Using conservation to develop new farming outlets
in the Rhön, Germany
In the Rhön (an upland area straddling the German Länder of Thuringia, Hessen and Bavaria), hundreds of hectares of abandoned and overgrowing Annex I grasslands were restored by two consecutive LIFE projects between 1993 and 2002. These habitats were threatened by too little agricultural use. In the past calcareous grasslands in the former GDR had been grazed by great flocks of sheep but after the transition to a market economy these flocks, no longer protected by a closed market with guaranteed consumers, rapidly disappeared.
The strategy of the LIFE beneficiary (Rhön Biosphere Reserve) was to try to keep farmers using this land, or getting them back onto already abandoned land. This reflected the Reserve’s desire to maintain the Natura 2000 areas as a land effectively used by the local population, in continuity with the past, rather than as a ‘museum landscape’ managed by conservationists.
Kick starting the process
For abandoned and overgrown grasslands, the scrub and shrubbery was first removed. After these one-off measures, there was a phase of intensive recurring management (repeated mowing, grazing by sheep) to consolidate the initial clearance. After about two seasons, i.e. from about the third year after scrub cutting, the land could be integrated back into agricultural use – but as extensively used land (mowing, grazing), under agri-environment schemes. The LIFE project contracted local farmers and shepherds to do this clearing and follow-up work wherever possible.
This had two advantages:
Getting the farmers involved
- by being involved, the farmers became aware of the nature and Natura
- the payment for the contract work was an interesting additional income,
especially as the work was often done during quiet periods like winter, and in
turn this increased acceptance for the conservation of Natura 2000 sites.
Nevertheless, restoration of abandoned grasslands is an expensive and laborious task. Consequently the second LIFE project initiated an action to try to stop the land being abandoned in the first place, which meant getting involved in the economics, structure and practices of local farming. In this action, the Biosphere Reserve and the local agricultural authority worked closely together on identifying the problems farmers were facing and helping them find new and effective ways of managing the grasslands.
First, a series of meetings were held, informing farmers about the idea. Because of the unexpectedly high turnout, it was possible to set up 5 working groups, not 2 as originally estimated, each based on a farming village. In these five groups the problems farmers faced were discussed and mutually beneficial solutions (for farmers and conservation alike) were sought.
A leading problem raised by farmers in the western Rhön is that property is very fragmented (thousands of plots averaging 0.5-1 ha each) which hinders farming. Moreover, as milk and meat prices are low, there is a trend to abandon livestock farming in the lowlands as well. Consequently there is less demand for hay – which makes mowing upland grasslands unattractive, in spite of agri-environment support being available for such mowing. Annex I habitats are thus threatened by abandonment.
Responding to the groups’ concerns about land fragmentation, the Bavarian Agriculture Ministry in 2002 provided grants to farmers to allow them to swap land between them informally, on a seasonal basis, without having to go through the cumbersome procedures of sale, lease or official rural land consolidation. That way, it was possible for each farmer to have the use of consolidated blocks of land in an easy and informal way.
Other initiatives which came out of the groups included:
Going beyond agri-environment schemes
- organising equipment pools for agricultural machinery and labour pools
where farmers can exchange or pool resources;
- creation of a suckler cow herd, owned jointly by farmers in Fladungen
village, whose winter fodder includes hay from the grasslands thereby
providing an incentive to continue mowing hay meadows.
Agri-environment contracts are widely deployed throughout the Rhön. However, to find a socially and economically more attractive basis for this recurring management than merely agri-environment premia on their own, the Biosphere Reserve, in close synergy between LIFE and other EU funding instruments, launched initiatives in favour of extensive, conservation-friendly use of land.
A good example can be seen in the site 'Mittelhut', where LIFE had cleared and restored an area of 140 ha of semi-natural grassland habitat. Because of the size of the area restored, sheep grazing was viable and the Biosphere Reserve succeeded in persuading an association of five farmers to take up use of this land. The members of the association each took a share in a communal flock of sheep (which rapidly rose to 1,000 animals) and employed a shepherd to take care of it. This approach was also used in other parts of sites where grassland habitats were restored. By the end of the LIFE project in 2002 there were 3,000 sheep grazing large areas of semi-natural habitats in the Rhön.
Creating new marketing outlets
The Biosphere Reserve went a step further in supporting these farmers who were willing to manage the semi-natural habitats. Drawing on LEADER and Objective 5B (EAGGF) structural funds, it carried out a set of infrastructure development projects to organise on-farm slaughter and processing of meat into end products with higher added value, provide sheep stables and cold stores and start up a farm shop to sell the produce directly to consumers.
These infrastructures allowed farmers to get better prices and outlets for their sheepmeat, which was also promoted as a nature-friendly product. A typical shepherd on one of the sites restored by LIFE was, by 2002, selling 70% of his annual lamb surplus directly to local restaurants and hotels at good prices.
A network of partner companies was subsequently built up. Within this network, enterprises would swap products and services. 40 enterprises were member by the end of the LIFE project – farm holdings, hotel-restaurant enterprises and product/services providers (e.g. a wood processing firm). As part of this initiative, local hotels and restaurants in the network would commit themselves only to use Rhön sheep for their menu. This would also explain that by choosing the dishes containing Rhön sheepmeat, visitors help to preserve the landscape they have come to enjoy.
Best practice summarised
The strength of this LIFE-Nature beneficiary’s work lay in his attention to the local community, notably the farmers. Without their active participation, long-term maintenance of the habitats restored thanks to the funds invested through LIFE-Nature, would be impossible. However, unlike the volunteers who come to work camps to lend a hand with management work, farmers have businesses to run and need a sufficient return to survive on the marketplace and earn a livelihood.
So in addition to kick starting agri-programmes the projects went one step further in making land use conform to Natura 2000 guidelines attractive to farmers, by investing in infrastructure (local slaughter and processing, cool stores, farm shops) and networks (between farmers and local butchers, restaurants, hotels) through which produce can be sold at good prices directly to consumers, using the benefits to nature conservation as a selling point.
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