 pairs of the target bird species nested on newly-established mounds. The constructed islets were soon colonised by all eight target bird species in the Valli di Comacchio: Kentish plover (Charadrius alexandrines), pied avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta), little tern (Sternula albifrons), gull-billed tern (Gelochelidon nilotica), sandwich tern (Sterna sandvicensis), common tern (Sterna hirundo), slender-billed gull (Larus genei), and Mediterranean gull (Larus melanocephalus). However, heavy rain and the flooding of sites by anomalous water levels in 2014 prevented colonisation that year. At Cà Mello and Bosco Nordio, the project team created eight sites suitable for the reproduction of Emys orbicularis and Pelobates fuscus, while two management operations were performed on sandy banks to encourage the laying of Emys orbicularis eggs. In Cà Mello the sites have been frequented by Emys orbicularis, and in Bosco Nordio, where the sites were created two years earlier, newborn terrapins of this species have been recorded since 2013. In Bosco Nordio, in one of the ponds built in 2014, the first Pelobates fuscus eggs were found.
The project had its SCI management plan for the Valli di Comacchio approved by the relevant authorities, to help maintain suitable water levels and prevent the flooding of nesting habitats. An agreement was signed for the next five years between two private lagoon fish breeders and associated beneficiary Ente Parco Delta del Po Veneto for a shared public-private management of the Natura 2000 network sites. The project published a range of informative material and held 12 meetings addressed to specific stakeholders. To assure the future of educational activities initiated by the project, a building was restored at the Bonifica di Cà Vendramin Regional Museum, an open-air classroom called “Microcosmo” was built at the Bosco Nordio Nature Reserve, and two trails were set up for educational guided tours in privately-owned sites at Valle Bagliona and Valle Ca' Pisani thanks to an agreement with the owners.
Further information on the project can be found in the project's layman report and After-LIFE Conservation Plan (see "Read more" section).