Current conservation measures

Numerous conservation measures are being implemented in Austria for the protection and management of the central European Great Bustard population. Foremost are large-scale protected areas with generous areas of dedicated agri-environment measures for bustards, followed by extensive site supervision on all Great Bustard areas in Austria.

Natura 2000 sites

Juvenile Great Bustard spreading its wings
Juvenile Great Bustard spreading its wings

Natura 2000 is the name for a pan-European network of Special Protected Areas (SPA's, for birds) and Sites of Community Importance (SCI's, for other animals, plants and habitats), which aims to conserve distinctive animals, plants and habitats for us and for future generations. This network of protected areas is set up by all European member states according to the same guidelines. All member states are obliged to prevent Natura 2000 sites from deteriorating in their function or status. Economic, cultural and regional requirements should be taken into account when working on the conservation and development of these protected areas.

Three SPA's have particular significance for Great Bustards - Western Weinviertel (AT1209000), Sandboden and Praterterrasse (AT1213V00) and Parndorfer Platte - Heideboden (AT1125129) (see section "Habitat").

The Austrian agri-environment scheme (ÖPUL)

Male bustard, feeding
Male bustard, feeding

The history of Great Bustard conservation shows that only large-scale habitat management together with professional site supervision can preserve the species in central European agricultural landscapes.

In Austria, the main emphasis in Great Bustard conservation lies on providing suitable habitat. For this reason, existing habitat management measures were extended significantly from the year 2000 onwards. Lower Austria (and Burgenland) created large-scale SPA's (Natura 2000 sites for birds), and dedicated bustard conservation measures are being implemented primarily inside these areas on more than 5,500 ha of land under the Austrian agri-environment scheme "ÖPUL" (Austrian programme for an environmentally appropriate, extensive and natural habitat friendly agriculture).

The Lower Austrian model

"Bustard set-aside" and "bustard cereal"
"Bustard set-aside" and "bustard cereal"

Starting in 1995, Lower Austria began to implement bustard conservation measures under the ÖPUL agri-environment scheme in the three bustard ranges Western Weinviertel, Marchfeld and Rauchenwarther Platte. Initially, bustard set-aside fields were created, which are required to be cut or mowed once a year in autumn.

From 2001 onwards, the project "Bustard conservation in Western Weinviertel, Marchfeld and Rauchenwarther Platte" significantly increased the area under agri-environment measures. Many hectares of dedicated bustard conservation measures ("K" and "WF", see below) were established inside the Natura 2000 sites Western Weinviertel and Marchfeld and in the Rauchenwarther Platte area.

Lower Austria offered four nature conservation measures under the framework of its 5-year agri-environment plan ÖPUL 2000, all of which were taken up for Great Bustard protection. Prior to the year 2000, only the "K-measure" (set-aside) was offered. Then, in order to make bustard conservation more attractive to farmers in Lower Austria, the Distelverein society, together with Rainer Raab, coordinator of the species conservation project for the Great Bustard, designed special agri-environment measures for bustards in Marchfeld. These were then also offered in Rauchenwarther Platte and with modifications in Western Weinviertel in project areas selected according to systematic criteria.

Here, only a short overview is given about the measures. Detailed current information can be found on the website of the provincial government of Lower Austria under section ÖPUL - Naturschutz.

In Marchfeld and Rauchenwarther Platte, for example, areas of arable land were cultivated specially to suit Great Bustards in order to provide appropriate habitat for breeding and chick rearing.

These were strips of "bustard cereal" combined with strips of set-aside on one or both sides. "Bustard cereal" is a field on which cereals or rape seed are grown and which is neither fertilised nor treated with pesticides. In addition, irrigating the field or walking or driving through is not permitted from 1st April until harvest. The cereal strip should be at least 50 m wide, and on one or both sides of it a strip of set-aside at least 20 m wide must be provided. The bustard cereal is financed through the "WF" agri-environment measure (management of ecologically valuable sites), the set-aside is financed under the "K" agri-environment measure (creation of new landscape elements). Each site covered by this bustard conservation measure should have a minimum size of 3 ha in one piece. It may be provided by one farmer or by several farmers together. Conditions for participating in 2001-2005 were as follows:

  • Location inside a current or potential bustard range
  • Minimum size of 3 ha
  • At least one 20 m strip of set-aside next to it

Sites must be under contract for a minimum period of 5 or 10 years and are selected by the site supervisor.

