Fire Management of reed belt in Austria

Management of the reed belt is one of the most important topics of the ALFAwetlands Austrian-Hungarian ALFAwetlands Living Lab.

Introduction

Recent studies (Nemeth et al. 2022) have shown that large parts of the reed belt consist of reed stands that are decades old and that there are clear signs of progressive dieback processes in these stands, which have apparently accelerated in recent years. According to the recent research no less than 50% of the reed belt is dominated by broken reeds, i.e. broken mats of dead reeds lying in one direction, which are no longer suitable as a habitat for reed birds. This even affects bird species that are particularly depend on the presence of a high proportion of old reeds.

Action to improve reed belt and species

Overall, the observed reed mortality is likely to have contributed to the massive population declines of many reed bird species. This has a direct negative impact on the protected assets of the Natura 2000 site “Neusiedler See – Nordöstliches Leithagebire” and their conservation status. There is therefore an urgent need for action to improve the population and thus conservation status of several species of this European protected area.

Nature conservation experts came to the conclusion that the reed population cannot be regenerated by reed mowing alone and that burning must be considered as a management measure (Nemeth et al. 2020). The winter burning of reed beds has been common practice on Lake Neusiedl for decades. There has been no evidence of any obvious lasting damage to protected species.

Stakeholders’ involvement

The discussion surrounding the fire management of the reed belt intensified primarily due to a dry phase from 2020 onwards, which led to large parts of the reed belt drying out and thus increasing the risk of uncontrolled fires. As a result, around 200 hectares of reeds in the core zone of the National Park Neusiedler See-Seewinkel (National Park) burned down in spring 2020 due to an unintentional fire started by humans. Since 2020, there have been several smaller fires and finally, in 2023, two more larger fires that also threatened to destroy infrastructure. Due to these frequent incidents, the authorities recognised the need for fire management for the reed belt.

In 2023, an inspection of a burnt area was carried out with the authorities, representatives of nature conservation, BirdLife, WWF, fire experts from University BOKU, Seemanagement GmbH, the fire service and the landowner. Both the urgency of a fire protection concept for the primarily tourist infrastructure within the reed belt (challenges for the fire services, high use of resources and great risk for firefighters) and the nature conservation necessity of reed management were discussed.

Subsequently, two smaller meetings were held with the authorities, the responsible political offices, Seemanagment GmbH, the fire brigade and the National Park (for expertise). It was agreed that a fire protection concept for the reed belt of Lake Neusiedl should be developed and that fire management should be pursued both on the basis of nature conservation and as a preventative measure (controlled fire as protection against uncontrolled fires).

Changes in legislation

When the Austrian Federal Air Pollution Control Act came into force in 2002, the extensive burning of the reed belt was prohibited. Fire management as a nature conservation measure is therefore currently not legally possible.

Due to the negative effects of the current large-scale dieback of the reed belt of Lake Neusiedl on many protected species of the Natura 2000 site and in view of the lack of alternative methods, there were further meetings and discussions between the province of Burgenland, the Federal Ministry for Climate Action, Environment, Energy, Mobility, Innovation and Technology (Federal Ministry for Climate), nature conservation authorities, water protection authorities, NGOs (WWF, Bird Life) and the fire brigade to explore the possibilities of fire management (technical aspects of fire management, nature conservation aspects, possible air pollution and emission of GHG).

Important fire drill and monitoring

In 2023, the province of Burgenland – in consultation and cooperation with the responsible Federal Ministry for Climate – finally began planning a large-scale fire drill in the reed belt of Lake Neusiedl. The aim is to achieve the goal of extending the Federal Air Pollution Control Act to include the burning of reeds for necessary biotope improvement measures by providing comprehensive evidence based on a monitoring programme.

Number of different institutions were involved in the direct preparations for this fire drill.

The monitoring of the effects of the fire drill includes mainly:

  • Air quality measurements
  • Calculation of carbon release, carbon balance
  • Effects on water chemistry
  • Ornithological monitoring
  • Monitoring of the fire itself by drone

The fire drill took place on 13/01/2024. Due to the weather conditions (significantly less wind than forecast), the fire developed very slowly and only a relatively small area could be burnt (much less than the 200 ha planned). The monitoring programmes were or are being carried out as planned. A summarised report is planned for June 2024.

Literature

Nemeth, E., Dvorak, M., Glaser, F., Kohler, B. & M. Schwienbacher (2022): Entwicklungnachhaltiger Schilferntetechniken und Monitoring Schilfgürtel Neusiedler See. Projktendbericht an das Amt der Burgenländischen Landesregierung Abt. 4, Hauptreferat Naturschutz und Landschaftspflege, 251 pp.


Publication text is prepared and all photo provided by Arno Cimadom, National Park Neusiedler See-Seewinkel.

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