Please note this project has been financed by instalments. For this reason the same project may appear in different years’ submissions. With each instalment the duration, content and budget of the projects were usually amended. The starting date only remains the same.
The torrid, dry Castro Verde plains in the Alentejo, covering nearly 900 sq. km are a fine example of a landscape that only occurs in the EU on the Iberian Peninsula. Moreover, these steppe-like areas contain 16 species listed in Annex I of the Birds Directive, including a very significant population of the great bustard (Otis tarda), a large and spectacular bird that is highly endangered worldwide. Other threatened species include the lesser kestrel (Falco naumanni), little bustard (Tetrax tetrax), black-bellied sandgrouse (Pterocles orientalis) and white stork (Ciconia ciconia).
The region, characterised by poor soils and low rainfall, was for centuries used for extensive farming using a rotation system between grazing and grain growing – conditions ideal for the great bustard. However, intensified farming methods and afforestation with eucalyptus is rapidly altering the landscape. Besides these major structural changes in land use, unregulated shooting and the disturbance of nests are taking their toll on rare birds. In spite of its range of avifauna, Castro Verde had no legal nature protection status.
LIFE co-funding enabled the implementation of a pilot project on a section of the plain that has helped to strengthen the preservation of the steppic area and to extend the whole steppic region. This in turn, has helped to protect the great bustard and other avifauna.
Within this pilot project, key ecological areas were purchased and so safeguarded as reserves for threatened birds. The first phase of the project focused on the acquisition of land (e.g., Herdades de Belver, S. Marcos and Vale do Gonçalinho farms). The second phase aimed to continue the preservation efforts of these biotopes, including through new land acquisition, elaboration of management plans, reinforced surveillance and fencing. Efforts would continue in order to lobby the national authorities to grant a protection status to the whole IBA (important bird area) of Castro Verde. The project also aimed to raise awareness of the importance of the area among local people and farmers through information campaigns and environmental education.
Although less land was acquired in the second phase of the project than originally foreseen (249 ha were purchased compared with the planned 350 ha), the continuity with the areas purchased under the first phase and the excellent quality of the land from a conservation point-of-view enhanced the implementation of the management measures.
Evaluation reports were developed for the newly purchased land (the Herdade da Chada and Herdade do Paraíso farms) and management plans were developed for Herdade da Chada, as well as for 3 other farms purchased under the first phase of the project (Herdades de Belver, S. Marcos and Vale do Gonçalinho).
Various management measures were successfully implemented. These included:
- The creation of new nesting sites for the lesser kestrel in Herdade de Belver and Herdade do Gonçalinho;
- The placement of 10 artificial nests for white storks;
- The restoration and improvement of fencing to reduce human disturbance and control herding (on lands purchased during the first phase);
- The planting of small groves and poplar trees to provide nesting places for kites, ravens and storks (this action involved participation by local schools);
- The promotion of extensive cereal cultivation and herding to provide supplementary feeding for the great bustard (implemented by local farmers)
- The cleaning of small water reservoirs used by birds and cattle and reinforcing surveillance to prevent illegal hunting.
Monitoring indicated the populations of two target species, the lesser kestrel and great bustard, increased significantly by the end of the project. Specifically, in Herdade de Belver, the breeding pairs of the lesser kestrel were shown in 1998 to have more than doubled since the start of the project. The results for the great bustard populations were also encouraging: with the numbers doubling from 1996-1997 to 1999. The 10 artificial nests placed for the white storks were also all occupied.
The project was successful in acquiring land and implementing various management measures. It was not successful, however, in incorporating the newly purchased land into the Natura 2000 network. Despite this, the objective was partially achieved in 1999, when the Portuguese national authorities proposed Castro Verde as a SPA.
Finally, various awareness raising activities were carried out including information sessions, production of information leaflets and stickers, restoration of a building to be used as a visitors information centre, a TV broadcast and school visits. A number of actions were also implemented that were not foreseen at the start of the project. (These further encouraged local farmers, landowners and the local municipality to conserve the stepparian fauna.) The actions included the lobbying by the beneficiary and local municipality for the designation of the Castro Verde as a SPA, support for the further development of the visitor centre (for which co-financing was obtained) and the technical advice to the municipality on the process of classifying the farmland as sites of biological importance.