ÖPUL 2015+

“WF” Measures for the Great Bustard

Starting with 2015 the basic model for the protection of the Great Bustard was introduced in the “Westliches Weinviertel”, which includes following requirements and conditions:

  • Participation of the Establishment in the Monitoring Project Great Bustard
  • Participation at Events in the measure of five hours until latest in the year 2018
  • No windbreakers to be planted in the project area
  • No increase of field plots
  • Plantation of high-growing plants (Chinese Silver Gras, poplars, robinia) is not allowed
  • No putting up of Scarecrows
  • No driving on the area after detecting a Great Bustard clutch in the radius of 50 m
  • No laying down of foil as well as putting up foil tunnels or glass houses
  • No burning of straw
  • Chopping or mowing of farmland area only after agreeing with the site supervisor
  • Rape seed to be planted at least twice

The basic model for the protection of the Great Bustard can be combined with following models:

Maintenance Model “Winter wheat”

Conditions:

  • Observance of the conditions under the basic model in Great Bustard conservation areas (see above)
  • Winter wheat to be planted at least twice in five respectively six years
  • No driving or walking on winter wheat fields after 20th of April until harvest
  • No irrigation of winter wheat
  • No poisoning of rodents or any form of pest control against the field vole

Maintenance Model “Corn Renounce”

Conditions:

  • Observance of the conditions under the basic model in Great Bustard conservation areas
  • No planting of corn

Bonus:

Depending on the combination of conditions a bonus between 309 €/ha and 495 €/ha is calculated. If there is no use of pesticides (except substances according to VO-Nr. 834/2007) an additional Bonus is paid.

Great Bustard fallow

Conditions:

  • Participation of the Establishment in the Monitoring project Great Bustard
  • Participation at Events in the measure of five hours until latest in the year 2018
  • No driving on fields except for cultivation
  • Fertilization, use of pesticides as well as use of vegetation is not allowed
  • Yearly chopping between 1st of September and 15th of October
  • On fields between 0.75 ha and 3 ha it is necessary to leave an area of 10% and max. 20% of the whole area on different parts of the field plots

Bonus:

For Great Bustard fallows a Bonus of at least 529 €/ha is paid.

Greened agricultural fields

Conditions:

  • Participation of the Establishment in the Monitoring project Great Bustard
  • Participation at Events in the measure of five hours until latest in the year 2018
  • Greened agricultural fields with hay meadow- or pasture usage
  • Delay of harvest with earliest mowing on August 20th

Bonus:

For greened agricultural fields a bonus of 700 €/ha is paid.

"WF" agri-environment measure for Great Bustards

Conditions:

  • No pesticides, no artificial fertilizer, no sewage or sewage compost
  • No manure
  • No irrigation from 1st April until harvest
  • No access to site from 1st April until harvest
  • Crop specified: only cereals or rape seed, no maize, no sunflowers
  • Crop rotation: cultivation of cereals at least 4x (including summer cereals at least 2x), rape seed no more than 1x.

Payments:

  • Soil grade < 30 EURO 581.38 / ha / year
  • Soil grade 30 - 60 EURO 690.39 / ha / year
  • Soil grade > 60 EURO 799.40 / ha / year

May be combined with:

  • Crop rotation stabilisation, payment level 1 (+EURO 87.21 / ha / year)
  • Basic payment (+EURO 36.34 / ha / year)

Maximum agri-environment payment, however, was EURO 872.07 / ha / year. In addition, farmers complying with arable area payment guidelines were eligible for arable area payment, EURO 331.90 / ha / year.

