Intensive agriculture in northeast Bulgaria has caused a significant decrease in natural forest cover, leading to large-scale loss of biodiversity, wind erosion, a reduction of soil fertility, droughts and a reduction of agricultural yields. To address these problems, 70 years ago a network of field protection forest zones (800 km of greenbelts) was created through reforestation on a total area of 7 400 ha. In addition to the immediate benefits of such improved green infrastructure on erosion control and crops yields (up by 30%), these field protection forests ensured habitats for numerous species and served as corridors between those areas of natural forests scattered amid arable lands. Since preserved intact forests in region were considered crucial for biodiversity conservation, many of them were declared protected areas and later included within Natura 2000 SCIs. Today, however, the conservation status and the ecosystem services by these forests in northeast Bulgaria face a range of threats, which LIFE IASHAB aims to address:
Spread of IAS forestry practices in the past (prior to the establishment of Natura 2000 network) included replacement of natural forest habitats with invasive alien mono-plantations mainly Robinia pseudoacacia or Gleditsia triacanthos. Such plantations were also part of the established greenbelts as species, such as Robinia which is considered an IAS in Europe, were believed to have better growth and high anti-erosion potential. While having adverse impacts on biodiversity, IAS mono-plantations have not proven effective from an economic, social or environmental perspective. Facing the aggressive spread of IAS, foresters recognise the need to replace such plantations with naturally occurring forests in the region (i.e. priority forest habitats) since they have demonstrated higher sustainability, productivity, erosion control and conservation importance. However, it is a difficult task due to the high invasive potential of IAS, their far-reaching presence (i.e. Robinia plantations cover 22 000 ha of NESCs territory) and the lack of know-how and resources for effective eradication.
Replacement of natural alluvial forests with plantations of non-native species another forestry practice applied in the past was the replacement of natural alluvial forests with fast-growing mono-plantations of hybrid poplars. As many of these plantations have not proven to be sustainable and now fall within the boundaries of Natura 2000 SCIs, they need to be replaced with naturally occurring alluvial habitat types (such as 91E0*) which are better suited to the conditions of growth, provide valuable ecosystem services (i.e. erosion control and prevention of floods) and are of higher importance for biodiversity conservation. This is also encouraged by the requirements of forest certification (the entire NESC territory is FSC certified), as the newly introduced Bulgarian FSC standard requires the reduction of forest stands of non-native species, IAS monitoring and eradication.
Loss of forest habitat coverage and worsening of conservation status in recent years, pressure from agriculture and climate change on forest habitats within Natura 2000 SCIs has increased. Some forest areas are damaged by dry-outs, forest fires and pest infestations, while others require subsidies under the Rural Development Programme. Often farmers are ploughing every possible acre of land including dirt roads and transition/border areas with forest lands (ecotone) covered with shrub or grass vegetation. Some agricultural producers have begun a public debate, claiming that forests neighbouring arable lands and field protection forests are not properly managed by foresters, pose obstacles to agriculture and need to be reduced in area, restructured or removed. This is an alarming trend as such processes have already led to the destruction of almost all field protection belts and the remaining forest land in bordering southeast Romania.
Lack of a strategic management approach and public support currently, no clear strategic approach for the management of forest bordering arable lands has been adopted on a national level. A new national strategy for the development of the forestry sector in Bulgaria (post-2021), and the mid-term update of the Strategic Plan for the development of Bulgarian forestry sector (2014-2023) was expected to be drawn up in 2020, and LIFE IASHAB aims to contribute to the update of these documents by including specific measures for the conservation, restoration and management of field protection forests/forest bordering arable lands in northeast Bulgaria. This update will serve as an opportunity for increasing public awareness and support for the conservation of these forests.
LIFE IASHAB project aims to enhance the eradication of IAS species and the recreation of priority forest habitats within Natura 2000 SCIs in northeast Bulgaria by applying best practices, incorporating advanced methodology for data collection and assessment, providing input for improving national forestry policies, involving key stakeholders, ensuring public support and utilising the capacity developed under other LIFE funded projects. Specifically, the project aims to: