The region of Ohrid and Prespa has a high concentration of natural values. The protection, conservation and management of these values demands significant resources and capacities. In order to fill the gaps that public administrations have, involvement from different environmental actors is needed and welcomed.
With this in mind, PONT has supported both, the public administration and environmental actors from the very beginning of its granting activities. The cooperation in habitat restoration between the Public Institution Galicica National Park (PIGNP), Municipality of Resen, managing the Ezerani Nature Park (ENP), and Macedonian Ecological Society (MES), is exemplary in the effectiveness of this approach.
During 2017-2018, a group of experts studied the wetland habitats along the shores of Lake Prespa, on the Macedonian side, supported by a grant from PONT and Aage V. Jensen Charity Foundation. The study identified and mapped the wetland habitat types, identifying those of high conservation importance, such as the habitats listed in the EU Habitats Directive.
The work continued in 2019 with the estimation of the biomass of wet meadows and its chemical composition, as well as in-depth phytocoenological analyses. The analysis of socio-cultural aspects revealed that the wet meadows in the past had a significant role in local farming and cattle nutrition. These results enabled the researchers and protected area managers to establish the priorities for active management of the wet meadows, or its restoration, to maintain and improve their conservation values.
Active management was initiated in 2020 by selecting representative plots and establishing a long-term biodiversity plan. The plan covers several taxonomic groups of organisms and measures the impact of management actions. This was done in close consultation with local farmers, private owners of meadows and the Municipality of Resen that manages the ENP. Since the mowing required specialised mechanization, a cooperation with local farmers with suitable skills and experience was established. In the summer of 2020, the first round of mowing covered 1.5 hectares and produced 300 bales of hay, with a total dry weight of 5 tonnes. The bales were donated to the local farmers who reported food shortages during the winter, without any compensation being required. The approach was replicated in 2021 on 3 hectares, yielding 600 bales of hay, all again donated to local livestock farmers.
In 2022, the results of the wet meadow restoration actions at ENP were presented to the managers of the neighbouring Galicica National Park where it was discussed that the hay should be used as fodder for the European red deer. The red deer is part of another habitat restoration programme – management of semi-natural dry grasslands in the park. These habitats were created through a traditional mode of grazing over many centuries. Their maintenance depended on regular grazing by large herds of sheep, but also by mowing the grass and occasional burning. These practices have created secondary habitat types that host exceptional biological diversity and add to the landscape values of the park. Due to the significant socio-economic changes over the last century, traditional grazing practices were completely abandoned, resulting in successional overgrowth of the grasslands.
The need for active management of the semi-natural dry grasslands in the park is recognized as a conservation priority. The park managers identified the increase in the population of native grazers as a viable alternative to compensate for the lack of livestock grazing. The action centred on boosting the population of the European red deer as an autochthonous, native grazer of Galicica. In 2019, a European Red Deer Breeding Centre was established on an area of 90 hectares within the active management zone of the park, hosting 24 females and 6 males. The park staff takes care of the deer population on a daily basis through regular supply of food, water, and medical treatment in order to maintain it healthy and growing. The heard has now grown to 100 individuals (2022). The ultimate goal is to gradually release them in the wild to increase and then maintain a large population roaming freely in the park.
The running of the Red Deer Breeding Centre incurs significant costs that are partly covered by the co-financing from PONT. Providing sufficient fodder for the growing herd in the enclosure has become even more challenging with recent inflation.
Fortunately, this challenge was turned into an opportunity by linking the different habitat restoration activities in Prespa. In the summer of 2022, the managed wetlands in ENP, covering 6 hectares of meadows, produced 1400 bales of hay that were distributed to both Red Deer Breeding Centre and livestock breeders in Prespa, at no cost.
The active management of wet meadows therefore benefits both biodiversity across habitat types and the local communities. Mowing ensures the sustainability of the diversity of plant species, controlling the succession that occurs as a result of dry years, and stimulating livestock breeding in the region. Furthermore, the removal of biomass from wet meadows helps slow down the process of eutrophication of Lake Prespa.
This practice is planned to continue over the next few years and expected to strengthen the cooperation between Public Institution Galicica National Park, Municipality of Resen and MES on habitat management and restoration and thus contribute to more effective protected area management, multiplying the benefits of PONT co-financing.
Lazar Nikolov, Macedonian Ecological Society
Dejan Dimidzievski and Kliment Nanev, Public Institution Galicica National Park