"K" agri-environment measure for Great Bustards

Picture: natural vegetation on bustard set-aside with poppy
Natural vegetation on bustard set-aside with poppy

Creation of new bustard set-aside


Conditions:

  • No pesticides, no artificial fertilizer, no sewage or sewage compost
  • No manure
  • No irrigation
  • No access to site except for maintenance from 1st April until harvest
  • No use of set-aside for agricultural purposes

Payment, depending on contract duration and soil grade:

Soil grade

< 30

30 - 60

> 60

Contract duration

 

 

 

5 years

EURO 327.03

EURO 399,70

EURO 472,37

10 years

EURO 381,53

EURO 454,21

EURO 526,88

20 years

EURO 472,37

EURO 545,05

EURO 617,72

Additional payments for maintenance:

Medium effort: (+EURO 145.35 / ha / year), mowing once between 1st April and 30th September in conformity with species conservation requirements. Exact extent and time of maintenance is agreed with the project site supervisor each year.

High effort: (+EURO 218.02 / ha / year), 1x mowing between 1st April and 30th September in conformity with species conservation requirements. Exact extent and time of maintenance is agreed with the project site supervisor each year. In addition, part of the area is sown with bustard-friendly crops every year.

  • Measure K sites may not be counted for ordinary set-aside payments
  • Measure K sites may be counted for "winter cover", payment levels A, B or C
  • Measure K sites receive the basic payment

Sowing measure K sites:

Vegetation coming up naturally is ideal for bustard set-aside, because the resulting plant cover is the most diverse. However, in order to suppress weeds and make sure that vegetation cover develops quickly, low, draught-resistent species may be sown. In this case, sowing rate should be low (10-15 kg/ha) in order to allow for a proportion of natural vegetation and hence increase diversity. The following mix was recommended for bustard set-aside:

Sowing in the years 2000 - 2005

kg per ha

%

Grass-clover-rape-mix

 

 

White clover (Trifolium repens)

0,8

5,0

Black medick (Medicago lupulina)

0,8

5,0

Alfalfa (Medicago sativa)

0,8

5,0

Sainfoin (Onobrychis viciifolia)

0,8

5,0

Red fescue (Festuca rubra)

5,3

35,0

Sheep fescue (Festuca ovina)

3,0

20,0

Smooth meadow-grass (Poa pratensis)

2,3

15,0

Rape seed (Brassica napus)

1,5

10,0

Total

15,0

100,0

From 2003 onwards, measure "WS" (conservation of valuable features) was offered in Western Weinviertel in addition to measures K and WF. Initially, only payment level 1 was on offer, payment level 3 was added after a concept had been worked out by the site supervisor. Offering measure WS was crucial for extending the area under bustard conservation measures substantially and achieving coverage of nearly 100%.

"WS" agri-environment measure for Great Bustards, payment level 1

Until March 2003, only payment level 1 of measure WS was granted in the Western Weinviertel bustard range, with the following conditions:

  • Location inside the bustard protection area Western Weinviertel
  • No windbreakers to be planted in the project area
  • Field sizes not to be increased (reference year 2002)
  • If a Great Bustard clutch is found, the site is to be left undisturbed 50 m around the nest (unless agreed otherwise with the site supervisor)

In addition, two payment level 3 variants of the WS measure were introduced in order to improve conditions and food availability for bustards further, namely a "rape seed" and a "winter wheat" variant. The same requirements as for payment level 1 apply, plus further management obligations. These payment level 3 agri-environment measures are not offered universally, but only in areas considered important.

