A series of LIFE projects in central Europe have worked with stakeholders to improve semi-natural grasslands and stop birds colliding with energy infrastructure. This joined-up conservation is increasing great bustard populations, with benefits for a host of species.
The great bustard (Otis tarda) is a large, social bird species inhabiting open farmland and semi-natural grasslands. The spread of intensive farming and power lines led to a rapid decline in numbers in central Europe. For instance, in West Pannonia (Austria, Hungary, Slovakia) the population fell from around 3 500 individuals in 1900 to just 130 by 1995. Since 1992, LIFE has funded 8 projects in this part of Europe that have established or improved EU agri-environmental schemes that maintain the bird’s preferred habitats, buried power lines or made them more visible to prevent fatal collisions, and provided data to ensure wind turbines are located where they will cause the species least harm.
Watching a flock of 250 great bustards flying across an open landscape in Austria near the Slovak border gives a good picture of what LIFE has achieved here. In 1996, the species was close to extinction in Austria, with only a few birds locally and around 60 in the whole country. Today, over 400 birds can regularly be seen in the Parndorfer Platte-Heideboden Natura 2000 site alone.
From the start, LIFE projects have built partnerships. “The main conservation challenge is finding solutions through agreements between farmers, villages, hunters and nature conservationists,” says Werner Falb-Meixner, chairman of the Austrian Society for Great Bustard Conservation (ÖGG). “It’s a long process, but it has been a big success. Bringing people together has reduced conflicts.”
Early success relied on agri-environment schemes, under which farmers are paid to cultivate special fallow for the great bustard. Rural Development Programmes in Austria and Hungary continue to support low-intensity grazing and post-breeding autumn mowing, which is crucial for maintaining open grassland habitat for great bustards, and enhancing biodiversity to support many bird species.
Power without consequences
While these actions boosted great bustard populations, the most important cause of mortality remained: collisions with power lines. Building on the work of 3 earlier Austrian projects, LIFE Great Bustard is carrying out a host of coordinated actions along the borders of Austria and Hungary from 2016 to the end of 2023. Energy companies working in partnership with the project have buried 125 km of medium-voltage power lines passing through great bustard territory (100 km in Austria and 25 km in Hungary). High-voltage power lines have been marked to make them more visible to flying birds, which also helps protected raptors such as the imperial eagle (Aquila heliaca).
These actions have already had a clear impact on levels of great bustard mortality: “Between 4 and 7 birds every year - up to 71% of dead birds found - were killed by collisions with power lines, but over the last 3 years there have been no collisions in Austria in bustard areas,” said Rainer Raab from the project team.
Wind turbines are a common sight near Austria’s eastern frontiers - except in Natura 2000 sites hosting great bustards. To protect birds, the regional governments of Lower Austria and Burgenland, together with BirdLife Austria, agreed on places where turbines are allowed and not allowed. Data from LIFE has been incorporated into wind turbine planning, enabling wind power and great bustard conservation to happily coexist.
Monitoring and GPS tracking has revealed flock movement between habitat types in 3 countries: small fields of diverse bird-friendly crops in Austria; large rapeseed fields in Slovakia; and extensive fallow managed for bustard in Hungary. “It is truly a cross-border population. Males can even be in Austria, Hungary and Slovakia on the same day,” said Dr Raab.
“Agri-environmental schemes result in many chicks, but LIFE funding was necessary to reduce the mortality of adults; you need both. To be honest, no one expected to extend the population in the way we have managed in recent years. It was only possible with money from LIFE,” believes Dr Raab.
The great bustard is an important umbrella species. “Money spent on it is good for all nature,” says Mr Falb-Meixner.
An expanded version of this story and more examples of LIFE’s positive impact on species and habitats can be found in the forthcoming LIFE nature focus brochure, LIFE improves nature.