The project focuses on conservation and restoration of priority habitats 6210* “Semi-natural dry grasslands and scrubland facies on calcareous substrates (Festuco-Brometalia) (*important orchid sites)” and 6240* “Sub-Pannonic steppic grasslands” within a representative area of the Site of Community Interest “The xerothermic Oases of Susa Valley” (Piedmont, Italy). Within the SCI, these habitats are particularly valuable for their extent and the richness in orchids and rare species, but due to the progressive abandonment they are also threatened by tree and shrub encroachment and by changes in floristic composition. The project therefore intends to achieve habitat conservation and restoration and to define management guidelines applicable in the xerothermic Oases and in other Natura 2000 Network areas. Objectives and actions The project aims to: • restore shrub and tree-encroached grasslands. Tree and shrub encroachment resulting from abandonment represents a serious threat for orchids, rare species, landscape value, and usability of the site; for this reason 20 ha of encroached grasslands have been restored in 2014 through actions of mechanical clearing and cutting; • define guidelines for grassland grazing management for conservation purposes and apply them on some municipal and private lands (about 100 ha). For this purpose, all necessary equipment for grazing was arranged (i.e. fences and water points) and some paths were restored to allow animal access. The Alpi Cozie Protected Areas Management Authority also bought 150 sheep to be actively used for grassland management as a “service flock”; • supervise the effects of grazing on habitats, orchids, and rare steno-Mediterranean species through a network of permanent observation sites distributed within the managed areas, to ensure that conservation objectives are achieved. In particular, the monitoring network is based on: o 91 permanent transects and 41 permanent plots, surveyed yearly from 2014, divided into three main treatments depending on the grazing period (grazing in spring, grazing in fall, no grazing), due to the importance of grazing season to plant regeneration in these habitats; o 27 permanent transects placed in overnight paddocks, surveyed yearly from 2015 to assess the effects of animal trampling and dung deposition. Sheep plant species preferences and grazing area spatial use were also monitored in 2015 by means of specific vegetation surveys and GPS collars (publication n. 3 in Appendix III). Unfortunately, at the end of October 2017, 95% of all above surveys were completely burned because of a wildfire of extraordinary dimension for these areas. As a consequence, future research will address understanding the effects of fires in dry grasslands and rare species, with issues of high scientific value; • enhance public use and tourism values of the protected area by increasing awareness of its natural resources. To this end, two educational trails have been established in the area and educational activities for schools, a workshop, a conference, and several meetings have been carried out; • maintain long-term management of the area, even after the end of the project, involving local communities and all stakeholders in the pursuit of this objective.
Alpi Cozie Natural Park Management Authority (coordinator)