European coastal habitats are often vulnerable to the effects of the expansion of tourism and recreation, the development of ports and industry, urbanisation and the invasion of alien species. Coastal habitats mainly depend on natural conditions and dynamics, influenced by the sea-level, salinity, moisture and geological bedrock. Sečovlje salina is a 650 ha area along the estuary of the Dragonja River on the southernmost stretch of the Slovenian coastline. The coastal alluvial plain has developed over centuries by the continuous deposition of sediments in the Dragonja river estuary. Basins for the evaporation of sea water were created at least 700 years ago; the landscape and ecosystem has remained relatively unchanged since. Several different habitat types, however, have evolved, all of them dependent on the salty environment and the presence of humans to prevent tide and floods. The key factor that defines and influences the conservation status of habitats and species in the project area is management of the water regime. Until the late 1960s, human actions controlled the circulation of waters and prevented flooding from sea waters within the entire salt basin. However, the downturn in the European salt market, led to the abandonment of around half of the salt basins and, as a result, some valuable habitats and species increased in size. However, regular maintenance of embankments and sea-defence walls stopped and flooding with sea and inland waters now threaten the whole system. In December 2008, an exceptionally high tide flooded the entire area. The consequences of that natural disaster still influence ecological conditions in the area: several habitat types, including those targeted by the project and those that are home to target species, are now flooded often as the scrapes, ruined sea walls and embankments no longer provide sufficient protection.
The overall objective of the project is to improve the conservation status of target bird, reptile and fish species and target habitat types in the Natura 2000 site Sečovlje salina. Target species are Charadrius alexandrinus, Himantopus himantopus, Sterna hirundo, Sterna albifrons, Larus melanocephalus (all listed on the Annex I of the Birds Directive), Emys orbicularis and Aphanius fasciatus. Target habitat types are: mudflats and sandflats not covered by seawater at low tide; Salicornia and other annuals colonising mud and sand; Mediterranean salt meadows (Juncetalia maritimi); Mediterranean and thermo-Atlantic salt marshes and salt meadows (Sarcocornetea fruticosi); estuaries, Spartina swards (Spartinion maritimae).
Specific project actions will aim to achieve the following:
- To ensure control over the water regime and hydraulic management in saline ecosystems based on a system of sea-defence walls, embankments and internal channels;
- To prevent negative effects of human disturbance, predation and habitat fragmentation on target species and habitats;
- To raise awareness among the local population and wider public about the importance of saline habitat types for conservation and maintenance of sustainable land uses; and
- To provide and exchange information on sustainable restoration methods and conservation management issues in these ecosystems.
The project expects to produce the following results:
- Maps of habitat types;
- An action plan for three target breeding bird species;
- Technical studies on the reconstruction of embankments;
- One wetland restoration project including preparatory geodetic maps of the channel area;
- To build/restore 3 406 m of embankments and sea defence walls;
- To build/restore 670 m of rock sea wall;
- To install 16 sluices for improving water exchange;
- To build 10 artificial islands (1 km2);
- To restore 8 ha of the habitat for Emys orbicularis, where construction of 2 100 m of railway will be introduced to prevent human disturbance; and
- Raised awareness through innovation (e.g. a ‘Big Brother’-type conservation live show from the bird breeding colony).