This LIFE project targeted 15 floodplain areas in Latvia covering 14 085 ha in total. These sites harbour the best floodplain meadows in the country, including 50% of the national resource of Fennoscandian wooded meadows, and over 6530 ha of alluvial forests. They also host Latvia's highest breeding densities of the LIFE priority bird species Crex crex (400-685 individuals) and Aquila pomarina (59-120 individuals), as well as a third of the Latvian Gallingo media population (59-120 individuals).
The main threat to these floodplains came from their fragmentation and from a lack of management; most had been abandoned and were gradually being invaded by scrub. Changes in the water regime due to past drainage works were also taking their toll, as was the overall lack of awareness of the natural and socio-economic value of these sites.
The objective of this project was to initiate a coordinated nation-wide programme for the restoration and long-term management of floodplains. This meant management plans would be prepared for 15 sites in close consultation with stakeholders, and urgent restoration works would be undertaken on around 2400 ha of meadows.
Since the long-term management is highly dependent on agricultural stakeholders (more than 90% of the target area is privately owned), the project would also promote the new agri-environment schemes in Latvia and train farmers in applying for them. Over 400 farmers are to be contacted. Study tours, educational seminars and one-to-one discussions are to be organized, as appropriate, to incite interest and active participation. Once this is achieved, the farmers will be further assisted in the preparation of applications for agri-environment support.
The project was implemented by the Latvian Fund for Nature in partnership with 25 other organisations, including 21 local municipalities, as well as NGOs and State Environmental institutions. This approach not only ensured a coordinated and coherent approach to floodplain management that is accepted and supported locally, but it also provided valuable capacity-building: be it for the preparation of management plans, use of agri-environmental support or understanding the conservation management needs of species and habitats in the floodplains. Consequently the project intended to use the experience it will gain to write up a comprehensive best-practice manual on grassland management.
This large scale/multi site project has achieved great results in management planning, direct habitat management and raising of public awareness of the Natura 2000 network, nature conservation and the possibility of using agri-environmental schemes for sustainable management of project sites after LIFE.
Some 2 500 ha of habitats, including such priority habitat types as Species-rich Nardus grasslands on siliceous substrates (6230*), Fennoscandian lowland species-rich dry to mesic grasslands (6270*) and Fennoscandian wooded meadows (6530*), have been restored within the scope of the project, thus significantly improving the conservation status for the project main target species Crex crex, Aquila pomarina, Aquila clanga, Gallinago media and Osmoderma eremita.
Restoration actions carried out in the project areas include the construction of a 2 km long fence in the Burtnieki meadows and a 1 585 km fence in the Lielupe floodplains site. Sixteen Konik horses (a hardy breed) are grazing the 90 ha fenced area at the latter site.
To enable further management by grazing and mowing, it is first necessary to remove overgrowth of shrubs. The LIFE project successfully did so over 1 078 ha in total. One innovative method used to promote this action was a habitat restoration event held in Jelgava, Pilssala (in the Lielupe floodplains project site) in the summer of 2006. This event, which was very popular and provided a lot of publicity for the project, involved the restoration of 0.5 ha of floodplain meadow by a team of volunteers, together with students, journalists and the city mayor.
Other restoration activities included initial mowing, which was carried out on some 2 244 ha of grassland meadows across the 15 project sites.
The beneficiary also drew up 13 site management plans, setting the management goals and measures for the project sites for the next 10 years.
During the project, the emphasis was on individual contracts with landowners for habitat restoration. A total of 237 contracts were signed, of which 216 were implemented during the project lifetime.
To ensure the continuity of the project management activities, the contracts were signed on condition that the land manager (landowner) will apply for funding under national and international agri-environmental programmes for at least five years after the end of the LIFE project - grasslands management activities will be continued under the Rural Development plan for Latvia. More than 400 farmers were trained and assisted to apply for these funds for grassland management.
The project has produced a lot of good quality dissemination products in both Latvian and English. Thirteen site booklets, four thematic booklets, 15 summary management plans and the Layman?s Report have been printed and distributed to municipalities, tourist information centres, landowners and the administrators of protected areas. The grassland restoration experience in Latvia and the EU Boreal Region has been summarised and analysed in a grassland management handbook produced within the scope of the project. It is targeted at managers of protected areas managers, the scientific community, students and landowners and land managers who are planning restoration activities in their grasslands.
The project also conducted two detailed analyses of the legislation concerning nature management planning in Latvia and provided recommendations for its improvement to the responsible ministries. It also worked at the policy level in Latvia, participating in the preparation of the new Rural Development Plan for Latvia (2007-2013) in order to ensure that floodplain management issues are properly incorporated in this plan.
Further information on the project can be found in the project's layman report and After-LIFE Conservation Plan (see "Read more" section).
An ex-post visit carried out by the LIFE external monitoring team in May 2017, nine years after the project closed, confirmed the long-term effectiveness of the project?s activities. The landowners continue to manage the species-rich floodplain grasslands through RDP agri-environmental payments, in accordance with the project?s 13 management plans. Agri-environment payments have been prolonged until 2020 by order of the Minister of Environment and Regional Development. During the ex-post visit, former project staff estimated that 70-80% of the floodplain originally included in the project was still managed in a proper way. The project played an important role in demonstrating floodplain restoration and management in Latvia, and it helped increase awareness and change public attitudes to protected floodplains by showing that they provide environmental and economic benefits. It was concluded that without the Meadows project, the conservation status of the grasslands in the floodplain would be considerably decreased. The management plan for the Dvietes floodplain Natura 2000 network site was successfully implemented on a larger scale by the DVIETE project (LIFE09 NAT/LV/000237) with a resulting moderate increase in the corncrake (Crex crex) population (5% per year during the period 2006-2016), reversing a previous downward trend and representing a significant contribution to maintaining the favourable conservation status of this species in Latvia. The project facilitated better use of EU?s Rural Development Programme (RDP) agri-environmental schemes for the maintenance of biologically-valuable grasslands, which provided new economic benefits for farmers. For example, 13 cattle and 20 Konik horses delivered to the 'Sopu?i' farm helped maintain floodplain grasslands and showed how the establishment of sustainable cattle and horse breeding can promote the long-term maintenance of grasslands; by 2017 the farmer had over 100 cattle and more than 100 horses providing very efficient natural floodplain management. Konic horses are also still used to maintain other project sites, such as the Lielupes floodplain Natura 2000 site. The ex-post visit report stressed that the agri- environmental payments, under the RDP, were still having a big positive influence on the maintenance of the species-rich grasslands. Experts from coordinating beneficiary the Latvian Fund for Nature are taking an active role in the development of the Rural Development Programme, and the results and experience gained during the LIFE project are being used to prepare a model for agri-environment payments in grasslands during the 2014-2020 planning period.