Management of coastal meadows and related wetland habitats in Matsalu National Park.
Matsalu wetland has been a nature reserve since 1957, a wetland of international importance since 1975 (listing renewed in 1994) and was recently designated as a National Park. Total size of the he area is 48610 ha. It is also included in an IBA that is slightly larger and into a very large (over 2600 sq km) Väinameri Natura 2000 site (both SPA and pSCI). Area is a strategic spot of the East-Atlantic flyway.
Among habitats that make the area special are the coastal meadows and other grasslands. These have been shaped by several factors: shallow sea, landlift and long-term human impacts, mostly grazing. For thousands of years the retreating coastline has been grazed, so that reeds could not take hold and short-grass vegetation dominated by plants like Juncus gerardii, Plantago maritima, Glaux maritima, Triglochin maritimum was formed. The coastal meadows here are thus a typical example of primary seminatural habitats. Due to landlift older parts of coastal meadows gradually get less and less seawater and the saline vegetation is replaced by more species rich suprasaline one, while new saline zone is created from the sea. However all of this complex is considered to be part of the coastal meadow, habitat 1630 of Annex 1 of the Habitat directive (patches dominated by Salicornia and Suaeda are usually considered to represent the habitat 1310 though). Only these meadows that have completely lost their contact with the seawater are considered to represent different meadow habitats. Due to calcium rich soil the habitats formed are mostly 6210 (calcareous dry meadows) or 6280 (alvars) on higher ground and 6410 (Molina meadows) or even 7230 (alkaline fens) on lower grounds. Acidic soils favouring development of 6270 (mesic meadows) or 4030 (heaths) are rare in Matsalu wetland. On parts of the higher ground juniper bush (5130) has developed. In Kasari delta the sedimentation together with landlift have cause gradual replacement of the seawater impact with the floods caused by the river, and alluvial meadows (6450) have formed. Here the main use has been haymaking for generations. On the higher grounds that have been out of water long enough wooded vegetation has developed, resulting in development of mown wooded meadows (6530) or grazed wood-pastures (9070).
While the latter habitats may have very high botanical value and other virtues they are not central to the functioning of the wetland as a strategic spot of the flyway and will not be dealt with in detail here. The coastal meadows and other open wet grassland habitats are on the contrary extremely important for migrating waterfowl and waders. They also harbour the largest Estonian population of the endangered Baltic Dunlin and are very important for other waders as well.
It has been recognised since the creation of the nature reserve that traditional landuse practices like grazing or mowing are instrumental in maintaining the meadows: stopping of these would result in overgrowth with reeds and bushes. Even though the latter are also part of wetland biodiversity the large-scale replacement of meadows with reed and willow thickets could result in loss of plant, invertebrate and bird populations. Thus it was considered necessary to allow the traditional uses of the meadows to continue. However in early 1990s when transition to market fundamentalism following restoration of national independence resulted in rapid decline of agriculture, it became apparent that allowing to mow or graze was not enough. Animal numbers declined dramatically and use of seminatural meadows was about to disappear.
In this situation the first thing to do was to prepare a management plan where need to graze and mow was stated, mechanism of contracting the farmers and paying compensations was described, and budget needs were assessed. The preparation of the management plan was a start of our long-term successful cooperation with WWF Sweden. The plan was ready in 1993. The second thing was of course to implement the plan. After extensive lobbying firs money was allocated by the Parliament for 1996. That was the year when modern management of the meadows was started in Estonia: Matsalu Nature Reserve administration made contracts with the farmers who were to secure grazing or mowing of the designated habitats, and the administration was to pay the compensations. The trend of quick abandonment was reversed. This was helped by investment in tractors, fences and cattle carried out in the frame of various projects financed with the aid of donors like EU, Ramsar SGF, SIDA and WWF. Such a support has been very important for the site management with the indirect benefits of improving relations between the nature conservation authorities and the farming community, and maintaining viable farming economy.
Since 2001 the national scheme of seminatural habitat management is operating in Estonia under the Ministry of Environment. It includes area payment of 1000 EEK/ha for management coastal meadows while most of other habitats receive somewhat smaller rate of support. In addition the cost of erecting fences is compensated at a rate 10 EEK/m. The obligation of the farmer in order to receive the payment is to secure sufficient grazing, meaning that at least half of the pasture is grazed short. In case of mowing the requirement is to start mowing after 1st of July, not mow towards the centre of the plot, and remove the hay. This support scheme was further elaborated and improved for the Rural Development Plan with the aim of gradually taking over of the meadow management compensations form national nature conservation money to CAP funding. However as a last-moment political decision the funding for this measure from RDP was cancelled thus putting a significant constrain on further development of meadow conservation.
The current situation in Matsalu National Park is that over thousand hectares of coastal meadows are grazed under these contracts and over hundred hectares are mown on an average year. In addition over two hundred hectares of dry meadows and alvars are grazed and almost two thousand hectares of alluvial meadows or fens are mown, while area of mown wooded meadows is over 80 ha and grazed wood-pastures about three hundred hectares. Most of the targets set by our first management plan have been achieved. However the number of grazing animals is still largely insufficient, in spite of some recovery during last few years. This puts constrains on both grazing itself and the demand for hay from the mown meadows. It must also be noted that most grazing is done by cattle, some by sheep and horses, with almost no mixed grazing, that is not favourable for the grazing quality.
Resulting problems with coastal meadows and other wet meadow habitats include overgrowth of the most wet parts and thus loss of the so-called blue border. Also part of the drier area covered with tall grass and encroached by bush is too large. These problems occur both on the pastures as a result of insufficient grazing and in the hay-meadows mostly due to too high ground-pressure of the existing tractors. This in turn can lead to unfavourable status of the most sensitive wader species like Black-tailed Godwit, Ruff, Dunlin and others in spite of the large area under management. The Dunlin is at present relatively stable in the three best coastal meadow sites that are more or less well-grazed and also under strong influence of the sea while the other two species have become very rare. At the same time species favoured by tall grass like Snipe or Curlew are doing well.
In order to secure favourable conservation status of the Dunlin and possibilities of recovery for Ruff and Black-tailed Godwit both quantity and quality of the habitat must be enhanced. This includes creating the blue border, expanding short grass areas and decreasing enroachment by bush. This in turn implies increasing grazing animal numbers, developing technological solutions for mowing the wettest parts of the meadows, combining grazing and mowing on some sites. This in turn means continued and developed support for the seminatural meadow management, investment in technology and animals, and improved marketing of the products derived from the management like ‘green meat’. We end up with a conclusion that is slightly stereotypic nowadays but true nevertheless: sustaining management of habitats for biodiversity purposes implies sustainable local development. That is a truth that nature conservationists working with management of West-Estonian coastal grasslands have by now firmly realised. While planning for the nearest future we try to combine these general principles with clear site-specific management objectives.