Laurissilva (laurel forest) is considered primeval forest and dates back to the Tertiary period when it covered vast expanses of southern Europe and north Africa. The ice ages brought about a drastic reduction in the area of distribution, now confined to the islands in the biogeographical region of Macaronesia and certain pockets in southern Morocco and on the coast of west Africa.
Nowadays the most extensive and best preserved expanse of laurel forest is found on the island of Madeira. The area has shrunk progressively since the archipelago was discovered. In 1999, when this project begun, the main pockets of laurel forest were protected because they fell within the Madeira nature reserve and a proposed site of Community importance (pSCI of the Natura 2000 network). Even so, serious dangers still threatened their existence, such as encroachment by invasive non-native species and fires, and efforts to combat them needed to continue, particularly in the areas surrounding the best preserved pockets.
The project sought to preserve an area of 67 ha of laurel forest in the course of rehabilitation and to restore 125 ha significantly affected by fast-growing invasive alien species.
The measures to be applied included the elimination of invasive non-native species and the planting of indigenous plants. Existing facilities for monitoring the area would be strengthened and provision made to channel visitors towards less sensitive areas. Awareness-enhancement methods would be used to prevent fires and combat problems due to the illegal gathering of native species. Among other activities, a travelling exhibition on Madeira's laurel forests would be established, talks would be organised in local schools and the project would be promoted in the media.
A management plan was developed for the site in which different interventions were proposed for 19 sub-areas that were classified according to vegetation and accessibility (e.g. steepness and existence of trails). The implementation of the management plan – that focused on the eradication of exotic plants on 125 ha and the planting of native species on another 67 ha – was in practice however too ambitious. For example, it was found that the complete removal of exotics from the 125 ha could greatly damage the regenerating undergrowth of laurel species. To do such a removal properly a much larger budget would be necessary. Therefore, the beneficiary rather more cautiously addressed the removal of invasive non-native species through gradual tree chopping and trunk ringing. This was over a smaller area than had been foreseen. C. 50 ha were, for example, intervened through tree cutting and removal, trunk ringing and planting of native species (including of Ocotea foetens, Laurus azorica, Persea indica, Myrica faya and Clethra arborea).
These activities entailed the:
- Removal of exotics (including of Pinus) on 22.3 ha and planting of more than 20 000 native seedlings;
- Controlling of exotic resprouting on 7 ha;
- Cleaning up of a footpath (5 km) and of the forest area perimeter (another 5 km). In addition to the cleaning up of the forest area perimeter, native species were also planted in this perimeter area to help reduce the risk of forest fire.
Infrastructure was developed by the project that included the: development of 10 km of trails (for which maintenance was conducted monthly); improvements in 2 575 m of rural roads (e.g. pavement and drainage) and development of a house (to support field work).
Surveillance of the area against illegal collection of plants and fire was strengthened, particularly through the development of an agreement with local rangers that surveyed the area, as well as through a technician hired by the project.
An important achievement of the project was the increased awareness on the importance of conserving the laurel forest, especially of the municipality and local students. A travel exhibition was developed for students and the public. Guided visits to areas in which native species had been planted were organised that were also geared towards students. Awareness was also raised through media coverage (two at regional and one at national level), newspaper articles, participation of conferences and distribution of leaflets (5 000 copies), videos (100 copies) and posters (500 copies).
Finally, although the project did not meet its specific targets – for the recovery of laurel forest on 125 ha, and in increasing the recovery of native species on 67 ha – it did achieve an improvement in conservation, especially in the easternmost area of the Macronesian laurel forest in Madeira. And as a direrct result of the project, as well as through studies of another Interreg III B project, the regional government approved a resolution considering the enlargement of the actual limits of the Laurissilva SCI by 88 ha, towards including better preserved areas in Funduras.
The regional government also assumed the continuity of actions started by the LIFE project, through its regional investment plans for 2004 and 2005. The experiences gained under this project were also considered important in strengthening other initiative addressing the restoration of laurel forest in the Macaronesian region.