30 years of Ramsar Site management: a Swiss business model

30 years of Ramsar Site management: a Swiss business model

20 February 2013

The southern shores of lake Neuchâtel constitute the first and largest Ramsar Site in Switzerland. This ecosystem is also one of the youngest in the country, because it only came into being since the artificial lowering of the lake water level during the years 1868-1891. The Ramsar Site consists of eight nature reserves composed of lakeside shallows, extensive fen mires and alluvial and hillside forests. The fen mires (Cladietum, Schoenetum, Nanocyperion, Molinietum for the specialists) gave the wetland area its name “Grande Cariçaie” referring to the different Carex rushes growing here (www.grande-caricaie.ch).

One of the sophisticated fen moving machines developed for, and used in the Grande Cariçaie since 30 years. Photo courtesy: © Eltel SA.

World Wetlands Day 2013 was the occasion for the site managers to celebrate 30 years of their public-private partnership for the integrated management of this wetland area that only exists since less than 150 years. Since 1982, the local authorities cooperate with an innovative firm, Eltel SA, to cut the fen vegetation with specially developed equipment in order to prevent the wet fens from growing over with bushes and trees. Experiments in parallel with Highland cattle grazing, show that mechanical cutting with light-weight machinery (with a soil pressure of only 220g/cm3, less than an adult) is better for rare water plants (such as Hydrocharis morsus-ranae) and biodiversity (creation of new micro-habitats). For the anniversary celebrations, the managers invited 150 dignitaries and specialists on 1 February, and the general public the next day, to discover a temporary exhibit on the history of fen management, set up along the lake shores near the village of Cheyres, to listen to first-hand explanations, and to see the prototype mowing machines in action (see video clip here: www.eltel-sa.ch/zones_humides.html).

To some readers, managing fen vegetation (of little interest to farmers) with modern machinery, rather than traditionally with grazing animals, may seem to be a solution only rich countries can afford. But there is another part to the story: The collected vegetation matter is stockpiled and turned into fertilising compost and increasingly sold to professionals and private gardeners as a high-quality horticultural substrate. The Eltel company is not only any longer developing and using mowing machinery for their clients, but also creating income from selling the cut vegetation matter after its conversion into a high-quality horticultural substrate. And this market is likely to grow.

Since 1987, peat cutting is forbidden in Switzerland. However, still up to 150,000 tonnes of peat (decayed wetland plant material) are imported annually. And this contributes to peatland degradation elsewhere. As an act of international solidarity in order to reduce this environmental damage, and making specific reference to the Ramsar Convention (cf. Resolution VIII.17, providing guidelines for global action on peatlands), the Swiss government decided in December 2012 to reduce and to phase out peat use and importation in Switzerland. During an initial phase, the government hopes that voluntary measures, such as the one demonstrated in the Grande Cariçaie, could replace peat as a substrate. Should voluntary measures not suffice, the government announced to envisage fiscal measures to be instated in a second phase. In this context, it is good to realize that vegetation management of this Ramsar Site is working in a promising cycle, rather than producing waste. And this is good news for the maintenance of peatlands in other countries as well.

Report by Tobias Salathé, Senior Regional Advisor for Europe