Mikri Prespa’s wet meadows

Rare bird species are returning to a part of the Prespa Lakes as the result of a project to manage the reed beds surrounding the lakes, aimed at restoring some of the wet meadows where once humans and local fauna coexisted to the benefit of both. Many of the wet meadows, areas surrounding the lake with low aquatic vegetation that serve as a habitat for birds and spawning grounds for fish, have disappeared in recent years due to the encroachment of the reed beds, once kept in check by human activities. «In 1945, the wet meadows and marshes around Mikri Prespa Lake covered 129 hectares. In 1994, this was down to 89 hectares and in 2000, only 33,» said Yiannis Kazoglou of the Society for the Protection of Prespa, which has initiated a project to restore the total area of wet meadows to 100 hectares. The reed beds once provided building and insulation material as well as animal fodder for the winter months; they served as breeding grounds for fish, especially carp, the most marketable fish in Prespa, and as a very important feeding ground for many rare species of water birds such as herons, pygmy cormorants, Dalmatian and white pelicans. Fishermen kept the shallow littoral areas clear of high emergent vegetation (reed, reedmace, common club-rush) as the fishing methods used then were mainly applied in shallow waters (such as traps made of reed stems). They also burned large parts of the reed beds every winter, creating suitable habitats for the reproduction of fish the following spring. These traditional practices had the long-term effect of sustainable management, conserving both the features and the natural values of the wet meadows, but as these practices have died out, reed beds have grown out of control. From the mid-1980s, local people turned almost exclusively to the cultivation of beans. Trawling in the lake’s littoral zone has virtually been abandoned and fishing now takes place in deep waters with nets. Consequently, both the fish population and many rare species of birds (e.g. glossy ibis, spoonbill) had disappeared from Prespa. One more significant factor was a ban on burning reeds, to protect the birds nesting in the reed beds. Prespa is one of the two places in Europe where the Dalmatian and great white pelicans nest together. The pygmy cormorant colony found here is the largest in the European Union. The area also hosts seven heron species, the only colony of graylag geese in Greece, and is also an important wintering area for waterfowl. Most of the above species feed on small fish and other organisms found in wet meadows. As a consequence, their conservation is directly dependent upon the existence of wet meadowland. Only in a very small area around the island of Aghios Achilleios are the reed beds still managed in the old way, where each summer cattle-breeders harvest the vegetation for winter fodder and where cattle graze regularly in the reed bed, creating a shallow belt of water between the island and the surrounding reed bed. In addition, every winter, different sections of the reed beds fringing the lake are burned, although this is done without taking the nesting areas of birds into consideration. Management project In June 1991, the Society for the Protection of Prespa (SPP), began exploring the problem, with the aim of implementing management measures to restore and conserve the wet meadows. In February 1997, within the framework of the LIFE project «Conservation of Pygmy Cormorant and Lesser White Fronted Goose in Greece,» the SPP fenced off an area mainly covered by reeds, provided by the municipality of Aghios Achilleios, and began an experiment on reed management by means of cutting, burning and grazing, as well as combinations of the three. The first results were very encouraging, within a relatively small area where management measures were implemented, several waterbird species were observed feeding. First of all, pygmy cormorants appeared, then there were sightings of purple herons, storks, mallards, gray herons, great white egrets, squacco herons and Dalmatian pelicans. Recent observations showed that reed bed management also seems to have positive results for the reproduction of fish. After a three-year experimental phase, the project began in earnest last July with the cutting of 65 hectares of reeds around Mikri (Little) Prespa Lake, along with the grazing of cattle. «Local response has been generally positive. This is not something they are unused to; it is just bringing back old practices. The municipality has given us a lot of support; they understand the importance of restoring meadows and whatever we do, we always ask their approval – we are a non-governmental organization. The Agriculture and Environment ministries have also helped us,» said Kazoglou. The project is being implemented with the collaboration of the Laboratory of Range Ecology, Faculty of Forestry and Natural Environment (University of Thessaloniki) and the Biological Station of Tour du Valat (France). The Danish Ornithological Society and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds also contributed to the organization of the project. The management plan is currently being approved by the relevant authorities and has been partly implemented through the LIFE nature project titled «Conservation of Priority Bird Species in Mikri Prespa Lake, Greece.» The project was funded by the MAVA Foundation, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the General Secretariat of Research and Technology of the Ministry of Development. The implementation is being funded by MAVA and WWF (40 percent) and 60 percent through the LIFE project. Yiannis Kazoglou is to talk about the management of the Prespa Lakes wet meadows on Monday, February 17, at 7 p.m. at the Hellenic Society for the Protection of Nature, 20 Nikis St, Syntagma Square.