Floodplain forests, the most endangered forest type in Europe...and the clock is ticking

Posted on August, 31 2004

One of the saddest stories of the loss of European biodiversity is the loss of floodplain forests across Europe.
One of the saddest stories of loss of European biodiversity is the disappearance of floodplain forests across Europe. Europe-wide, 99.5 per cent of alluvial willow and tamarisk forests have been lost and the fate of continental willow forests and Mediterranean wet mixed ash and plane-tree forests has been little better, making floodplain forests the most threatened forest type in Europe.

With the loss of floodplain forests we lose a wet paradise teeming with life, providing perfect feeding and breeding grounds for endangered European species like the black stork and the white-tailed eagle. But some unique places still exist, like the wetland forests and backwater swamps between the Danube and the Drava rivers.

The Central Danube floodplain region is a transboundary ecosystem: Kopacki rit in Croatia, Gorenje Podunavlje in Serbia/Montenegro and Beda-Karapancsa in Hungary. In the whole Danube Basin, only the Danube Delta is a larger single wetland with greater biodiversity. 
Floodplain forests are characterised by an intricate dynamic of flooding and dry periods, providing a specific, irreplaceable habitat for thousands of animal species that require the swampy moist soil and water bogs to shelter in and feed upon. Undisturbed forests and deadwood with large hollows provide nests and habitats – an ideal combination of shelter and food. 
A few facts on Kopacki rit in Croatia provide an insight in the enormous natural value of the Central Danube floodplains:

+ With 45- 54 breeding pairs, Kopacki rit houses the third largest Central European population of white-tailed eagles, birds which need abundant fish and waterfowl for their prey and remote, undisturbed nesting areas in old-growth forest.

+ The black stork, endangered throughout Europe, has chosen the Danube floodplains as a key habitat. Alone in the Croatian part of the floodplains between 78 and 82 pairs nest here in the mature floodplain oak forests.

+ Kopacki rit is the largest and most important fish-spawning area in the middle section of the Danube basin. When its shallow waters warm up they are the best feeding and breeding grounds for fish, in turn providing perfect living and feeding conditions for over 20,000 water birds such as grebes, cormorants, herons etc. and the threatened river otter and wildcat. 
"Unfortunately, the way administrations and legislation deal with their Danube wetlands in Hungary, Serbia/Montenegro and Croatia is currently neither co-ordinated nor complementary", says David Reeder from the WWF Danube -Carpathian Programme. "Different views, interests and political forces create major challenges for the preservation of this European natural treasure." 
Key threats to these marvellous wetlands include the draining of swamps for agricultural or other land-uses; inappropriate forest management i.e. clear-felling of indigenous tree species; logging within strictly protected zones;  artificial modifications and restrictions of the water table such as through river regulations and the deepening of river channels for shipping.   
Biodiversity however does not stop at borders. Through the Danube-Carpathian Ecoregion programme WWF is working with NGO partners and nature protection authorities to encourage appropriate land-use management, planning and effective ways of protecting the floodplain ecosystem across the borders.

The Danube-Carpathian Ecoregion programme also oversees the world´s most ambitious floodplain restoration project in the Lower Danube Green Corridor, which spans from the Iron Gate Dam in Romania to the Black Sea.

David Reeder, WWF Danube - Carpathian Programme Mobile +36-20-514-8786

Helma Brandlmaier, Communications, WWF European Forest Programme + 43 1 52 45 470 16 hb@wwfdcp.org
A floodplain meadow at Kopacki rit. Photo credit David Reeder WWF DCP
Kopacki rit houses the third largest Central European population of white-tailed eagles
Old growth oaks in Kopacki rit - a key habitat for black storks. Photo credit: Tibor Mikuska