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LIFEnews features 2012

LIFE programme achieves peak performance in mountain and upland areas

LIFE has helped many Member States to gain a great deal of experience of supporting effective environmental action in mountain areas through various nature conservation and sustainable development actions.

Photo: LIFE06 NAT/F/000143

Mountains represent important environmental, economic and cultural assets for EU Member States. Our upland areas are home to large numbers of species and these extensive European territories also support important ecosystem services that benefit the entire continent. Hence, looking after Europe’s mountains has formed part of the LIFE programme’s mandate from the outset of its operations 20 years ago.

Many mountain and upland environments are relatively fragile and can be vulnerable to changes in land use or climate conditions. Flora and fauna in these parts of Europe tend to be specially adapted to survive in extreme circumstances and they can experience difficulties if the delicate balance of their high altitude ecosystems becomes upset. Significant areas of upland Europe are therefore protected by Natura 2000 designations and much of LIFE’s mountain support has focused on boosting the conservation status of habitats and species in these priority sites.

Species support

LIFE’s extensive network of species support in upland areas stretches across the EU from north to south and east to west. This work ranges from habitat conservation action among dramatic mountain peaks to wildlife protection measures within undulating hilly regions.

In France for example, LIFE is currently active in the Vosges uplands reducing threats to a sub species of capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus). Here in forests at altitudes of up to 1100m a LIFE project (LIFE08 NAT/F/000474) is putting in place a forest management policy appropriate to the capercaillie's requirements. Operations include maintaining favourable habitats and re-establishing the tranquillity necessary for this protected species’ survival and development. As with other LIFE projects in upland areas (and elsewhere), special attention is being paid to integrate LIFE’s nature conservation activity with economic interests. Such results will aim to achieve long-term sustainable benefits for all who enjoy to live, work and holiday in the Vosges.

Similar objectives are held by another French LIFE project (LIFE06 NAT/F/000143), this time located in the south of the country on western Alpine slopes, where LIFE funds have been successfully used to support a rare snake species, Orisini’s Viper (Vipera ursinii). These snakes are only found in a limited number of European locations and the French population has suffered declines due to a combination of habitat loss plus persecution. LIFE’s intervention helped to improve prospects for the viper through developing partnerships with land users in the mountains, including the Tour de France and Mondovélo cycle race events, to manage visitor pressures and limit impacts on susceptible habitats. LIFE also facilitated the involvement of local farmers in snake conservation practices and commitments have been secured to continue this approach via agri-environment schemes in Provence-Alpes-Côte d' Azur.

Photo: LIFE02 NAT/IT/008574

Higher altitude examples of LIFE achievements with European mountain species includes project assistance for Apennine chamois (Rupricapra pyrenaica ornata). An in-depth review of LIFE’s support for this endangered mountain species is presented in the second article of this LIFE news edition. 

Other LIFE achievements with mountain mammals involve improvements in the status of large carnivores like bears, lynx and wolves (all of which rely on and favour upland environments). For instance, a search on LIFE’s project database reveals more than 20 cases of support for European wolves (Canis lupus), over 30 references to mountain based Brown bears (Ursus arctos), and some 50 different mentions of LIFE support for Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx). Upland areas from Austria, Romania, Greece, Italy, Spain, Hungary, France, Slovenia and Portugal have all been assisted by this LIFE funding.

Taking the programme’s support for brown bears as an example shows that a critical mass of vital management information has now been collated by LIFE partners about this iconic animal’s habits, their habitat requirements, and effective techniques for harmonising human/bear relations. Continuations of such work can be seen in northern Greek mountains (LIFE07 NAT/GR/000291) where innovations are being tested like providing shepherds with sturdy Molosserdogs which discourage bears from preying on livestock. Further ongoing work to enhance the prospects for brown bears is taking place in Spain (LIFE07 NAT/E/000735) through the renewal of habitat corridors that aim to better connect bear populations and reduce threats from illegal snares or poisoning.

Spanish mountain regions have also benefitted from positive LIFE project outputs for another large, rare and endangered EU species, namely the bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus). Various vulture conservation activities were co-financed by LIFE (LIFE02 NAT/E/008624) in Spain’s Picos de Europa (Peaks of Europe). Together, the mix of new feeding stations, installation of artificial nests, and reduction of mortality risks from overhead power lines allowed the project to fulfil its objectives of expanding the Pyrenean bearded vulture population. These successes complemented associated LIFE undertakings (LIFE03 NAT/F/000100) for the bearded vultures in the French, Italian, and Austrian  Alps.

Mountain flora

A great many European plants are adapted to endure the often harsh conditions of mountain life but increasing pressures from intensive farm, forest or recreational land users can have a negative impact on upland flora. LIFE provides a tool to help redress these problems in priority areas and the Programme has a proficient reputation for restoring mountain habitats containing important plants.

LIFE’s reach here extends to EU outer-laying regions, like the French overseas territory of Réunion, where LIFE funding is deployed LIFE07 NAT/F/000188 on a project tackling the loss of high nature vale semi-xerophilic habitats (which now only cover around one percent of their former area on Réunion’s mountains).

Photo: LIFE03 NAT/CP/IT/000003

On mainland Europe, conservation work underway in the Czech Republic’s Lounské Středohoří hills (LIFE09 NAT/CZ/000363) typifies the sort of aid available from LIFE for managing upland Natura 2000 sites. Here a coordinated series of measures to restore pastures and eliminate invasive species is taking place. Whilst such approaches are reasonably well established as treatment methods for upland habitats in older Member States, LIFE actions like this one can still be pioneers for newer Member States who continue to use LIFE as a valuable capacity building device during their biodiversity protection duties. A further interesting example of this is shown through Poland’s LIFE08 NAT/PL/000513 which is developing theory and best practices in the preservation of Annex 1 habitats on moraine hills and steep river valley slopes.

Lesson learning remains an integral part of LIFE project philosophy and the programme has accumulated a vast collection of knowledge about the different skills involved in safeguarding mountain environments. Spain’s LIFE05 NAT/E/000067and LIFE03 NAT/E/000064 illustrate this through the scientific knowhow that was generated on high altitude forest habitats protected by Natura designations. Staying in Spain, noteworthy and transferable experiences were gained from the parallel (LIFE99 NAT/E/006352 and LIFE99 NAT/E/006371) projects which achieved connectivity between green infrastructure features in the Sierra de Ancares mountains.

New challenges

Climate change is a major challenge for European mountain areas that LIFE is helping to develop new knowhow in mitigation and adaptation practice. Trends in global warming can to lead to species migrating upwards in order to stay within their bioclimatic envelope. However, the scope for upward escape for mountain species remains limited. The European Environment Agency estimates that as many as 60% of Alpine plant species may face extinction by 2100 if they cannot adapt to climate change by moving northwards or upslope.

Italy is one country at the forefront of this challenge, with projects such as LIFE08 NAT/IT/000371 improving Appennine beech and silver fir forests that have suffered from drier, hotter weather and LIFE09 ENV/IT/000115 is helping mountain authorities seek governance solutions for minimising causes of climate change. On a similar vein, LIFE02 ENV/IT/000092 led to an entire mountain region becoming certified through the EMAS scheme which facilitates improvements in greenhouse gas emissions, erosion, waste and water management.

Click on the ‘mountain areas’ keywords in the LIFE project database to retrieve more information about the Programme’s peak performance in European mountain and upland areas.

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