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LIFE - ÷’”« ..life..
THE WETLAND OF AGRAS-VRYTA-NISI
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The Project

 Indroduction

The wetland of Agras is situated 7 km NW of the city of Edessa , at the prefecture of Pella and covers an area of 600 ha . It extends at the former floodplain of  Edessaios river, at the area historically known as the marshes of  Tiavou. The wetland, became a water reservoir during the 1950s, after the construction of a dam and dikes by the Public Electricity Corporation,  to cover the needs of the Agras hydropower plant.

The pre-existing wetland retained most of its functions, resulting in the development of a valuable ecosystem, of great importance  for the biodiversity, especially water birds . Up to now, more than 140 bird species have been recorded, among which the swans, coots, little grebes and little bitterns are the most characteristic, while, among ducks, the ferruginous duck is the most important one.

The wetland is one of the few remaining active peatlands in Greece .  The peat layer exceeds 20 m in certain locations and taking into consideration that peat formation is a very slow natural process, the development of such a thick layer must have occurred through many thousand years.

The local wealth of animal and plant species is directly connected to the abundance and distribution of wetland habitats, but also, to those of the surrounding uplands.

Reedbeds form the predominant wetland habitat type. They are characterised by the presence of reeds, rushes and sedges, and provide valuable habitat for invertebrates, reptiles and amphibians as well as water birds. Wet meadows occur at the west part of the wetland, consituting an important habitat for herons and passing wading birds. Patches of calcareous fens with Cladium mariscus, a priority habitat for E.U., are formed on permanently waterlogged places of the wet meadow area. They are unstable and sensitive ecosystems that depend on the maintenance of a specific water level and are threatened either from hydrological changes, or from the expansion of reedbeds and agricultural fields.

The aquatic vegetation is abundant at the open water habitats especially at the waterways that cross the wetland. It mainly consists of pondweeds, musk grasses and water lilies, creating valuable fish spawning habitats.

Clumps of riparian trees, poplars, willows and alders, remnants of the pre-existing wetland, occur in several spots and along the canal banks, constituting important refuge habitats for water birds.

Cherry trees predominate at the surrounding agricultural land, while, forests, pastureland and meadows cover the hillsides, providing appropriate nesting or foraging habitats for raptors and passerines.

The presence of human settlements at the area has been related, from ancient time, not only to traditional wetland associated activities, like fishing and stock-raising,  but also, to the sustainable use of the waterfalls as a renewable energy resource and for the irrigation of agricultural land, activities that are practised at a wider area, including the city of Edessa.

The wetland is surrounded by three villages: Agras, Vrytta and Nisi, forming part of the Edessa Municipality . The discovery of ancient pile dwellings at the area of Edessaios springs, as well as other archaeological findings, at the hill of Filokastro, dated back to the classical age, indicate  that the co-existence of man and the wetland ecosystem has a history of many thousand  years.

Since the ancient times, the area was associated with the city of Edessa , acting both as external border and as a passage to the upper Macedonia . The ancient Egnatia road crossed the area. The same passage is presently used by the national driveway from Thessaloniki to Florina and the railway line , which also crosses the wetland area.

Since the middle of the previous century, the water of Edessaios river provided the waterpower for the operation of the local watermills and of the very important textile-mill factories of Edessa .

Today, the cherry tree cultivation and stock-raising are important activities for the local economy, while the operation of Agras hydropower plant, that employs many inhabitants, has played a significant role for the socio-economic life of the area.

Water is the driving force supporting the precious wetland biodiversity, as well as several uses of vital importance for the local community. After giving life to the wetland ecosystem, water reaches the hydropower plant of Agras, where it is used for energy production. From there, it flows to Edessa town to feed the urban waterways and the waterfalls, the main local tourist attraction. Then it flows through a second hydropower plant, and after that it is collected into a reservoir that regulates the irrigation of 5000 ha of agricultural land. What remains unused continues its route to the sea. In this way, a valuable cycle of multiple and beneficial for both man and nature water uses is being completed.

