This project has focused on the restoration and conservation of a priority habitat (Directive 92/43/CEE) that can be found on the banks of the wetlands in La Mancha: *1510 the Mediterranean salt steppes. These habitats host specific flora and fauna species, such as the sparto grass (Lygeum spartum) o Limonium sp., and are only comparable to some lake complexes located in Mongolia or the North of Africa.
To halt the significant decline they have suffered in the last years and to ensure their restoration and/or conservation in the long term, the project has implemented conservation activities (purchasing land around the wetlands, restoring the morphology and the vegetation), improved the public use (modifying paths, signalling accesses in roads and paths), developed communication and participation actions aimed at different stakeholders in the project area (environmental education, promotion of the commercialization of products from the Natura 2000 network, communication campaign) and hast executed monitoring actions (botanical cartography and geographical information systems, bird censuses, studies on insects to propose bioindicators of the habitat quality). Moreover, during the whole project, a Management Plan for La Mancha Wetlands has been elaborated and the area has been declared as Special Conservation Area (SCA) in the Natura 2000 network.
The first step to achieve a restoration of the habitat (*1510 Mediterranean salt steppes) was purchasing the plots located on the sides of the wetlands, where these priority vegetal formations grow in a natural environment and that where being destined for farming purposes until now. About 274 hectares (ha) have been purchased in total. They are located in basins or areas around the wetlands. They are high-value areas because they host species of priority conservation and of interest for the Habitats and Birds Directives.
Main activities developed include:
1. Morphological restoration: it has been improved the wetland enviromnents in 4 municipalities, 10 wetlands have benefited from this action and more than 18 restored hectares.
2. Restoration of the natural vegetation: This action has consisted of the production of local vegetation in a plan nursery owned by the Regional Government (JCCM) in order to plant and reafforestate afterward. The project has restored more than 400 hectares thanks to purchasing actions and the restoration of the morphology and the vegetation).
3. Public use: In collaboration with the Natural Paths Programme of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Food and Environment, the project has improved paths and roads, creating a route through the La Mancha Wetlands. Pannels have been designed and installed in 27 wetlands, as well as access signals on the road and arrows pointing at the main accesses.
4. Communication and participation: Communication and awareness-raising, aiming at encouraging the participation of all stakeholders, are essential tools for long term conservation. A web has been created, where all the contents elaborated in this project are uploaded. Some of the most remarkable contents include a general video, a geo-video, a manual on plants from salt marshes or a virtual route through the wetlands. The impact on the media has included radio, TV, national and regional (printed and online) press and specialized press (like a special report on Quercus magazine).
The environmental education activities were developed in 9 municipalities. In total, 193 workshops were organized in which 8 831 students from 31 different educational centres have participated.
The dissemination material has also included the creation of an exhibition with 14 pannels that has been shown in schools and universities, administrations or events like the National Environment Congress.More than 13 500 people have visited the exhibition.
The project has aimed to bring together socio-economic development and conservation, promoting that sustainable production in the Natura 2000 network is a differentiating element in the market. The project has supported the production of organic pulses (pedrosillanochickpeas,castellanalentils andpardinalentils) in Natura 2000 areas through farming land stewardship strategies.
The activities in the framework of the project include providing seeds, buying the production and packing it in an own packaging plant in Villacañas. In addition, the project has organized courses on organic production for farmers and has participated in national and international fairs, notably the Biofach in Germany, the largest event in the world related to organic products. The activities have been gradually spread to other products, like almonds, contributing to the creation of a cooperative for organic products.
5. Monitoring: since the beginning of the project a Geographical Information System (GIS) has been developed, which integrates information on the 27 wetlands where actions have been implemented. The GIS facilitates decision-making and the analysis of all the actions that have a spatial component, such as land purchase, recovery of the original landscape or restoration of the vegetation.
An external team of experts has mapped the habitats around the wetlands and their conservation status in 6000 ha, which is one of the key actions for the analysis of the territory.
During the years that the LIFE La Mancha Wetlands has worked on restoration, a study has been conducted to know the distribution and conservation status of the populations of the insects that are indicators of the quality of the 1510 habitat. This activity has also allowed monitoring key species that in order to identify the impact of the habitat restoration on the continuity of their populations. Researchers from the National Science Museum (MNCN-CSIC) have observed the existence of nine tiger beetle species around the 27 saline wetlands in the project area. It is the site in Europe with the most diversity of tiger beetles.
Up to a total of 34 species of breeding aquatic birds have been spotted during the years of monitoring. Among the richness in species, it is worth mentioning some endangered ones like the white-headed duck (Oxyura leucocephala), a very scarce heron in the Iberian Peninsula such as the Eurasian bittern (Botaurus stellaris), vulnerable species with low populations at a national level like the Whiskered tern (Chlidonis hybrida), the Common gull-billed tern (Gelochelidon nilotica), the Black-necked grebe (Podiceps nigricollis) or the Common shelduck (Tadorna tadorna) and other relevant species at a local level due to their scarcity like the Collared pratincole (Glareola pratincola).
6. Elaboration of the Post LIFE Conservation Plan.
All the technical and educational materials developed are available to download.