Although the priority habitat, Alluvial forests with Alnus glutinosa and Fraxinus excelsior (Alno-Padion, Alnion incanae, Salicion albae) is found all over Bulgaria, its total area accounts for only 0.5% of the countrys overall forested area. These marginal and riparian forests create unique conditions that control and influence the transfer of energy, nutrients and sediments between the aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. Due to their accessibility and proximity to towns and villages, however, these riparian forests frequently experience disturbance, which has resulted in a continual decline in their area. In recent decades, the habitats have suffered from a wide range of detrimental actions including clear felling and transformation into arable lands or hybrid plantations for the intensive production of timber. Furthermore, cleaning and correction of riverbeds, and infrastructure projects, such as the construction of small hydropower plants and the extraction of inert materials, have also had a negative impact. Such long-term adverse human impacts lead to degradation of the priority habitat and negative changes in its structure, composition, stability and functionality. No real direct conservation activities have targeted this priority habitat to date in the project sites. According to the National Protected Areas Act of Bulgaria, several protected areas are located within or adjacent to the project sites, which preserve riparian forests, but none of these areas has a management plan.
The overall objective of the project was to improve the conservation status of the priority for conservation listed Annex I of the Habitats Directive habitat 91E0*: Alluvial forests with Alnus glutinosa and Fraxinus excelsior (Alno-Padion, Alnion incanae, Salicion albae), through activities in two Bulgarian Natura 2000 sites: Marten-Ryahovo and Reka Maritsa SCIs. This goal would be achieved by directly restoring and improving the quality of habitat at the sites through the applications of a range of techniques and the testing alternative forestry methods. The project also aimed to improve the knowledge of the habitat to aid its restoration and management of this habitat. It planned to develop a good practice guide, as well as build up the capacities of the EFA, WWF and two of its regional directorates. Public awareness would also be increased, reaching out to local groups within the project area to secure support for the conservation of this target habitat.
The conservation status of habitat 91E0* was unfavourable-unsatisfactory in Reka Maritsa and unfavourable-bad in Marten-Ryahovo SCI. The project improved the coverage and the structure of 91E0* over 16 ha in the Reka Maritsa site, which is an important ecological corridor in the south of Bulgaria. It is home to the largest wintering location of the pygmy cormorant (4 000 to 6 000 individuals). The coverage and the structure of 91E0* at Marten-Ryahovo was also improved over 32,1 ha. The site covers Danube islands of the Aleko group and the bank between the towns of Marten and Ryahovo.
At Reka Maritsa, around 47 960 saplings of Quercus robur, Ulmus minor, Ulmus laevis, Fraxinus angustifolia, Alnus glutinosa, Populus nigra and Alnus incana were planted on an area of 14.2 ha. Intensive restocking was carried out in order to overcome the low survival rate of saplings caused by the hot and dry summer seasons of 2016 and 2017, as well as tending, manual weeding and watering of the young plants. Around 78 000 saplings were planted in total. At Marten-Ryahovo, saplings of Salix alba and Populus nigra were planted on an area of 9.8 ha, while existing trees were preserved. Here, the survival rate at 80% was significantly higher overall. However, in areas of low survival rates, additional measures were carried out. Young plants were tended, including manual digging and the mechanical loosening the top soil. Around 14000 saplings were planted in total. Additionally, the Saarland method was applied on a total area of 24.1 ha at both sites.
Networking and dissemination actions including the organisation of a Forests and River Day and the holding of a Riparian Forests Exhibition, along with the hosting of study visits in Bulgaria and Hungary.
Overall, the project interventions had a positive impact on the target priority habitat and have a very good demonstration, replicability and transferability value. Afforestation plans were drawn up for both sites, while the know-how and capacity of the beneficiaries was built up over the project duration. The restored riparian forests may offer opportunities for eco-tourism development.
The priority habitat in Reka Maritsa covers 0,003 % of the area and in Marten-Ryahovo 19,56%. This coverage will continue to increase in the coming years, mostly in a natural way but also through legally supported measures. The beneficiary has committed to maintaining the projects outcomes and has fostered public support for the continuation of conservation efforts.
Further information on the project can be found in the Layman report and the After-LIFE Conservation Plan (see "Read more" section).