Within the Rural Development Programme approved by Castilla-La Mancha (Spain), agri-environmental schemes provide for the conservation of steppe birds in Natura 2000 sites. A former scheme, for example, was used to implement sustainable farming practices to favour the presence of cranes (Grus grus). The agri-environmental programme compensates farmers for income loss caused by the use of agricultural production methods compatible with the protection of the environment. Methods focused on the conservation of steppe birds include the use of untreated seeds, late harvest, protection of nests, and specific crop rotations. In addition to compensating for income loss, an extra percentage is added to encourage landowners to adopt new production methods compatible with the conservation of biodiversity. Costs are financed by the EU and each Member State. One of the problems faced in the ‘El Hito’ Natura 2000 site is that the regulation requires the creation of application units of 1 000 ha approximately, but the farm area of this site only slightly exceeds 300 ha. Therefore, the Regional Government expects to apply (around 2023, for the next CAP) a specific agri-environmental measure for this site and around 3 000-4 000 ha of buffer steppe zones. Until this aid is enforced, the Regional Government is considering the application of certain compensation measures, which forms the basis for this project for two years. This will enable the study of the real costs of the future measures and commitments to be applied, create a good level of farmer acceptance, and lay the groundwork for land stewardship agreements and the marketing of products based on biodiversity criteria.
The LIFE EL HITO project aims to halt the decrease, restore and increase the area of EU Habitats Directive priority habitats, such as Coastal lagoons (1150*), Limonietalia salt flats (1510*) and Temporary Mediterranean wetlands and ponds (3170*) in Central Spain, as well as protect priority species designated by the EU Habitats and Birds Directives. The project also aims to recover habitats for birds included in Annex I of the Birds Directive.
Specific objectives are to:
- Restore endangered flora and buffer zones around the wetland and the surrounding steppe salt flats;
- Close trails that impact the wetland, and drains to ensure temporary flooding, and eliminate elements that break up the natural flood cycle;
- Remove debris and infrastructures (e.g. fences, power lines) that impact the lagoon
- Create buffer zones to halt sediments filling this shallow wetland, and avoid diffuse pollution coming from surrounding farmlands;
- Establish land stewardship agreements and agri-environmental programmes that allow the implementation of sustainable management plans in the long term;
- Improve national and regional strategic plans for wetlands and the National and Regional Catalogues of Threatened Species;
- Raise awareness among the local populations about the problems affecting the wetland and the benefits of recovering the habitat through traditional management;
- Inform a broader audience about the coastal wetland, and promote tourism and sustainable farm products.
The project contributes to the implementation of the EU Habitats Directive, Birds Directive, Pollinators Initiative, 2030 Biodiversity Strategy, Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and EU Action Plans for little bustard, great bustard and lesser kestrel. It is also in line with the Castilla-La Mancha Natural Environment Conservation Plan and State Law 22/2015 on Natural Heritage and Biodiversity, and Regional Catalogue of Threatened Species.
- Purchase of over 500 ha of land, including 467 ha to conserve priority wetland and salt flats and 34 ha of farmlands to reconvert into priority habitats;
- Demolition and removal of old warehouses and other buildings in key areas;
- Removal of 7.5 km of fences that divide the wetland, 3 000 m3 of infrastructures, rubble and accumulated waste in the lagoon and buffer zones;
- Closure and renaturation of small drainage canals, removal of 3 km of illegal paths, and recovery of springs favour the wetland filling;
- The restoration and increase in habitats targeted in the Habitats Directive (*1510 and *3170), and other habitats of wetlands and salt flats;
- Harvest of seeds, production and plantation of more than 250 000 seedlings of different endemic Limonium species, to ensure the 1510* habitat expansion;
- Implementation of 15 land stewardship agreements over 200 ha of farmland, reduction of conflicts caused by cranes (Grus grus), and sustainable farming to favour Falco naumanni, Otis tarda, Tetrax tetrax and Chersophilus duponti;
- Construction of a small green filter close to El Hito water treatment plant, to improve water quality, of water that sometimes reaches the wetland;
- Beaconing of 10 km of electrical lines to avoid collisions of some bird species;
- Construction of two hides for bird watching, mainly cranes, to attract eco-tourism;
- Updated vegetation mapping regarding the evolution of targeted habitats. On-site and laboratory monitoring/surveillance;
- Entomological studies as best key indicators for these habitats, and a bird census;
- Defined ecosystem services indicators;
- Awareness-raising programme for 30 municipalities and 50 schools, and dissemination of information via audio-visual material, including national TV (RTVE);
- Networking through participation at conferences, working groups on wetland habitats, and through the development of strategic plans for wetlands conservation; and
- Increased knowledge about these very scarce habitats, exchanged with working groups in Europe, to inform the assessment on its conservation status (EIONET).