Alvar grasslands are Boreal biogeographical region semi-natural grasslands with thin lime-rich soil on limestone bedrock. One third of all the alvar grasslands in Europe are found in Estonia. However, currently less than 30% of these are being managed annually (i.e. by animal grazing), which is necessary for the long-term survival of this habitat type. Unmanaged sites have become heavily overgrown with shrubs (mostly juniper, Juniperus communis) and trees (mostly Scots pine, Pinus sylvestris). In order to maintain the ecological connectivity and biodiversity of the countrys alvar grasslands, a minimum of 7 500 hectares needs to be subject to annual grazing. This is a target of the Estonian Nature Conservation Development Plan that will run until 2020.
The LIFE to alvars projects main objective was to restore the most valuable, but currently overgrown, alvar grassland areas on 2 500 ha of land and to create the right conditions for local farmers to manage these areas after the restoration. In order to achieve this aim, the project planned to introduce effective large-scalerestoration methods and to create the necessary infrastructure for continuous management of the restored sites. The project also aimed to directly involve private land owners and to raise awareness among the local community and the general public of the value of alvar areas and of the importance of managing them effectively.
The LIFE to alvars project achieved all its objectives and improved the conservation status of Estonian alvar grasslands at all the project sites. Specifically, the project restored, in total, 2 501.5 ha of alvar grasslands. This included restoration work on 1 000 ha of private land, with the involvement of approximately 600 private landowners. The project team initiated a completely new restoration technique, which was tested and successfully implemented. The technique replaces manual work with mechanical restoration, using chain swipe mowers, guillotines, forwarders and harvesters. This methodology is now widely used in Estonia as a common practice in semi-natural grassland restoration; and it is also now being used to restore other habitat types, like coastal meadows and wooded meadows.
The project covered all the livestock breeders' needs for reintroducing grazing on Estonian alvar grasslands in the project areas, including the purchase of grazing infrastructure (e.g. watering facilities, pens animal shelters), the building of 200 km of cattle fences on the restored areas, and the restoration of 35 km of access roads to the restored areas. Monitoring of restoration success, biodiversity, and socio-economic impacts were successfully carried out. The recovery of the meadow vegetation has been much faster than expected. In the areas covered with juniper bushes, recovery of meadow vegetation was observed during the first vegetative period after the initial restoration. Heavily overgrown areas reached the same level of species richness within 2-3 years as the areas that were initially in the better state. In total, 178 farmers, landowners and entrepreneurs were trained on habitat restoration techniques. The relevant management guidelines for alvars were updated.
During the project, the status of EU Habitats Directive priority habitat type Nordic alvar and precambrian calcareous flatrocks (6280*) was directly improved by more than doubling the habitat area of alvar grasslands in favourable condition in Estonia. As one-third of all of the alvar grasslands are situated in Estonia, this is a European-scale Natura 2000 habitat improvement. The project also contributes to the implementation of the EU Biodiversity Strategy. Results from biodiversity monitoring showed that the number of protected species (plants, birds and insects) typical of this habitat type benefitted from the restoration and the re-establishment of sustainable management in the restored areas.
The project raised the interest of farmers and landowners to engage in alvar restoration. Other sources of funding became available to facilitate alvar restoration outside the project areas. For example, from 2014-2018 the Environmental Board restored 350 ha of alvar grassland using funding from the state budget. Farmers also restored about 160 ha of alvar grassland using funding from the EU Cohesion Fund. Involved farmers have joined the CAP agri-environmental management scheme.
The project demonstrated that restoration of the grassland could be achieved in just a few years. This enabled an immediate re-establishment of grazing. Changed light conditions triggered mass flowering of protected orchid species in several project areas. Local nature tourism entrepreneurs now organise orchid trips to the project areas in June and July. The project won a Natura 2000 award in the socio-economic category in 2018. Long-term economic benefits are being realised through new business opportunities for local farmers and tourism entrepreneurs. Grazing provides direct income on the large restored areas and creates employment in rural areas. In some cases, young farmers have started with cattle/sheep grazing, and given up their city jobs. Farmers benefit from products like good quality meat. The project team invested much effort in developing efficient uses of by-products from the alvar restoration. For example, wood cut from the restored sites was used for fence poles, handicrafts and heat production. Farmers were involved in the Added-value Products Working Group, to assure the sustainability and long-term benefits initiated by the project. On Muhu Island, a farmers coop was formed as a spin-off of this Working Group, which produces and markets meat and hide from grazed alvar grasslands on Muhu and Saaremaa islands. In 2019, the coop received funding from PRIA (Agricultural Registers and Information Board) to build their own small slaughterhouse and meat processing facilities. Awareness has been significantly raised about the value of alvar grasslands, through information boards, local events, booklets and updated best practice guidelines, and the creation of an exhibition/learning centre.
Further information on the project can be found in the project's layman report and After-LIFE Conservation Plan (see "Read more" section).