"WS" agri-environment measure for Great Bustards, payment level 3, "rape seed" variant

Conditions:

  • Compliance with conditions for payment level 1 (see above)
  • Winter rape to be planted once in 5 years
  • No poisoning of rhodents or any form of pest control against hamsters, Eurasian ground squirrels and field voles for entire duration of contract

"WS" agri-environment measure for Great Bustards, payment level 3, "winter wheat" variant

Conditions:

  • Compliance with conditions for payment level 1 (see above)
  • Winter wheat to be planted at least twice in 5 years
  • No access to winter wheat fields after 20th April until harvest
  • No poisoning of rhodents or any form of pest control against hamsters, Eurasian ground squirrels and field voles for entire duration of contract

Payments, depending on contract duration and soil grade: Since soil grade exceeds 60 for most soils in Western Weinviertel, level 3 payments for the WS measure are set at EURO 254.40 per hectare, i.e. EURO 145.40 above payment level 1, according to the agri-environment directive (ÖPUL 2000). For lower soil grades (30-60), payment level 3 amounts to EURO 181.70 per hectare, i.e. EURO 109.00 above level 1.

Site supervision

Intensive site supervision in all bustard areas in Austria ensures implementation of ongoing conservation measures. The site supervisor responsible for most areas has a background in nature conservation. One area has an additional site supervisor from a hunting background.

  • Habitat management takes first priority among the tasks of the site supervisor. The aim is to improve and conserve suitable habitats for Great Bustards. Above all, this entails working out maintenance and cultivation schedules fitted to the bustards' requirements in time and space. These measures must dovetail with the conservation objectives of Natura 2000 sites and the interests of the local population. Site management is recorded in a Geographical Information System (GIS).

  • A further task is improving clutch and chick survival through adequate measures.

  • A third important task is to ensure that the interests of the local population are met, in particular farmers, hunters and politicians. This requires regular meetings and contacts with representatives and with the people concerned.

Habitat management

The history of Great Bustard conservation shows that only large-scale habitat management together with professional site supervision can preserve the species in central European agricultural landscapes.

In Austria, the main emphasis in Great Bustard conservation lies on providing suitable habitat. For this reason, existing habitat management measures were extended significantly from the year 2000 onwards. Burgenland and Lower Austria created large-scale Special Protected Areas (SPA's, i.e. Natura 2000 sites for birds), and dedicated bustard conservation measures are being implemented primarily inside these areas on more than 5,500 ha of land under the Austrian agri-environment scheme "ÖPUL" (Austrian programme for an environmentally appropriate, extensive and natural habitat friendly agriculture).

Managing habitats in order to optimise existing bustard conservation measures is therefore one of the main emphases of site supervision. This requires good cooperation with the local population.

The site supervisor of course takes into account the habitat requirements of other protected bird species and other conservation objectives of Natura 2000 sites when deciding on maintenance and cultivation measures for existing bustard sites.

It is essential for the optimisation of bustard conservation sites that the entire project area is looked at and evaluated every year before management measures are decided upon. Individual management plans have to be worked out for all sites requiring maintenance, taking into account the interests of the local population and accommodating the spatial and temporal requirements of Great Bustards. All measures are documented in a Geographic Information System (GIS).

Good documentation of management measures is a prerequisite for evaluating effectiveness. Monitoring the effectiveness and suitability of measures can be done through analysing, at different times of the year, how frequently Great Bustards use sites under dedicated management, compared to adjacent sites without management. In this way, the significance of standard cultivation processes and dedicated management measures can be evaluated, and bustard conservation sites can be improved continually in the future.

Evaluation of measures is the basis for future provision of significant amounts of agri-environment funding for maintaining or even increasing the areas under dedicated conservation measures for bustards. Since rape seed fields are so important for Great Bustards in winter, Burgenland may wish to consider funding adequate areas of rape seed in bustard winter ranges in addition to "bustard set-aside", if bustard conservation sites are extended.

Safeguarding reproductive success

Safeguarding reproductive success is obviously crucial for a healthy bustard population and is therefore a major aim of site supervision. While most breeding sites are now protected from losses through intensive agriculture thanks to the large-scale implementation of dedicated bustard conservation measures, nests, chicks and even incubating females outside the areas under agri-environment schemes may be threatened through cultivation processes. A strong emphasis of site supervision in the breeding season therefore lies on minimizing such threats. Accordingly, at this time of year the site supervisor must concentrate on observation and redouble efforts to stay in close contact and exchange information with local farmers and hunters. This increases the chances of spotting or being told about nests and young which may be at risk. If there is imminent danger for a clutch or for bustard chicks, one possible solution is to compensate farmers for omitting certain critical cultivation measures.

