Grouse management in the Black Forest
Just a stone's throw from the urban sprawl of the plain along the Upper Rhine, the "Grindenschwarzwald" in the Black Forest is one of the last ecological oases in the region. At altitudes of 900 to over 1100 metres there is a mosaic of woods, bogs and open mountain heaths, where capercaillie Tetrao urogallus, hazel grouse Bonasa bonasia, peregrine falcon Falco peregrinus and pygmy owl Glaucidium passerinum can still thrive.
The Grindenschwarzwald is also a popular year- round destination for over two million walkers and skiers. Species and habitats that are sensitive to disturbance bear the brunt of this visitor pressure.
However, some species are also clearly dependent on human influence. The characteristic Grinden (mountain heaths) have been considerably reduced in size since the beginning of the 20th century, because the traditional uses of these highland areas have been abandoned. As a result, both the capercaillie and the Nardus grasslands are now on the verge of extinction locally.
Further south, towards the Feldberg, the Black Forest’s highest peak, are vast forests where hazel grouse and capercaillie occur in one of their most significant refuge in Germany. Here too, however, they are under pressure, both from habitat changes caused by the effects of forestry as from recreation and tourism activities (winter sports in particular).
Working in partnership
There is now a general awareness here that the more these areas lose their value for nature conservation, the more the region loses its tourist potential. Already in 1998 the Regional Forestry Research Institute applied successfully to LIFE-Nature for a project to kick-off the process of improving the conservation status of hazel grouse and capercaillie in the Feldberg region. It was followed by a project in 2001 for the Grindenschwarzwald, headed by the District Office for Nature Protection, in which 10 local partners agreed to undertake a joint initiative and to follow an integrated approach to preserve the conservation value of this 80 km² area.
Both Feldberg and Grindenschwarzwald were once high-yield commercial forest, but recently, the public bodies who own most of the land, have reduced forestry activities in order to allow the area to revert back to a more ‘natural’ state. This is, however, not good news for the capercaillie or other woodland species. The Feldberg forest no longer provides the complex mosaic of habitat types and conditions needed for the species to survive. There is, for instance, a notable lack of open patches where their favourite food source, bilberry, can grow. Most of the forests have simply become too old, uniform and dark for many woodland species.
To address this problem, the Feldberg project set out to inventory the forest structure, the occurrence of capercaillie and the dense network of walking and skiing tracks throughout the area. This led to the development of a GIS map which highlighted the capercaillie’s focal areas and the range of habitat conditions and threats within these. The beneficiary, the Regional Forestry Institute, then took contact with each stakeholder group in turn to see what solutions could be found which would be acceptable to all. It strongly believed that, to achieve sustainable results, it needed not only to iron out any existing conflicts but also to provoke a change in mindset by convincing land users to take the capercaillie’s needs into account in their daily work.
Forest management was tackled first. Visits were organized to each of the capercaillie hot spots in turn so that their conservation needs could be discussed on site with local foresters, hunters and other interested individuals. Thereafter, a rolling programme of habitat restoration measures was drawn up and implemented by the foresters themselves, with constant support and back up from the project.
Tourism, recreation and awareness
The same approach was taken with the tourism sector, to try to reduce disturbance, in both the Grindenschwarzwald and the Feldberg. Again, instead of imposing restrictions unilaterally, meetings were held with stakeholders to thrash out alternative options so that if one trail was taken out of use, it could be replaced by another upgraded and improved route. This strategy appeared to be working.
The Grindenschwarzwald project is striking for another reason too. In 1999 a once-in-a-century storm, dubbed ‘Lothar’, flattened forests across central Europe, especially conifer stands planted on marginal or unsuitable locations. In the LIFE project site, several areas were affected. In most, the toppled trees were removed, as is normal forestry practice, but the decision was taken to leave one such area alone. It would become an open-air laboratory, to see what would become of the storm damage under the influence of natural processes.
The LIFE project invested funds in constructing a nature trail through the wreckage of blown-over and snapped trees, so that not only professionals, but also the general public could see how ecosystems react to natural catastrophes and thereby gain a better understanding of conservation work. The trail is spectacular, with steps and swing bridges, winding and climbing over, around and between the felled trunks, shattered stumps and holes torn open by uprooted trees.
The ‘Lothar trail’, as it is called, has proved a hit – local people flock to it on weekends and like to follow the changes as natural succession unfolds, it is a favourite with school nature education excursions, and hundreds of tourists are finding their way to it too.
Re-introducing dynamic forest management
Thanks to the LIFE project, it could be demonstrated that not 100% of the SPA had to be optimal habitat for grouse; 30–45% would be enough, with this proportion moving gradually across the area over time. This dynamic forest management approach was greatly appreciated by the foresters and local municipalities and did a lot to win support for expanding the SPA to include the whole capercaillie metapopulation.
This didn’t cost a lot either. Much of the work could be done on the sidelines of normal forest management practices, whilst some would generate immediate income from the sale of timber removed from mature stands, leaving only a proportion that goes over and above normal duties. The long-term management programme of works drawn up under the Feldberg project for capercaillie has now been integrated into the long-term forest plans for other state-owned forests and work is continuing to bring the other owners on board.
To share the experience developed under this project with others involved in capercaillie conservation in Europe, the Regional Forestry Research Institute later applied for a LIFE-Co-op project to look at the interactions between grouse and tourism in Natura 2000 sites. A series of exchange visits and targeted workshops were arranged for LIFE project managers in Scotland, Finland, Austria and France to discuss these matters in greater depth and to exchange good practices. These were then written up in the form of a report offering guidelines for a sustainable integration of nature protection measures for grouse, tourism and other forms of land use in Natura 2000 areas.
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