30th anniversary celebrations of the Ramsar Convention in Austria

17/05/2013

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The Austrian Federal Minister for Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management (i.e. the “Life Ministry”), Nikolaus Berlakovich, the regional Minister Andreas Liegenfeld of the federal state Burgenland, and Mayor Vinzenz Knor welcomed many participants to the anniversary ceremony on the sunny terrace of Güssing castle to celebrate the implementation of the Ramsar Convention in Austria on 18 April 2013.

The Austrian Ramsar Committee in session at Güssing castle (© Christian Holler)

Exactly 30 years ago, Austria joined the Convention as its 33rd Party, on 16 April 1983. The speakers stressed the importance of the Ramsar Convention as an instrument for sustainable development, a complementary tool to the specific European Union instruments for water and nature, such as the protected areas network Natura 2000 and the Water Framework Directive. And they felt that Ramsar is also a practical instrument to increase awareness on the fundamental ecological functions that wetlands provide as regulators of water regimes and as resources of great economic, cultural, scientific, touristic and recreational value.

Ramsar Site diplomas for the Hoffmann fish farmers and Ernst Breitegger (NGO Naturschutzbund) from Minister Berlakovich and Ramsar Senior Regional Advisor Salathe (© Christian Holler)

Austria is a particularly active country in implementing the Convention. The national Ramsar Committee regularly translates global Ramsar guidance and strategy documents into national implementation and action plans (see www.ramsar.at). Regional Focal Points from the nine federal states regularly report to the Committee about progress made in implementing the Convention and exchange their ideas about wetland-related matters - also with NGO and business representatives on the Committee. And the potential for the Ramsar Committee to interact with other sectors, notably water and agriculture, is great, cf. the new information campaign of the Life Ministry: www.generationblue.at. The Committee meets at least once a year. And this year, its 26th meeting took place at Güssing castle, in order to be part of the anniversary celebrations.

Güssing castle on top of an ancient volcano overlooking the new Ramsar Site Güssing Fish Ponds (© Klaus Michalek)

The festive gathering was also an opportunity for Minister Berlakovich and the undersigned to hand over the diploma of Austria’s newest 21st Ramsar Site, the “Güssing Fish Ponds”, to Mayor Knor, the owners and managers of the commercial fish farm, i.e. the Hoffmann family, and Ernst Breitegger, the president of the conservation organisation Naturschutzbund Burgenland who is instrumental in the analysis and promotion of the biodiversity values of this new Ramsar Site. Mr Breitegger came with his students from the local college, who study the wetland under his guidance. Their presence at the anniversary event was very relevant since they are the next generation who is most interested in the natural heritage that we will bequest to them.

Minister Berlakovich also awarded national orders of merit to the cattle farmer Johann Krutzler and to hydrologist Werner Pav for their long-term efforts to create and maintain innovative management of the grazing lands in the floodplain of the nearby Lafnitz creek Ramsar Site. A commercial grazing scheme that is compatible with the maintenance and improvement of the biodiversity of the Ramsar Site. And the anniversary was not only an opportunity to look back and to be pleased about the results achieved, but also to look forward to the challenges ahead. At the event, the future designation of Austria’s 22nd Ramsar Site in the limestone Alps, the reparatory works for the designation of the 23rd site along the upper reaches of the international Drava river were announced.

Moor frog Rana arvalis males turn blue during the reproductive season (© Josef Weinzettl)

After a social dinner at a local wine grower’s place, and to round up their two-day meeting in style, the Committee members, joined by local participants, benefited from a guided tour of the new Ramsar Site Güssing fish ponds in the floodplain of the Zickenbach creek. This was an opportunity to learn that the family company uses the wetlands for non-intensive aquaculture of carp, pike, pike-perch and catfish. The ponds, surrounded by a dense belt of reeds and bulrushes, are an important breeding, feeding and resting site for migratory and resident birds. The site supports a population of European Otter Lutra lutra and harbours many special dragonflies and amphibians. A small island covered by willows and shrubs is an ideal roosting place for herons. In the surroundings, a varied landscape of wet meadows with single trees, remnant copses of alluvial forest and willow bushes, small channels and agricultural fields remains. The wetland plays an important role in flood retention and provides the right landscape for recreation activities such as hiking, cycling, jogging, birdwatching and hunting. It is a good example of how a sustainable fish farming business can create biodiversity, landscape and recreation values, and a perfect example of Ramsar’s “wise use” approach.

On their way back to Vienna, a few participants, including the national Ramsar coordinator Wolfgang Pelikan, and the National Focal Point in the Federal Ministry, Gerhard Schwach, stopped over at the new Ramsar Centre in Purbach, a municipality in the western part of the Transboundary Ramsar Site Neusiedler See Seewinkel – Fertö-Hanság (Austria-Hungary). The centre will formally open on 26 May 2013, but is already accessible to the public. It is a promising public-private venture between the commune of Purbach and many local producers of wine and other specialities grown in the surroundings. These products benefit from the particular climate created by the lake ecosystem. Visitors looking for local specialities can taste 64 different wines and chose among hundred bottlings and many other craft products.

Information panels outside the new Ramsar Centre at Purbach providing wetland information and a modern facility to discover local wines and other products (by Tobias Salathé)

In the Ramsar room, the inaugural exhibit focuses on the extensive reed beds along the Pannonian steppe lake. A habitat with many hidden animal activities that happen unnoticed by the eye of the occasional human visitor. They are all about “love in the reeds” (Liebe im Schilf, the title of the exhibit). The well-designed panels show and explain the stunning patterns of courtship displays, reproductive fights and mate competition among mammals, birds and amphibians that live and reproduce in the impenetrable jungle of reeds, sedges and bulrushes. Inspired by the exhibit, visitors and tourists can book guided tours, discovery excursions and obtain further information about the wetland at the new Ramsar Centre. A promising undertaking that might become a model for its kind.

Photos by Christian Holler, Klaus Michalek, Tobias Salathé and Josef Weinzettl. Report by Tobias Salathé, Regional Senior Advisor for Europe (with the help of Laura Maíz, Assistant Advisor for Europe and Gerhard Schwach, National Focal Point in the Federal Ministry)

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