The fact that Great Bustards are very sensitive and may give up their nest after a single instance of disturbance means that disruptions unrelated to agricultural activity, too, must be avoided at nesting sites. In areas close to neighbouring states it is therefore necessary to make agreements with the army patrolling the border in these areas and to guarantee a regular exchange of information.

The site supervisor puts together a predator management concept in agreement with the nature conservation authority and the hunting association of the province concerned. This may, for example, entail synchronised hunts at fox burrows with dogs. Naturally, a deliberate reduction of rare species is not the aim of conservation activities, even if they pose a potential threat to bustards, such as the Eastern Imperial Eagle or the White-tailed Eagle.

In addition, the site supervisor maintains good contacts with hunters and works towards voluntary agreements with hunters that help to keep all disturbances in bustard areas to a necessary minimum. In some bustard areas, such agreements have been reached already.

Targeted observations in the breeding and chick rearing season allow a large proportion of non-breeding, breeding and parenting females to be recorded. However, the Austrian breeding population can change markedly through relatively minor movements of females in the border areas with Hungary and Slovakia. This is because Great Bustards in Austria, in particular in the Natura 2000 site Parndorfer Platte and Heideboden, are only a part of the cross-border west-pannonic population, i.e. of the cross-border Austro-Hungarian-Slovak-Czech population. Monitoring of breeding females obviously aims to avoid any disturbance by observers and is therefore restricted to selected points, for example elevated hunting hides on the edge of breeding territories. Consequently, a proportion of breeding females is not recorded, especially those with nests located in set-aside with tall vegetation. However, this does not mean that reproductive success of these females will be low, because cultivation measures are unlikely to pose a threat on bustard set-aside, thanks to the conditions that apply under agri-environment regulations. Guarding Great Bustards against disturbance therefore takes precedence over detailed observations, even if that makes it difficult or impossible to record exact numbers. These circumstances must of course be taken into account when evaluating reproductive success. In the cross-border breeding range, therefore, breeding success can only be estimated, not monitored comprehensively. On the other hand, autumn and winter tend to concentrate sub-populations at a small number of points, allowing the total population to be counted more accurately. Hence, retrospective conclusions can be drawn about reproductive success.

In this way, breeding success is monitored carefully as a criterion for evaluating effectiveness, without jeopardizing breeding success itself in the process. It is also important to remember that reproductive success depends on a number of factors besides those that projects can address, such as weather in the breeding and chick rearing season.

Balancing of interests

It is only with the involvement of farmers, hunters and regional politicians that the Great Bustard species conservation project can succeed in creating suitable nesting sites and guarding these against disturbance. Apart from casual conversations with farmers and hunters during field work, the site supervisor has to attend regular meetings to warrant good contacts with the people concerned and with representatives. Another important basis for good relations is the successful working of the Austrian Society for Great Bustard Conservation (ÖGG). It serves as a platform for conservation experts, hunters, lobbying organisations and local authorities to exchange views, and thus promotes cooperative implementation of conservation measures in bustard areas.

Since Great Bustard conservation does not automatically fit together with other objectives in the concerned areas, finding a balance of interests should be the aim in most cases. However, there may be interests which directly contradict bustard conservation, so that in exceptional cases a balance of interests would jeopardize the success of protection efforts and must be refused by the site supervisor, citing reasons. Since the site supervisor stays in close contact with the relevant provincial conservation department, judicial steps can be initiated at any time, should this be necessary.

Working on good public relations primarily concerns intensive regular personal contacts between site supervisor and local farmers, hunters and politicians. In addition, occasional events on a larger scale aim to inform the wider public and to promote interest in Great Bustard conservation.