A new agri-environment scheme formed one of the integrated rural development outcomes from a LIFE project in Slovenia which set up support systems to safeguard grassland habitats and demonstrates how farming and nature conservation can work well together to achieve joint goals.
Traditional agricultural practices in Slovenia have contributed to the country holding one of the highest EU ratings on the UNEP WCMC biodiversity index. More than 250 species and over 40 of Slovenia’s habitat types are noted as being important at European level. These are eligible for protection through the Natura 2000 network and include grasslands like calcareous fens and meadows of lowland hay or molinia where endangered bird species such as the corncrake (Crex crex) make their homes.
Although cousins of the relatively common moorhen and coot species, corncrakes are much rarer, being officially endangered and classified as 'vulnerable' at both world and European level. Slovenia’s corncrake population had been declining during recent times. This was in part due to changes in grassland management methods by farmers who have either abandoned unprofitable pastures or introduced new mechanised techniques to improve farm competitiveness. Both such changes alter corncrake habitats.
Key concentrations of remaining corncrake can still be found in areas surrounding Lake Cerkniško (Europe’s largest intermittent lake), in the flat fields of Ljubljansko barje, and along the Nanoščica River. This population contains around 250 singing males and a LIFE project was launched in January 2004 to help find long-term solutions for the conservation status of these protected birds. LIFE’s involvement with corncrake conservation in Slovenia started at a time when the country was in the process of joining the EU. Nature conservation practices had not previously been widespread beforehand and so LIFE’s role provided crucial capacity building inputs bringing together the people and organisations that needed to work in partnership to reverse the declining prospects of Slovenia’s corncrake population.
National bodies like the Ministry for Environment and Spatial Planning, as well as the Ministry for Agriculture, Forestry and Food (MAFF) took a special interest in the project which was used effectively as a tool to help these government authorities comply with their new EU obligations. For example, LIFE’s co-finance (contributing nearly €607 000 of EU funds over a 40 month period) allowed the preparation of Slovenia’s first Conservation Action Plan for Corncrake. The plan laid out a ten year (2005-2015) legal framework for implementing corncrake protection measures in accord with requirements of the EU Birds and Habitats Directives. Regional governments were also integral partners in the project and they welcomed the ability of LIFE to draw on its experience from other LIFE projects that had already developed good practice in this field of strategic conservation planning work.
Other strategic benefits provided by LIFE’s capacity building support at national and regional levels involved the design of a dedicated agri-environment scheme. This was aimed at conserving traditional grassland management approaches in corncrake habitats and formed a core component of Slovenia’s Rural Development Programme (RDP). Agri-environment schemes are mandatory RDP elements for all Member States and LIFE’s role is acknowledged by MAFF as helping them determine the details of their programme for improving the environment and countryside in rural Slovenia.
LIFE’s collaboration with the Ministry’s new agri-environment scheme went further than establishing the type of corncrake-friendly farming approaches that should be funded in the target areas. The project also helped to demonstrate how agri-environment measures can facilitate ‘Green Growth’ approaches to rural development through new eco-tourism opportunities. LIFE funded different visitor services as part of the project including wildlife observation points and information boards. This type of integrated nature conservation technique applied by LIFE here can be used to add value to agri-environment actions and reinforces their relevance as a development-oriented device.
Additional and diversified income opportunities for agricultural communities boost the incentives for farmers to get involved with nature conservation. Farmers in the Slovenian sites, as elsewhere in the EU, ultimately remain the most significant stakeholders in safeguarding the corncrake’s conservation status. LIFE’s support provided the momentum to overcome initial reticence among local farmers about adapting their grassland management to fit more closely with wildlife needs. Uptake of the new agri-environment measure has now been successful and more farmers than ever before appreciate the full range of socioeconomic and environmental benefits available from sustainable agricultural practices.
The project’s achievements saw it being selected as one of the 26 "Best" LIFE Nature projects in 2007-2008 and more information is available from its Layman’s report (also noted as best practice by LIFE).