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Environment

Storks, apps and wild horses: protecting Austria's wetlands

Wetlands store large amounts of carbon and thus help to protect climate - but large areas are being lost to industry and agriculture. Austria is trying to change that - and is finding novel ways to protect its wetlands.

Above the Marchegg wetlands in eastern Austria, half a dozen storks circle in the warm summer air. Occasionally they dive, grab a mouse or a frog and fly swiftly back to their hungry chicks, which wait, beaks agape, in huge nests in the forks of ancient trees.

"There - you can see that's an adult one with an orange-reddish beak. The younger ones have greyish or black beaks… so they are feeding now," says Michael Stelzhammer of WWF Austria, who works to preserve this stork mecca.

The wetlands were once part of a huge ecosystem stretching along three meandering rivers, the Thaya, the Morava and the Danube, and covering hundreds of square kilometers. But today, farming and flood mitigation have reduced it to a few thousand hectares, co-owned and preserved by the WWF.

In the mid-summer heatwave with temperatures reaching around 35 degrees Celsius, the term "wetland" seems slightly inappropriate, but Stelzhammer points to the brown fields and meadows and says the dry zones contribute to the rich biodiversity of this reserve.

"You have species that need swamps and ponds and water and you also have species, about 50 metres away, that need dry meadows in the summer," he says. The species he is referring to is the Konik horse, a descendant of the wild Tarpan horses, which once roamed this area in great numbers.

Horses in Marchegg, Austria. Copyright: WWF

Wild Konik horses have been reintroduced to the Marchegg wetlands

Now, a few of the survivors have been imported from Poland to graze in the meadows of this reserve. The WWF wetlands expert says their grazing assists the storks and other birds in their search for insects and field mice. "They belong in this landscape," he says.

From wetland to agriculture

At another wetlands center in the far north of Austria at Schrems, close to the Czech border, a 300-hectare area of peat-land, moor, and lagoon has been set aside for preservation and for visitors to explore.

In the past, the area was heavily mined for peat to fuel the furnaces of the local glass industry, but now tourists come to the visitor centre known as Unterwasserreich, or Underwater Kingdom, to learn about the region's wildlife. The highlight for most people comes at the end of the tour when otters are hand fed.

"Children like them but most of the farmers, or the hunters… or forest people, they don't like it so much," says Gerhard Schwach, who has brought his family here to learn about the wetlands' biodiversity.

Schwach has more than a passing interest in this nature park. As the wetlands expert at the Austrian environment ministry, he admits that past government policies contributed to the loss of much of the country's most diverse ecosystems.

Otters at the Unterwasserreich visitor Center in Schrems, Austria. Copyright: Unterwasserreich

Visitors to the wetlands in Schrems have the chance to hand-feed otters

Since World War II, Austria has turned 350,000 hectares of river landscape and wetlands over to farmland. And although it is now European and government policy to preserve wetlands, they are still being destroyed.

"It's now mainly those areas that are seen as not so interesting for agriculture; they are seen as a reserve area for new settlements, for urbanization," says the wetlands expert, adding that there is conflict between local municipalities who want to develop land for housing and shopping centers and those who want to preserve and restore wetlands.

Land-use app

Austria last conducted a thorough stock-take of its wetlands some 25 years ago and while both the government and environmentalists agree they are still being lost, it is difficult to judge where it is happening and to what extent. But now there's some unexpected help which could add significantly to the available data on land use.

Steffen Fritz, a scientist at the International Institute for Applied Sytems Analysis (IIASA), an Austrian-based international organization, which studies global systems, especially climate change, has developed an app for mobile devices called FotoQuest Austria.

"Anybody who is interested in being a citizen scientist in Austria, who is interested in going outdoors and wants to help gather important land-use and land-cover data can download the app, and can find points which we are exploring, what is the land cover on those points and then contribute very valuable data in terms of land cover and land use," says Fritz.

Fotoquest Austria App

The Fotoquest Austria App is getting citizen scientists involved in mapping the country's remaining wetlands

IIASA scientists estimate that in Austria a surface area equivalent to 19 football fields is being covered over each day, converted from soil, grass or forest areas to building sites, streets and car parks. And he's keen to point out that apart from biodiversity there is now another compelling reason to preserve wetlands.

"Wetlands, when they are drained, emit a lot of carbon and CO2, and therefore if we know the wetlands are shrinking in Austria, we know there are actually greenhouse gases emitted," he says.

A citizen scientist who has taken up the challenge of documenting land use by using the app is Karin Sturn, who has been contributing data from her home near Lake Constance in the far west of Austria.

"We found it was an enjoyable adventure to search out the various points near our home," says Karin, although she admitted that during their first attempt she and her husband found themselves in the middle of a maize field. They are now photographing and providing data on various sites around the lake where they sail a small boat.

Can the wetlands be restored?

Whether such action can really help preserve the wetlands remains unclear. But WWF's Stelzhammer is optimistic.

Austrian wetland. Copyright: Kerry Skyring

Wetlands are precious areas of biodiversity, but they also play a vital role in sequestering CO2

"There are a lot of places in Austria where you can restore wetlands, where you can open dykes or build new dykes away from rivers," he says. Stelzhammer believes the public now understands that the severity of recent flooding is linked to the loss of wetlands and the channeling of rivers. Restoring the wetlands, he says, is like "ecological flood protection."

Schwach at the environment ministry has a more down-beat view. He's enthusiastic about the many projects underway on Austrian rivers to restore lost flood plains and wetlands but doesn't think they are enough.

"I am rather more pessimistic because we can expand the wetlands by a certain amount but it will not compare with what is still going to be lost," says Schwach.

Preventing further loss, he believes, will require difficult political decisions – such as national laws that override local government decisions on developments that can destroy wetlands.

The storks feeding their chicks in the trees at Marchegg don't know it, but their future feeding grounds could depend on who wins the fight for the right to protect or destroy wetlands.

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