The alluvial forests of the Rhine valley (located in France and Germany) are among the most important in Europe. The project site, which covers 16 000 ha and extends along the whole of the French side of the Rhine, comprises more than 10 400 ha of alluvial forest including 3200 ha of priority habitat (alluvial forest of Alnus glutinosa and Fraxinus excelsior). These alluvial environments shelter about twenty Annex II species, in particular Dicranum viride, a very rare moss found in France, which is a particularly good bio-indicator of the quality of the forest. The forest is also home to a population of around 150 European beaver.
However, water management projects carried out in the 19th and 20th centuries, which consisted in canalising the river to straighten its course, have had two major impacts on the landscape : 1) the former branches cut off from the river by the canal works were threatened with extinction since sufficient quantities of Rhine water no longer reached them. 2) regular flooding preserved the meadowlands by preventing the growth of trees and shrubs. With no more floods, the meadows were condemned to disappear.
The natural habitats linked to the river (gravel banks, oxbow lakes, meadowlands and forests etc.) were threatened by their separation from the Rhine. They had dried up and suffered a loss of biodiversity due to the channelling of the Rhine. It had become urgent to restore this unique ecosystem in Europe.
The aim of the "Living Rhine" project was to preserve and restore natural habitats covering 16,000 hectares on the French bank of the Rhine. Most of the actions aimed to join the former branches of the Rhine up to the river water again and introduce controlled flooding in certain forest areas. The project also aimed to develop methods of conserving these important habitats.
The objectives of the "Living Rhine" project, which was very ambitious both technically and financially, have been achieved and even surpassed. The project site covers 16000 ha and is part of the 24000 ha-wide Natura 2000 site called Rhin-Ried-Bruch. A global programme of actions was carried out to restore the habitats and conserve the exceptional biodiversity of the area. Moreover, strong links have been established with German and Swiss partners.
A series of nature studies were carried out during the project (cartography, historical survey, survey of the distribution tree species specific to the banks of the Rhine, map of obstacles preventing the free movement of salmon, bullheads, lamprey and beavers etc.). These studies were used to draft technical documents detailing the conservation and restoration of the habitats under threat. A key achievement of the project was the official validation of the management plan (Document d'objectifs - DOCOB) for the whole Natura 2000 site of Rhin-Ried-Bruch (24 000 ha) and the Natura 2000 chart.
The restoration work enabled the return of water to nearly 20 km of the former branches of the Rhine and as a result an increase in the biodiversity has been observed on certain sites. Controlled flooding in certain forests along the Rhine was introduced. The flooding was very localised in nature and was conducted with the consent of the municipalities concerned.
The main actions undertaken were as follows:
- Alluvial forest of the Sauer delta: Letting the water circulate once more in the oxbow lake (Fahrgiessen), removing mud deposits, removing fallen timber, selective cutting of trees on the bank.
- Alluvial forest of Offendorf: Restoring the Rossmoerder in the Offendorf forest by bringing in water, removing mud deposits and preserving the flora along the banks of the water courses.
-Alluvial forest of Strasbourg: Increasing the diversity of habitats in the Neuhof forest for the various species there by restoring on the water course called Altenheimerkopf.
- Alluvial forest of La Wantzenau: Bringing new life to the water courses in the Wantzenau forest by supplying water from the counter canal of the Rhine.
- Alluvial forest of Rhinau: supplying water to the Altwasser in the Rhinau-Daubensand forest from the counter canal; fostering the self-cleansing of the water courses on Rhinau island and accentuating the flooding phenomenon in the forest by modifying the water supply from the Vieux-Rhin.
- Restoring an old branch of the Rhine: In Obersaasheim forest, restoring the Giessen (an old branch of the Rhine) and rare humid areas by creating small ponds favouring the development of batrachians and selecting tree species on the banks of the water course.
Restoring forest habitats: In the forests of Geiswasser, Vogelgrun and Fessenheim, trees that were not characteristic of the Rhine forest (pine, poplar and locust trees) were eliminated.
Preserving dry grasslands favourable to orchids: increasing the surface area of zones where orchids can flourish by clearing plants artificially introduced (34ha); preserving existing orchid grasslands by late mowing and eliminating colonising shrubs (155 ha).
The wide range of communication and awareness raising activities carried out during the project included a tri-lingual internet site, the "Living Rhine" DVD, bilingual panels on the different sites, discovery trails and guidebook, thematic postcards, school visits and educational guidebook, and the final "Living Rhine" exhibition.
This project has been selected as one of the 26 "Best" LIFE Nature projects in 2007-2008.
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