Protecting nature oases on agricultural land

Nature is not just lush green spaces full of colorful flowers and rushing rivers, especially in Spain. FGN's territory is full of landscapes that are largely ochre and treeless, and yet it is one of the most biodiverse countries in Europe.

These ecosystems are oases of nature, although they are not easy to identify. They appear dotted across the flat landscape of the steppe and in their surroundings, there are species of flora and fauna considered as priority habitats at European level by the Habitat Directive. This is the case for numerous species of the genus Limonietalia and Lygeum spartum, both species of flora that withstand the harshest environmental conditions, providing shelter to highly valuable fauna.

FGN protects these areas, as their degradation has advanced rapidly in recent years, with special consideration for their biodiversity and, in particular, steppe birds. The lack of understanding of their importance has led to changes in their natural conditions. In fact, it was at the beginning of the last century when more than 1,000 wetlands, both inland and coastal, were drained, for two main reasons - health (to avoid malaria, transmitted by mosquitoes) and to gain land for agriculture. Since then, it is estimated that Spain has lost 60 per cent of its lakes. Today, experts estimate that 70 per cent of Spain's wetlands are in a poor state of conservation due to inadequate management.

Throughout its almost 30 years of existence, FGN has worked in almost thirty of these wetlands under a common and social approach, restoring their vegetation and promoting sustainable use, based on conservation strategies through public and private funding.

But recovery is on the way, and FGN has led projects that have enabled the acquisition of land in wetlands in La Mancha and the promotion of better agricultural practices. In the last year and thanks to the support of Aramco Europe, it has added 21.5 hectares. Of this area, 11.1 hectares are agricultural land with very low productivity. These numbers add up to work that has involved the restoration of approximately 400 hectares and the involvement of almost 500 farmers in this region.

Key tool: land stewardship

In many cases, land stewardship is essential to protect these oases. Stewardship is used in different ways to optimise resources and conserve the biodiversity of the environment. On some occasions, there are agricultural plots that have been established on the margins of wetlands and even in the lagoon basin itself - these plots have low productivity and little commercial interest but a high natural value. It is then that the conservation strategy involves the purchase of this land, as is the case with Laguna Larga de Villacañas. Conservation allows for change in its use, initiating passive ecological restoration processes that consist of carrying out small improvements - the degraded ecosystem then recovers its structure and functionality on its own.

The ecological restoration process carried out in the plots has consisted of a mixture of active and passive restoration strategies. On the one hand, it has been active through shrub species, mainly aromatic that are resistant to saline soils, which have been planted around the perimeter of all the plots, thus creating a refuge for fauna, especially insects. Insects benefit the neighbouring agricultural plots, as they are predators of floral pests and also serve as food for steppe birds. On the other hand, the action is also passive because the wild vegetation has grown on its own, generating a natural process of recovery typical for salt marsh flora, which also creates a habitat protected under the European Directive.