The globally threatened aquatic warbler is Europe’s rarest songbird. In Lithuania, as elsewhere, this small passerine has undergone a dramatic decline over the years, pushing the species to the edge of extinction. Simply protecting its wet meadow habitats is no longer enough. For the species to survive, its breeding success has to be increased as well, and this can only really be achieved by changing farming practices, and delaying the mowing of wet meadows in particular until mid-August.
With this in mind, the Baltic Environmental Forum (BEF) designed a special aquatic warbler agri-environmental scheme under the EU Rural Development Programme in order to offer payments to farmers who agree to delay mowing and who carry out other complex habitat management measures for the benefit of the birds. Introduced in the Nemunas Delta and surrounding areas in 2015, the scheme has had a very good uptake, with already half of the farmers participating. Much of this success is down to the regular contact the BEF team has with some 200 local farmers, engaging their interest in the plight of this enigmatic songbird. Initially designed under a LIFE project at a cost of € 30 000, this scheme has since mobilised almost € 9 million in European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD) funding for habitat maintenance and restoration.
Another major success of the project has been the development of an alternative outlet for the late-cut hay, which could no longer be used as winter fodder. A special biomass processing facility was built to transform the hay into animal bedding pellets, to be used mostly for horses. Targeted at the Scandinavian market, these bedding pellets provide an environmentally-friendly substitute for the more conventional peat bog bedding, which damages peatbogs. Thanks to the popularity of this new product - called Hygge pellets - a new socioeconomic niche has been created, turning the conservation of the aquatic warbler habitats into a self-sustaining and climate-friendly activity.
The warbler population is now increasing again in Lithuania and, thanks to the recent publication of an Aquatic Warbler Conservation Handbook, good practice experiences from this initiative are being passed on to others.