Due to its ornithological importance, the wetland and its surrounding area have been designated as a Special Protection Area under the Birds Directive. It has also been included in the list of proposed Special Areas of Conservation to form part of the Natura 2000 network. Natura is an EU Ė wide network of nature protection areas established under the Habitats Directive. It comprises the most significant natural sites of Europe and aims at the long term survival of Europeís most valuable and threatened species and habitats, through the implementation of measures and policies that promote ecologically, economically and socially sustainable management practices such as rural - tourism, ecotourism, biological farming and stock-raising.

 The environmental problem and the Life project

The wetland is a characteristic case of a long - term co-existence of man and nature, the harmony of which has been disturbed over the past few years, due to several problems that the ecosystem is facing. Their impacts provoked the awareness of local community, resulting in the implementation of the LIFE-Nature project entitled ďImplementation of management measures at the wetland of AgrasĒ, aiming in the application of multiple purpose wetland management and the conservation of wetland functions and values in a socio-economically compatible way.

Until two decades ago, the wetland communicated with the large karstic lake Vegoritis through a tunnel, constructed by Public Electricity Corporation. This communication has been broken up because of the severe decline of Vegoritis water level, resulting in the reduction of surface water inflows to the wetland. Furthermore, the water quality deterioted due to the increased use of agrochemicals that followed the intensification of cherry tree cultivation. The excessive development of reedbed vegetation is the most obvious impact of increased nutrient input, resulting in the restriction of water circulation. The quality of habitat for the aquatic organisms, including fish and crayfish, deteriorated and their populations decreased, in such an extend, that they are not form anymore a significant resource either for fishermen or for fish-eating birds. Namely, an important from the ecological and socio-economical point wetland value that existed before the Public Electricity Corporation interventions significantly declined.

The LIFE project is implemented by the Municipality of Edessa in collaboration with the Prefecture of Pella , the Pella Development Agency, NAGREF and the consulting firm Endiaitima.

The project aims to implement integrated management measures for the restoration of the SPA site of Agras wetland, taking into consideration the management prescriptions derived by the Management Plan already prepared for the site, by a previous LIFE project, and involving the key stakeholders of the protected site.

It includes actions that are expected to improve wetland habitat conditions and result in the recovery of plant and animal populations, especially of priority bird species. Furthermore, traditional wetland associated human activities such as fishing and stock raising will be supported, and the local environmental information and interpretation capabilities will be enhanced in a way compatible to the conservation of wetland functions and values.

These measures are expected to restore the harmony between man and nature. They are expected to contribute a) in the overall improvement of the SPA conservation status, for the proliferation of priority bird species, b) to the restoration of wetland functions and values for the benefit of biodiversity and local society, and c) to the promotion of sustainable environmental interpretation and ecotourism activities, compatible with the conservation of the SPA site. 

 Description of the project actions

The project included 16 different project actions, focusing in the co-ordination of the management activities at the site, the preparation of guidance documents such as the Wetland Restoration Plan and management prescriptions for certain project activities, the implementation of  management actions such as planting of riparian vegetation, improvement of wet meadow habitats through controlled grazing, management of reedbed habitats, improvement of bird nesting, foraging and refuge habitat, production of information and public awareness material for the wetland, as well as an integrated Environmental Education package, focused on the wetland conservation, for the schools of the region, and the improvement of visitor information infrastructure, with the creation of nature trails, bird hides and interpretation signs. Illegal activities in and around the site were controlled through the operation of the wetland guarding project. The impacts of the various project activities on the priority species of birds, as well as on habitats and water quality, were monitored through an integrated and systematic survey, conducted by NAGREF and Endiaitima.

In the following few pages, a short description of the project actions and their outputs will be presented, to provide an integrated view of the project activities and achievements.

