Some 2 000 years ago, the original mudflats (coastal wetlands that form when mud is deposited by tides or rivers) along the Belgian coast were closed off by a dune belt, behind which an extensive area of peat bogs formed. Incursions by the sea during the Middle Ages caused this bog to become saline and left it covered with a fertile layer of mud. Converted to polders, the land has been used mostly as pasture. Since the 1960s, the polder grasslands were levelled, and large areas were drained, excessively covered in manure or transformed into maize fields or high-yield grasslands.
Nevertheless, the polders at the eastern end of the Belgian coast are core-areas for inland saline habitats and are an important breeding and wintering territory for many grassland bird populations, including ducks, geese and waders.
The project site comprises four areas: Uitkerkse polders (1 223 ha), Zwaanhoek (166 ha), Ter Doest (63 ha) and Polders van Koolkerke tot Lapscheure (5 247 ha). Local NGOs began the first conservation initiatives in the early 1990s. In 1999 and 2003 Natuurpunt launched two LIFE projects in the Uitkerkse Polder to purchase and restore degraded grasslands. After restoration, contracts were made with local farmers to use these grasslands in a more sustainable way. The results of the LIFE projects in the Uitkerkse Polder were very positive. In this site the population of black-tailed godwit (Limosa limosa) increased, in contrast to the general trend in the region. Complementary to these projects, the Flemish government improved the protection status of these grasslands and initiated its own restoration projects in Zuienkerke-Meetkerke, the area south of the Uitkerkse Polder, and in de Zwaanhoek.
Present threats in the project site relate to the direct destruction of the micro-topography of the (salty) grasslands, inadequate management, non-optimal water-level management, disturbance and insufficient public support.
The main objective of the LIFE Oostkustpolders project was the large-scale restoration of typical grassland habitats in the polders of the eastern Belgian coast. The habitats 1310 (Salicornia and other annuals colonising mud and sand) and 1330 (Atlantic salt meadows Glauco-Puccinellietalia maritimae) form a patchy network throughout the project area. Because of their size and isolation, some patches are very vulnerable to further degradation. One of the two major project objectives was to improve both the quality and quantity of these saline habitats.
The project also focused on breeding and wintering species of grassland birds, including the pied avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta) that is listed in Annex I of the Birds Directive. Furthermore, the project area is an important wintering site for Annex I species such as the short-eared owl (Asio flammeus), pink-footed goose (Anser brachyrhynchus), greater white-fronted goose (Anser albifrons) and Eurasian wigeon (Anas penelope).
Annually, 60 to 80% of the Spitsbergen population of pink-footed goose winters here. These primary target-species act as umbrella species for others such as barnacle goose (Branta leucopsis), black-winged stilt (Himantopus himantopus), Eurasian curlew (Numenius arquata), Northern shoveler (Anas clypeata), black-tailed godwit (Limosa limosa) and garganey (Anas querquedula). Grassland restoration focused mainly on restoring the typical micro-relief and on optimising the hydrology of the project area. The area was used for foraging by Western marsh-harrier (Circus aeruginosus), but suitable nesting sites seemed to be lacking. Therefore, new breeding sites would be created.
The LIFE Oostkustpolders project team completed a large-scale restoration of grassland habitats in polders along the Belgium coast, and enhanced their connectivity by optimising hydrological conditions. They also enhanced conditions for breeding and wintering grassland birds, maintaining and even enhancing some bird populations.
The quality and connectivity of habitats 1330 (Atlantic salt meadows (Glauco-Puccinellietalia maritimae)) and 1310 (Salicornia and other annuals colonising mud and sand) was enhanced, and also expanded by 5.8 ha. Of the 270 ha where habitat quality was enhanced, 98.2 ha has a very high potential of becoming qualitative saline grassland.
In 2019, the very dry conditions were challenging for these wet habitats. However, mainly for habitat 1310, this was alleviated by the gradients created by the project team, which enabled the plants Spergularia marina and Juncus ambiguous to survive. Pioneer species, such as Spergularia marina, Salicornia, Juncus ambiguus and Glaux maritima also continued to be present.
The project team enhanced the hydrologic regime, with higher water tables achieved on 99.8 ha of wet grasslands. This was beneficial for the many species of breeding birds and meadow birds (that are generally in decline in the region).
Ecosystem services have become more resilient as a result of the project actions. Transforming agricultural areas back into grassland should cause less flash flooding, less erosion, higher biodiversity, and a better regulated Carbon cycle (as wet soil can absorb more carbon). Re-wetted areas also cool down the environment generally.
Specifically, the project team:
- Purchased 121 ha of new land with LIFE funds, and an addition 124 ha outside of LIFE, to enhance the connectivity of the target habitats and to benefit coastal grassland species.
- Improved the function of hydrological pumps to create water zones suitable for meadow birds, which helps reverse the decline in numbers of meadow and breeding birds.
- Created 3 nesting sites for western marsh harrier (Circus aeruginosus).
- Created micro-habitats along gradients for vulnerable plant species, so they can survive when droughts occur.
Further information on the project can be found in the project's layman report and After-LIFE Conservation Plan (see "Read more" section).