YRE Article 19–25 years old: 2nd Place

A PARADISE FOR ENDANGERED SPECIES OF WETLAND BIRDS CREATED THANKS TO A NEGLECTED IRRIGATION SYSTEM (The Czech Republic)

We are struggling through the thicket on a narrow path on the shore of the river Stará Metuje. On one side, the narrow pathway borders on a water gulley, on the other a fence. We squeeze under the last branch hanging over the footpath and gaze at the surprisingly vast grassy plain stretching in front of our eyes. It seems as if we’d come back in time, to an era, before man had rule over the nature. We are right in the heart of the Czech Republic — , where a unique ecosystem has been rediscovered.

But only a few years ago Josefovské louky had looked completely different. The muddy alluvial meadows concealed only an ancient devastated irrigation system built back in the times of Austria-Hungary. “Such a place had a big potential, which we have decided to utilize. But not for the means of agriculture but for the needs of the birds,” explains the water manager Jiří Kult, one of the founders of this project, which had returned the original wetlands to Josefovské louky, which now offer a safe haven to tens of wetlands avian kinds.

This vast grassy area with an abundance of water opens up a possibility to support the quickly diminishing animal species living in an agricultural landscape. “The best example are probably the birds,” points out Břeněk Michálek, the current groundskeeper of Bird park. “For example, the population of northern lapwings had fallen in number about 70–80%.” The wetland area of Josefovské louky had proven to be ideal for the rescue of such dwindling species. The project had been then picked up by the Czech ornithology society and even a group of volunteers had formed nearby soon after, willing to work on. The development of park had been decided in 2006.

The water manager Jiří Kult and the ornithologist Miloslav Hromádka had the idea to use the water meadows near the Metuje river not only because of the old irrigation system — these alluvial meadows were suitable for modifications also because of their expanse and good accessibility. But the adjustments themselves had been preceded by a lot of work. It was pivotal to buy up all the land, some parts of which had been subjected to ecclesiastic restitutions. Other parts were private property of farmers. The sell-off process had sometimes taken over 6 years and till today the park management doesn’t own all the marked-out area. “We’ve had to get a permit to use the irrigation system from the land office, water management permit to take water from Strará Metuje and even enter the project into the zoning plan, to make everything official,” says Kult. “Everything took so long.”

The system of irrigation canals, dampers and floodgates itself had been quite neglected. Only under the supervision of Jiří Kult did its restoration begin. At first it was necessary to clean out some of the gutters, pull out some roots and repair the water damaged dampers and floodgates.

Apart from water, do the wetland birds, so called “waders”, also need a big open space with short growth without woody plants. It is crucial to also reduce the amount of woody plants in the meadow, to break some divots and expose the surface, to create a wetland.

The best way to achieve that, is to create a pasture for large hoofed animals in the area. The groundskeeper Břeněk Michálek had therefore initiated the placement of wild horses on a part of the area. “Horses trample the soil, graze the grass and leave dung, increasing species diversity and they also just historically belong in the land,” says Michálek.

But such work as cutting down trees and terrain modification had to be done by man. It got taken care of by the members of local organization of the Czech nature guardians association. The renumeration for their work came from grants which the association draws from different levels of public administration. Almost every year does the administration of Bird park gain donations from the Ministry of Environment, regional authorities or the Jaroměř city hall. A lot of the financial means still come from public donations, alternatively from occasional fund projects. Voluntary donators therefore contribute mainly, even millions, towards the sell-off of the land and the operation of the reservation.

Josefovské louky are today the home for unbelievable 180 recorded, seen or heard, bird species — and this number keeps growing. Just the waders alone make up about 18 species. Apart from that are there about 30 species of dragonflies, several hundred species of bugs and 35 species of butterflies. A great number of endangered amphibians are also thriving here, such as marsh frogs or the northern crested newt.

But Bird park is not beneficial for everyone. Owner of one of the estates which could belong to the park, Mr. Šrámek, refuses to sell — he uses the land to farm and make hay. “The general humidity conditions have worsened,” reveals Šrámek. “They pump water over there for the birds and amphibians, so now all of the humidity accumulates on our land as well and creates small marshes.”

But what had proven the key for the success at Josefovské louky? “The basis for everything is to have experienced people. It is also important to have a water source, which does not have to come from the irrigation system. A meander at the water meadow of a river is enough. And if the project aims at wetland birds, it is important to reduce the number of woody plants and ensure pasture,” reveals Michálek.

Behind this whole long-time project hides a great amount of diligence, effort and more than one overcome obstacle. “I know this project as an example of truly successful environmentalist activity — but next to its biological content it also shows great work with the public and quality fundraising,” says Zbyněk Ulčák, professor from the Department of Environmental Studies of the Masaryk University in Brno.

Exmoor ponies. Josefovské louky, Czech Republic. May 2020

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Sharing the winning entries of the Int. Young Reporters for the Environment (YRE) Competition and the Litter Less Campaign (LLC) Competition. See www.yre.global