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Wetland management

Not all wetland types are manageable or even require management from farmers. In many wetland types, such as fens or floodplain forests, the only action to preserve these natural habitats would be to not interfere and try not to adversely affect the wetland hydrological regime there. Despite the challenge, farmers benefit from these wetland ecosystems in the long run.

However, there is one important type of wetland, which is of great value to man and nature, and which could not exist without management. These are floodplain grasslands.

Management of floodplain grasslands – beneficial for nature and society

Floodplain grasslands can form naturally, as the introduction of trees and shrubs is hampered by seasonal flooding and moving ice. It is theorised that the open grassland was once maintained by large herders, like the aurochs and the wild horses – tarpans, but these animals are now extinct in the wild, and the flooding is less severe, making the grassland overgrow without mowing or intentional grazing. With no grazing or mowing, the grass is overgrown by more aggressive grassland species, but eventually it is overgrown by trees and shrubs. In such a situation, the natural value of grassland is rapidly reduced with fewer birds feeding and nesting in the open grassland, and the diversity of plants and other species rapidly disappears.

Floodplain grassland. Photo: K. Kalns

In addition to maintaining habitats of high natural value – home to many rare and protected species of plants, birds and other animals – those who manage floodplain grasslands also ensure that floodplains can purify the and store the floodwater, which in return reduces flooding in the wider area. In this way, those who maintain floodplain grasslands provide a great service to nature and society.

Restoration and management of floodplain grasslands

Floodplain grasslands, which are already recognized as protected habitats and are in good condition, are left to be mowed once or twice a year to collect hay and/or grazed, preventing it from becoming overgrown with bushes and covered with last year’s grass. Usually, such grasslands are not significantly drained or have only shallow ditches that do not significantly reduce the duration of floods. In the ideal case, the relief of the floodplain is varied – moderately wet areas or dry hills alternate with wet depressions. In some places there is low grass and wet depressions where birds can feed. In other places, there are abundant flowering perennials that butterflies and other insects feed on, and grassy clusters where birds can nest or hide.

Photo: K. Kalns

If the meadow is not completely drained and has retained some of the moisture characteristic for floodplains, it is relatively easy to restore it, even if it has been uncultivated and overgrown with aggressive plant species or bushes for many years. To restore such grasslands, it is often sufficient to start mowing and grazing again, before cutting down the bushes if necessary.

Many of the grasslands have been thoroughly drained and cultivated with crops. Often, however, despite the drainage, the cultivation of grains or other crops is also very risky, as they are periodically flooded during the flood season. As a result, many such areas are neglected or not properly managed. It is very likely that these sites have the potential for regeneration as floodplain grassland. However, it should be borne in mind that grasses that are located on heavily drained peat soils where peat is mineralized, but the grassland is only temporarily wet in spring and autumn, will be more difficult to regenerate.

The restoration potential should be assessed individually, assessing the situation in each specific location. Since the establishment of meadows and pastures in wetlands has long been associated with drainage, the necessity and extent of increasing moisture must also be carefully assessed in restoration. In some cases, restoration of suitable moisture conditions for floodplain grassland will require complete removal of the drainage system, in other cases, solutions that provide controlled drainage may be required, allowing the water level to be kept high seasonally, but then lowered. The first task of planning work is to find out what the optimal hydrological regime is for the plant and animal community that is to be restored, and only then to develop a moisture regime restoration plan. Consultation with experts and water level measurements will be necessary at different times of the year.

Photo: J. Ķuze

Anyone planning or thinking about the restoration or management of floodplain grasslands is advised to familiarize themselves with the Biotope Management Guidelines of the Nature Conservation Agency (floodplain grasslands are covered in depth in Part III of Volume 3).

Lack of support for floodplain restoration and management and the still untapped opportunities for Latvia

Large areas of floodplain meadows have been restored and are being restored by farmers cooperating with nature conservation organizations or the Nature Conservation Agency within the framework of various nature restoration projects: LIFE+ program project “Dviete”, LIFE Hydroplan project, LIFE AQPOM project, as well as LIFE Marshmeadows project among others. However, unfortunately, these activities are not enough to achieve a favorable conservation status for these habitats on a national scale, so floodplain restoration must be promoted in all areas where it has potential.