 Formulation of the wetland Management Agreement and operation of the Wetland Management Committee

A number of public authorities, including the Public Electricity Corporation, the Municipality of Edessa , the Prefecture of Pella , the Ministry of the Environment and a number of local stakeholders, are responsible for the implementation of management measures at the wetland. Many times their interventions are not co-ordinated and result in conflicting uses. To improve this situation, the project brought together the various stakeholders involved and persuaded them to sign a memorandum of co-operation for the conservation of the wetland, including the establishment and operation of a Management Committee for the wetland, organizing the interventions of the different stakeholders, according to the provisions of the Memorandum, the management Plan and the Restoration Plan for the wetland. The Committee meets twice per year and is expected to operate until the Ministry of the Environment establishes the Wetland Management Body, according to the provision of the Greek legislation.

 Elaboration of the wetland Restoration Plan

For the treatment of the major threats the wetland is presently facing, a Restoration Plan was produced by Endiaitima, covering various aspects of the wetland management, including the restoration of wetland habitats, the management of reedbeds, the improvement of the water circulation, the recovery of bird and fish foraging and nesting habitats. The Plan provides a valuable tool for the managers of the site, to co-ordinate and integrate the various management interventions.

 Elaboration of a grazing management plan for the wet meadow habitats

An important objective of the project was to restore the wet meadow habitats, through the provision of prescriptions and guidelines for livestock keepers to apply grazing in a controlled and appropriate manner, according to the capacity Ôf the site. For this reason, experts from NAGREF produced a site specific grazing management plan, to be applied at the wet meadows of Agras.  

Management of wet meadow habitats through controlled grazing

The prescriptions of the grazing management plan were applied by the project. To reduce overgrazing at certain sites, it was decided to restore a number of old wooden bridges, facilitating the movements of livestock across the different meadow compartments. In this way the grazing animals were able to use the full meadow area and as a result grazing pressure was reduced in the sites that were heavily used previously. This action was very much appreciated by the local livestock keepers, and this fact improved the profile of this ďconservation orientedĒ project to local society.

 Reestablishment of riparian tree stands

The wetland eutrophication and the expansion of the reedbed habitats, together with illegal wood logging in the past, resulted in the reduction of the area covered by riparian tree stands. To restore these precious for wildlife sites, the NAGREF prepared a study for the re-establishment of riparian stands in certain areas. During the implementation of the action, seeds from local trees were gathered and planted in NAGREF nurseries. Next year the plantings were transferred at the foreseen sites, which were then fenced to avoid damage from grazing animals. Local students were involved in planting the young trees, as a public awareness activity for local society. Many hundreds of trees were established around the wetland and along certain Chanels.

 Improvement of nesting, foraging and refuge habitat for priority species

To increase the availability of secure sites, adequate for waterbirds to nest or roost, five floating wooden rafts were designed by Endiaitima and constructed by the Muncipality and transferred to appropriate sites in the wetland. From the beginning these rafts have been heavily used by waterbirds (Dalmatian pelicans, Pygmy cormorants, herons) as roosting sites and hopefully, in some years they will also be used for nesting of some species.

 Management of reed beds, aquatic habitats and restoration of fish spawning grounds

One of the major management actions to improve the habitat conditions of the wetland, was the implementation of the reedbed management project, according to the prescriptions of the relevant studies of the wetland Restoration Plan. For this reason, the Municipality of Edessa , with the advice of experts from ENDIAITIMA, purchased adequate equipment (reciprocated mowers and reed cutters, and a small tractor), to be used for the winter and summer cutting of reeds, from the landward side of the wetland. The equipment for the lakeward side was decided to be purchased by the Public Electricity Corporation, with own funds, due to the high cost of the relevant multiple purpose machinery. Indeed, the cost of that machinery was finally 6 times higher than the available for the equipment funds of the LIFE project. Through this arrangement, the project achieved the maximum possible synergy with the activities of the Public Electricity Corporation, for the benefit of the wetland. With the use of the purchased equipment for the reed cutting from landwards, the Municipality started the implementation of the reed cutting project in 2006. Until the end of the project 5 hectares of reeds were cut, one in summer and four in winter. The reed cutting activities will continue after the end of the LIFE project, as an important part of the long term management of the site.

