Biodiversity in the age of extinction
60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles have disappeared since 1970. 1,000,000 more animal and plant species are threatened with extinction, many of them within decades. You know that polar bears are struggling to survive as the arctic ice continues to melt; that rhinos and elephants are endangered. And there are more tigers in zoos now than in the wild. Still, much of the species loss remains invisible. It is not just the large, famous animals whose numbers are dwindling. Smaller, lesser-known animals are dying out all around you, wherever you live. In the Ljubljana wetlands, for instance, the butterflies just started to disappear.
Wetlands are a critical part of our natural environment. They reduce the impact of floods, improve water quality and act as carbon sinks. They play an important role in the fight against climate change too by storing greenhouse gases through photosynthesis. When wetlands are drained or turned into farmland, significant amounts of this stored carbon are released back into the atmosphere in the form of methane, the world’s strongest greenhouse gas. Wetlands are also considered the most biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet. They house countless birds, fishes, mammals and insects. That is why it is so important to protect these special habitats.
Ljubljansko barje, the Ljubljana Marsh, has long been amongst Slovenia’s most biodiverse areas. Before the industrial revolution of the 19th century, the raised bog stretched for 110km2 along the Ljubljanica River. Its grasslands were rarely mowed or grazed and were teeming with life. Over the last 200 years though, the area has increasingly been used for farming. Today, it is a mosaic of villages, fields, pastures, intensively cultivated meadows, hedges, tree plantations and small forests, interwoven with a dense network of roads and paths.
The changes to the marsh put immense stress on local wildlife. And their effects have only increased over the previous decades. In the 1970s, the Ljubljana Marsh was still home to healthy populations of foxes, wolves, pheasants and bears. Then, only the bears were left. Bird numbers declined. And then the butterflies started disappearing.
“The Strajanov Breg valley was famous for its rare butterflies, particularly the False Ringlet,”says Primož Glogovčan of Slovenia’s Institute for Nature Conservation.
He mentions the “LJUBA, People for the Moors” project that was funded by the EEA Grants. “The butterflies loved flying over these fields, but they were reliant on a special type of grass that only grew here.” As the area became overgrown, that grass vanished. So, the butterflies did as well.
LJUBA tries to curb biodiversity loss to preserve Slovenia’s cultural and natural heritage for future generations. Despite the changes to its ecosystem, the Ljubljana Marsh is still the habitat of several endangered and protected plant and animal species. It is a Natura 2000 site for 7 habitat types, 1 plant and 53 animal specie s. It is paramount that this remaining biodiversity is safeguarded. That’s why LJUBA monitors and protects endangered species by clearing the overgrown marshland of non-native plant species that are upsetting the balance of this precious habitat.
But clearing plants alone would not have been enough to restore the ecosystem. “Agriculture has intensified in the past decade,” Mr Glogovčan explained. “The grasslands were mowed too early and too often, the fields were expanded and there is too much fertiliser use and grazing.” This intensive farming further deteriorated the Ljubljana Marsh. That’s why it was crucial to convince local farmers to adopt more environmentally friendly practices.
At the outset, many of the farmers had their doubts. They rely on farming for their income and worried that new practices would lose them money. “Most of them try to produce as much food as possible on the area of land they have. We presented biodiversity as an intrinsic value and emphasised that it is a vital component of a properly functioning ecosystem. Farmers depend on that,” says Mr Glogovčan. Butterflies, for instance, are much more than cute insects that are pretty to look at. They are also important pollinators to many crops.
Mr Glogovčan and his team gave several hundred workshops and visited farmers at their homes. Eventually, they convinced 120 of them to adopt more environmentally friendly practices. Through good planning and incentives, a part of agricultural land was earmarked for more intensive production, while a part of the meadows was dedicated to use in accordance with natural protection guidelines.
“After clearing overgrown areas and protecting the endangered plants, we now monitor the valley, looking for butterflies. But it is too early to see a change. It may be five years before the grass grows back. Our dream is to see butterflies fluttering over the wetlands again,”Mr Glogovčan concludes.