Unfortunately, state support is currently not available to restore and manage floodplains and other similar habitats in cases where they do not yet meet the status of EU importance habitat. However, with the gradual implementation of the EU Green Deal and the Biodiversity Strategy 2030, nature restoration, including the restoration and management of floodplains and other wetlands, has moved up the list of EU policy priorities, so there is hope that this could change in the future. As part of the LIFE IP LatviaNature project, a promising pilot program “Flower meadows” has been launched, within the framework of which the owners or managers of grasslands were invited to apply for the restoration and management of those grasslands that do not yet qualify as habitats of EU importance, but can become such with proper restoration and management. There was a lot of interest in the program and the first results showed good success. We hope that similar support programs will be implemented on a larger scale in the future.

It should be noted that support for the maintenance of existing floodplain habitats also needs to be significantly improved and strengthened. Support planners have assumed that floodplains are located on fertile soils, so floodplain owners mostly receive support according to class 1 – “grasslands on fertile soils”, so the area payment is not as high as many other types of habitats of EU importance. However, it is not taken into account that the management of floodplains is difficult due to floodplains and waterlogged soil, and the value of hay obtained is often lower than in other grasslands.

There are precedents in the European Union where maintenance and flooding of floodplain grasslands or other flood-prone areas during the flood season is subsidized by the local authorities or even by local villagers or towns whose houses and infrastructure are located in flood-risk areas lower downstream. Such an agreement exists, for example, in the Austrian town of Altenmarkt, where a cooperative of owners has even been established for the controlled accumulation of floodwaters, which receives support from the local population for preserving this area from flooding. A similar scheme has also been implemented in the Austrian town of Mittersill, where the local government pays farmers extra to protect their areas from possible flooding. In-depth information about such initiatives and related research can be found on the homepage of the Land4flood project. Such schemes may have future potential in Latvia as well, especially taking into account the large contribution of floodplain grasslands that accumulate floodwaters, for example, by the floodplains of the middle course of river Daugava, which reduce the risk of flooding in the town of Jēkabpils. There might be similar situations elsewhere in Latvia, but currently there is a lack of research on them.

How to manage floodplain grasslands

Managing floodplain grasslands is far from easy. In order to do this effectively and in a friendly way to the area, it is necessary to understand both the ecology of the ecosystem and to get to know the hydrology of the area and follow its changes.

In order to ensure biological diversity in floodplain grasslands, their connectivity is very important – the circulation of information (seeds, energy, nutrients) cannot happen if the grassland area is too small or is not connected to similar grasslands nearby. It is also necessary to take into account the movement of water in grasslands. For this reason, the management of them can be a bit like a lottery – to mow or not to mow, to let livestock graze or not, because heavier rains or a prolonged spring affect floodplain grasslands more than non-flooded grassland habitats. It is necessary to be able to adapt and plan management around developments in nature, not dates in the calendar.

In floodplain grasslands, attention should be paid to the cover of last year’s grass and expansive species. Due to the fertile soil, these grasslands have a typical large cover of last year’s grass and dominance of these expansive species is possible.

In order to prevent the growth of this grass layer, the lawn should be grazed/mowed in autumn so that there is not a large layer of old grass left in it during the winter.

Photo: K. Kalns

It is recommended to harrow the lawn in the spring to remove the excess layer of straw and loosen the soil, thus allowing the seeds of the plant to spread more easily. These actions must be coordinated with the nesting time of the birds and the hydrological regime in the grassland, so that the nesting of the birds is not disturbed and the ground is not too wet to drive over it with tractor equipment.

