The first step to achieve the restoration of El Hito Lagoon is the acquisition of lands located within and on the shores of the lagoon, where species of flora and fauna of high ecological interest reproduce without human intervention.
During the last decades, a significant part of the lagoon’s surface has been occupied by agricultural crops, which together with intensive grazing in saline areas, has led to the destruction of several of the priority habitats found in the lagoon. Experts from the Royal Botanical Garden estimate that around 25% of the limonium communities, albardines and other native species of the lagoon have been lost.
The purchase of plots located in the basin or perilagunar lands ensures the restoration of the entire surface and the long-term protection of this emblematic natural area in Castilla-La Mancha.
In total, 500.54 hectares (ha) of land will be acquired in areas of high biological diversity, where priority conservation species and species of interest for the EU Habitats Directive and the Birds Directive.
Elimination of disturbances in the lagoon
The restoration actions of El Hito LIFE Project are focused on the lagoon and its surroundings, where it is necessary to clean and remove fences, debris, buildings, electric towers and vicious trails to recover about 40 ha of priority habitats.
The implementation of this action involves the elimination of more than three kilometers of vicious trails that cross the lagoon. These “roads” allow uncontrolled access to the special protection areas and pose a danger to the lagoon’s fauna, particularly during breeding periods. They are also a threat to the vegetation, due to the circulation of people, motorcycles and other types of vehicles.
The restoration work includes the demolition of two livestock warehouses of approximately 1,500 m2. Ubicated on the northern shore, the older location of this warehouses is conceived as the ideal place to build the bird observatory of El Hito Lagoon. This place has great potential to be recovered.
It is also worth mentioning the closure of drainage channels that cause the wetland to empty in times of flooding, as well as the removal of 7.5 km of fencing, the collection of 3,000 m3 of debris and waste accumulated in the lagoon for decades, and the elimination of a 140 m2 dump.
Production and planting of endemic and threatened species:
The restoration plan for the priority habitats of El Hito Lagoon includes the harvesting of seeds, production and planting of more than 250,000 plants of different endemic and native species characteristic of the salt steppes and other priority habitats.
It is expected that, with the restoration works foreseen in the execution of the project, part of the original vegetation will recover spontaneously. However, in some agricultural lands, where it has been ploughed for years, regeneration will be much slower or almost non-existent. In these cases the soils have been altered in their composition (highly nitrogenous), so active plant restoration is required through seed collection, plant production, sowing and planting, which will accelerate the natural recovery processes.
The restoration of native flora in the lagoon is expected to increase 100% of the salt steppes of El Hito Lagoon from 33.47 ha to almost 74 ha. These native plants are perennial, herbaceous and fully adapted to the extreme soil characteristics typical of saline habitats.
The revegetation plan of Limonium, Lygeum and other native and endemic species of the La Mancha steppes also represents a significant increase in carbon sequestration in the area. With the volume of plants to be planted, around 2,120 kgCOeq/ha will be sequestered over the next 20 years.
Thousands of cranes visit El Hito Lagoon each year and feed mainly on cereal seeds from the agricultural crops around the wetland. Farmers in the area have long been calling for compensatory measures compatible with bird protection. El Hito LIFE project has started a trade-off plan to mitigate the damage caused by the cranes in the SPA-SAC area. The Agriculture Counsil of Castilla-La Mancha has committed to continue and expand this supporting plan through the new CAP.
The project also has stewardship agreements with farmland owners in the municipalities of El Hito and Montalbo. In the second year of LIFE implementation, 18 agreements have been signed, representing 100% of the farmland of the Natural Reserve. So, new farmers are joining into the agricultural stewardship network that Fundación Global Nature already has in Cuenca, Toledo and other provinces of Castilla-La Mancha, helping them to implement agri-environmental measures that improve the profitability of their farms and contribute, in turn, to the conservation of nature in areas of high ecological value.
Another objective of the project is to promote nature tourism in the lagoon, making available to all visitors resources and infrastructure that allow the generation of employment and care of the natural environment.
Among the project’s actions is the improvement of different trails, articulating the Wetland Trail, that will make possible to visit these environments to the people. The trail is supported by interpretative panels that explain to the visitor the landscape and the most emblematic species of this nature jewel of La Mancha. In addition, an observatory has been built for bird watching.
From now on, visitors who come to the lagoon will be able to easily identify the most suitable pedestrian routes to get to know the wetland and how to locate the most appropriate places for bird watching.
The wetland El Hito Lagoon represents a unique area of great importance for biodiversity, both fauna and flora. Species monitoring is essential to make the most appropriate management decisions at all times:
Flora. One of the main objectives of this initiative is to carry out a basic plant mapping at the beginning and the end of the project to analyze the evolution of the flora and habitats throughout the three years of the LIFE project. This evaluation is necessary, not only to establish an updated diagnosis of the flora and vegetation of the area, but also to be able to carry on, based on the results obtained, the necessary strategies for its conservation.
Endemic and/or threatened species of insects and other invertebrates as key indicators. At El Hito Lagoon, frequent sampling is carried out to study the communities of different families of Coleoptera (Carabidae, including Cicindelinae, Tenebrionidae, Meloidae, Oedemeridae), Orthoptera, Neuroptera (Myrmeleontidae) and Mantodea. In addition, data are collected on Lepidoptera (Papilionoidea) and Hymenoptera (Mutillidae).
Bird census. The El Hito LIFE project team regularly carries out censuses of the crane population and, occasionally, of other bird species. These censuses are complemented by other counts of nesting and breeding birds, carried out by Fundación Global Nature through its team of ornithologists.
Geographic Information System (GIS). It is a magnificent tool for communication and transparency that shows clearly the current geographic database and also the generated during the project, so it helps decision-making and the evaluation of all monitoring actions carried out during the LIFE project. It also allows to generate information for other platforms, such as the RN2000 viewer, or connections to other projects.
Ecosystem indicators. El Hito Lagoon area is made up of three main types of ecosystems: wetlands and its surrounding salt marshes, grasslands and steppe ecosystems, and croplands. All of them are considered habitats of High Natural Value (HNV). These ecosystems provide humans with different ecosystem services that are evaluated at the beginning and at the end of the project to check for possible variations or improvements. Ecosystem services include, for example, climate regulation, water quality, food production, ornithological tourism, soil fertility and plant pollination.
Communication and awareness-raising is a strategic activity of the project, because it is an essential tool to disseminate the importance of this Natura 2000 Network site and to encourage the participation of all stakeholders involved in the conservation of the lagoon and its surrounding habitats.
The LIFE project contemplates the creation of divulgative materials, information panels and the elaboration of specific contents to be disseminated in the press, radio, television and digital media.
The project is also carrying out an educational campaign for 30 municipalities and 50 schools in the province of Cuenca at least. The environmental awareness and education program addresses the environmental and social values of this area and the benefits of its restoration.
The dissemination and promotion strategy for El Hito Lagoon includes actions aimed at promoting the differentiated commercialization of agricultural products, as well as supporting and promoting local nature tourism.