 Establishment and operation of the wetland guarding project

Two wardens were hired by the project to prevent illegal activities (illegal hunting, logging and fishing) at the wetland and the surrounding area. They collaborated with the wardens of the Forest Service of Edessa and the Information center personnel, forming a team with a continuous presence on the site. This fact was responsible for the very significant reduction of illegal activities at the protected area.  

 Implementation of the wetland-monitoring scheme

An integrated monitoring scheme, including three core elements (monitoring of priority bird species, monitoring of habitats and monitoring of water quality) was implemented by NAGREF and ENDIAITIMA, providing valuable results concerning the effectiveness of project actions and the state of the wetland.

 

Enhancement of wetland interpretation capabilities by creating a wetland interpretation room

The small wooden Wetland Information Center established during the previous Life project for the site, was expanded with the creation of a wetland interpretation room, to be used for slide shows and presentations for visitors and schools. With this expansion the Wetland Information Center has now doubled its available room and hence can host groups of up to 20 individuals.

 Operation of the Wetland Information Center

The operation of the Information center was continuous during three project years, through hiring from the Municipality, of a person responsible for the information of visitors and schools. The Centre operates every day for seven hours.

 Establishment of two observation hides and expansion of nature trails.

For the enhancement of the public awareness and environmental education activities as well as the ecotourism potential of the wetland, it was decided to create adequate infrastructures that would minimize visitor disturbance in the site. For this reason, ENDIAITIMA produced the blueprints for a bird observatory, an observation wall, and for the creation of 3 km of nature trails with interpretation capabilities. For this last reason, 11 interpretation signs were designed and produced. The prefecture of Pella implemented these plans and constructed the visitor facilities.  

 Production of interpretation material

A bilingual (Greek and English) leaflet was produced in 10.000 copies, as well as a small ecotourism guide (5.000 copies), providing information (maps, description of important species and habitats, traditional local activities, accommodation e.t.c), to be used by the visitors of the area. The material was prepared by the scientific team of ENDIAITIMA and produced by the Prefecture of Pella . A project web page was established at the Municipality of Edessa web server (www.edessacity.gr), with the aim to provide with information for the SPA site and the Life project.

 Creation of environmental education material for the SPA site

An environmental education package was produced for the wetland, including information about the priority species and habitats as well as simple prescriptions of outdoor educational activities for visiting schools. The package includes a teacherís and a studentís activity manual. It was produced by ENDIAITIMA and the Prefecture of Pella , in collaboration with the local Environmental Education Center . The package was printed in 1000 copies and distributed to schools of the wider region.

 Organization of public meetings and an international workshop

Two open public meetings were organized during the project period (one at the beginning and one at the end project implementation period), for the dissemination of the project objectives and the increase of local consensus for the SPA management issues. An international workshop was also organized to promote sustainable wetland use practices.

 

 Conclusion

These were the actions of the Life project. Most of them were implemented very successfully while others could perform even better under different circumstances. But the important achievement of the project is the success in bringing together the various partners and stakeholders, involved in the management of the SPA sites, as well as the local society, in a continuous effort towards the sustainable development of the wetland area.

Comparing the present situation with the one ten years ago, when many of the local inhabitants were asking for the drainage of the wetland area and its conversion to agricultural land, now everybody has understood the importance of the wetland ecosystem, and the potential of the whole region to be sustainably developed, using the SPA site as the main vehicle for this development. Ecotourism activities, together with the revitalisation of traditional agricultural practices, fishing and livestock keeping, compatible with the conservation of the biodiversity of the site, are foreseen by the local society and authorities, as the way forward. And this can be attributed in a large extend, to the implementation of the two Life projects for the wetland. Letís hope that this effort will continue, for the shake of the local community and the biodiversity of the SPA site.   

LIFE (C) 2005-2008  .

WETLAND INFORMATION CENTRE

 

Project LIFE NATURA 2000
Wetland The Problems
Nature The Man
Coexistense Actions

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