What equipment to choose

The choice of equipment for managing floodplain grasslands depends on the type of grassland. In simple terms, typical agricultural machinery will suffice in drier floodplain grasslands, but in wetter floodplain grasslands that do not really dry out throughout the year, more serious machinery with wider tires or even tracks would be needed to prevent ruts from forming in the grasslands. Similarly, with the technique of mowing, raking, collecting hay – you should choose a technique that creates less pressure on the surface of the grassland.

In addition to large equipment, it is recommended to use an animal and bird repeller – a device that can be attached to the front of the tractor in order to reduce the impact of the equipment on biodiversity, as well as to choose the direction of action from the center to the edges of the field when mowing and collecting hay.

Although it is not really possible to live without machinery when ensuring adequate management of floodplain grasslands, less impact on the environment can be created by managing grasslands using grazing as the main method.

Which livestock to choose

Foto: K. Kalns

By grazing the territory and limiting the movement of livestock during the nesting period (if ground-breeding species nest in the territory), it is possible to achieve management with less impact on biological diversity than using mowing as the main management method.

By grazing the territory, in addition to careful management, we also get additional benefits – the circulation of nutrients, the transfer of seeds, the limitation of invasive species, we strengthen the root system of plants and improve the overall health of the grassland. For grazing floodplain grasslands, it is preferable to choose less intensive breeds of cattle – Galloways, Belted Galloways or Scottish Highlanders, as these breeds are lighter, thus they reduce soil compaction and degradation of wet grasslands. It is also recommended to regulate the location of cattle grazing – if the territory is large, divide it into parts and create a rotation of pastures, so that both the less desirable areas for cows and more desirable areas are grazed equally. It is also necessary to remember sometimes there are unpredictable hydrological conditions in floodplain grasslands – it must be ensured that livestock, in the event of a flood, have the opportunity to take refuge in an area that does not flood.

Income-generating potential associated with the management of floodplain grasslands

State aid for the maintenance of biodiversity in grasslands through area payments (BDUZ payments)

Farmers can receive compensation for maintaining biodiversity in grasslands – because nature conservation is also a product that farmers give to society and for which compensation is due.

Those who manage habitats of European Union (EU) importance, including floodplains and other related habitats, can apply for support for grassland maintenance at the Rural Support Service. Such support is also available for habitats that are of high value to bird species and are therefore classified as grassland bird habitats, even if they do not yet contain vegetation typical of floodplain habitats.

Grassland products

The meadows are very generous – by managing them, it is possible to produce various products – honey, meat, tea, among others.

Grass-fed beef degustation in floodplain of Sita and Pededze during ‘Taste of the meadow’ day

Photo: Ritvars Stankevičs

Currently, the Latvian Fund for Nature is developing the brand “Natural meadow product” as part of the LIFE-IP LatViaNature project, and invites meadow owners to apply as cooperation partners and potential producers of natural meadow products. The brand of natural meadow products is a special label that will allow the consumer to recognize products that come from natural meadows, thus giving them the opportunity to support the preservation of meadows. This brand will be a cooperation and a support mechanism for business with high added value and a new market tool for the preservation of valuable and rapidly disappearing natural meadows in Latvia.

Meadow hay pellets

In addition to producing products such as tea, honey, milk and meat, grasslands are also a valuable source of biomass. The floodplain grassland is productive and can be harvested for fodder. There are known cases where hay is used as fuel in boiler houses, as well as material for compost. It is also possible to find new uses for hay, for example by producing high-quality hay pellets, a product with a higher added value. An example is the LIFE UpcyclingGrass project, which uses innovative technologies to produce products from low-value hay, straw and reeds. The new products – substrate for growing tree seedlings, bedding for animals, fertilizer for gardens – will have a lower climate impact than those currently on the market, and the harvesting of biomass will help restore natural grasslands.

Tourism opportunities

Floodplain grasslands and their management create various tourism opportunities. Important sites for birds have the potential to be of interest to birdwatchers. During floods, the floodplains are more often used by water tourists, moving with SUP boards and boats, enjoying the unique landscape. Visitors can also be attracted by traditional ways of farming – the presence of horses, cows or other grazing animals.