Hydrology and Grazing practices in 3 different Protected Areas

Espen during his study visit.

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Espen Quinto-Ashman is one of the Alfred Toepfer Natural Heritage Scholarship winners of 2022. For his field trips, he visited three Protected Areas in Eastern Europe to learn more about their management practises, focussed specifically on hydrology and grazing management. This article, written by Espen, details his trips. You can also find a summarising video as well as his full report.

Article written by Espen Quinto-Ashman.

Aspirations of the study visit

Wildlife populations have declined globally an average of 69% between 1970 and 2018. A vast amount of irreparable damage has already been done, and it is likely to get significantly worse at an accelerating pace, even with immediate action. A radical transition away from a growth/consumption based societal system is urgently needed.

If managed correctly, Protected Areas are a vital resource in this struggle, preserving areas of particularly high importance to nature. Nature conservation in non-protected areas should equally not be overlooked, as protected areas cover far too small an area to maintain resilient populations alone.

My aspiration for this study was to learn from the management practices in different Protected Areas and consider how they could be utilized to maximize their effectiveness in protecting nature.

Watch a summary of his visits:

The Protected Areas visited

I selected my three protected areas to represent broadly different habitat types (even if the habitat varies within the area):

Extensive freshwater marshes (Biebrza National Park, Poland), ancient, unmanaged forest (Białowieża National Park, Poland) and meadows (Maramureș Natural Park, Romania). These are all habitats which have been significantly impacted by changes in land use over the past centuries, and their extent in Europe is now probably lower than at any other point in history. This means that Protected Areas are of vital importance to these habitats and the life they support. The management practices required to protect and maintain these different habitat types vary drastically, and this is often reflected in the management practices adopted within Protected Areas.

My study trips allowed me to get a ‘behind the scenes’ view on areas that I have long dreamt of visiting due to their high biodiversity and gave me an insight into the management realities in these areas. The trips were absolutely not all-encompassing, these are large areas with complex conservation issues and the specifics of their management require expert knowledge of the local conditions and history. However, there are several issues which are almost universal in the conservation of terrestrial (and sometimes aquatic) ecosystems.

Key issues

These issues require tailor made conservation strategies, sometimes active and sometimes passive, which are flexible to changing climatic conditions. It is also essential that conservation measures are not restricted to protected areas but also extended to the wider environment. These key issues can be summarised as follows:

  • Hydrological systems in a poor state (due to, among other factors: land drainage, changing climatic conditions, pollution and changes to vegetation cover) are a factor in the declines of many species and the degradation of ecosystems as a whole, as well as that of agricultural land. Some of the challenges in the restoration of these systems are practical or financial (especially when it comes to large-scale projects), however the largest challenges are usually posed by opposition by stakeholders and bureaucratic hoops. These activities are essential and should be prioritised.
  • Agriculture has and continues to change drastically, from small-scale and extensive, to intensive systems. This transition has an impact on biodiversity which cannot cope with the methods used, including the inputs of agrochemicals. These methods are essential for the growth and profitability of modern crop and livestock varieties but work against, rather than with natural systems. This is not sustainable and will lead to biodiversity collapse and large-scale crop failure. Another issue with changing agricultural practices is the abandonment of agricultural land, this leads to the succession and loss of valuable ecosystems. The solution to these issues can be found in traditional agricultural practices, using traditional varieties of crops and livestock suited to their specific environment with produce distributed locally.
  • Forest ecosystems suffer from conventional forestry practices, which as well as destroying old growth forest, often do not allow for the natural development of forest ecosystems with long continuity in tree age as well as natural amounts of dead wood. Plantation of new forests after clear-felling leads to tree monocultures with extremely low biodiversity and a higher susceptibility to climatic events and disease outbreaks. Large quantities of timber and forestry ‘waste’ are used in the production of biofuels, this is not a sustainable replacement for fossil-fuels and is a key driver of demand for forestry products in many countries. The solution to these issues is to plan forestry practices around natural ecosystems and to increase the re-use of forestry products.

Natural ecosystems have never been more fragile and fragmented and the necessity for more careful agriculture, forestry and a reduction in development and extractive industries has never been greater. The consequences of continued ‘business as usual’ are dire, not only for nature but for us too.

Read the full report here!

The Alfred Toepfer Natural Heritage Scholarships are made possible thanks to the generous support of the Alfred Toepfer Stiftung.