LIFE project: Restoration of habitats of Community interest in estuaries of the Basque Country - LIFE08NAT/E/000055

Estuaries are highly important ecological enclaves, where a wide diversity of fundamental aspects of biodiversity are to be found: natural habitats and species of flora and fauna, and where key ecological processes occur. The estuary habitats are, in turn, some of the most fragile and threatened habitats in the Basque Country.  They have been and are used for several purposes, such as for agricultural and urban use, infrastructure, etc., which in many cases have caused profound changes, diminishing their ecological quality.

One of the main threats for these habitats is the invasion of exotic species, both animals and plants, which often displace the indigenous species that are often threatened species and cause changes in the environmental conditions of their environment.

With the implementation of the LIFE project “Restoration of habitats of community interest in estuaries in the Basque Country”, the aim is to address the problems that the invasive exotic plant species Baccharis halimifoliaa shrub known as “groundsel” from North America, causes in the main estuaries of the Basque Autonomous Community, focusing on the areas that are most affected. 

The project, under the aegis of the  Basque Government’s Biodiversity and Environment Participation Directorat, as the coordinator beneficiary, is being carried out in conjunction with the Public Environmental Management Authority Ihobe, as the associate beneficiary.

The budget for the planned actions comes to €1,852,825, 50% of which is funded by the LIFE programme, the European Commission’s financing instrument for the environment.  The project is scheduled to end in March 2014.

The LIFE programme is the European Commission’s financial instrument to support environmental and nature conservation projects. Its sphere of action is the Natura 2000 Network, the European ecological network to protect the iconic European habitats and species. The LIFE + 2007-2013 phase is currently underway and includes this project.

Project actions are developed in three areas (Urdaibai, Txingudi and Lea river) integrated in the Natura 2000 Network, and the aim is to restore and improve a total of 314 hectares of habitats joined to the estuaries, as well as to improve conditions for the bird species the estuaries are home to.  These actions will also benefit other areas on the Basque coast, contributing to control the spread of the species in to other natural areas.  

Given that the problem of conserving estuaries in general and the invasive exotic species that affect them in particular is a problem that involves the Basque Country as it affects a large part of the European Atlantic coast, from Brittany to Asturias, the project envisages actions aimed at exchanging information and experiences between the territories in question. 

The objectives of the Project are:

  • Recovery of habitats of community interest located in estuaries in the Basque Country affected by the progressive invasion of invasive exotic plant species and by the alteration of the hydraulic dynamics.

  • Improvement in environmental conditions for migratory bird species and species of community interest.

  • To promote global action in the main Basque estuaries integrated in the Natura 2000 Network, with potential for recovery.

  • To implement the best restoration techniques (from pilot projects) and spread them to other places on the Cantabrian coast experiencing similar problems.

  • To raise awareness among experts, managers and the general public on the problems of the invasive exotic species and how to address this problem in the estuaries. 

The proliferation of invasive plant species is one of the greatest threats to the conservation of the estuarine habitats. In the Basque Autonomous Community diverse non-native, transforming species such as Spartina patensSpartina alternifloraPaspalum vaginatum and above all, Baccharis halimifolia sometimes make up monospecific groups that pose a serious threat to the conservation of native communities and to the balance of the ecosystems in the estuaries. 

Exotic invasive species are defined as species that arrive in a new territory and spread at great speed, altering the structure and functioning of the ecosystems, and causing ecological, socio-economic and even sanitary damage.(GEIBGroup of Experts in Biological Invasions. 2006).

The proliferation of invasive flora species is one of the main causes of deterioration of our biodiversity. According to the study Diagnosis of invasive allochthonous flora of the Basque Autonomous Community (Basque Government, 2009), 478 allochthonous or exotic species have been identified, which is approximately 20.78% of the total flora of the region. Of these, 86 are considered invasive species and 21 invasive transformers, capable of producing significant impact on the ecosystems.

Coastal habitats are under most threat by some of the most aggressive invasive species. The main causes are the temperatures and the rainfall of these habitats, which make it easier for tropical and subtropical species with high invasive potential to establish themselves. According to the conclusions extracted from the study Diagnosis of invasive allochthonous flora, 34 invasive species and 18 transformers have been catalogued in the coastal habitats, of the 62 invasive and 21 transformers identified throughout the Basque Autonomous Community. Of these habitats, the most affected are the dunes (24 invasive and 17 transformers) and the marshland (15 invasive and 15 transformers).

Some invasive species are able to develop in different levels of salinity and flooding, therefore they affect almost all of the marshland communities. The subhalophilic reed beds (the least saline) suffer most invasions by exotic species, which can fully substitute the autochthonous species.

Baccharis halimifolia is catalogued as an exotic transformer species and forms part of the most dangerous group of invasive plants for the biodiversity of the Basque Autonomous Community.

This bush, also called Silverling or Eastern Baccharis, comes from the north-eastern coast of America, and its habitats are marshlands, dunes and cliffs. It was introduced in Europe in the mid-19th century, when it began to be used as an ornamental plant in France. From there it has expanded along the Atlantic coast to our coast. The first mention in the Basque Autonomous Community dates back to 1914 in Lekeitio, precisely one of the areas of action of the LIFE project.

In our environment it acts like an exotic invasive transformer species, which colonises our natural habitats as well as substituting other species, causing changes in the morphology of the environment. It specifically favours clogging in the marshlands due to its radicular system.

Its success as an invasive plant comes from the large quantity of seed that it produces (up to 1.5 million per plant), how easily the wind propagates its seeds, the high growth rate in young states, and its resistance to certain degrees of salinity and flooding. Furthermore, its leaves are toxic and inedible for cattle.

It is present on the east coast of Australia, where it has occupied more than 30,000 hectares, and in Europe, where it extends from Brittany to Hendaye (France), and from Txingudi bay to the Tina Mayor estuary, on the border between Asturias and Cantabria (Spain).

The habitats most affected by the propagation of this invasive plant are halophilic reed beds, cane beds and riparian forests. 

Habitats objective

The invasion of the invasive exotic plant Baccharis halimifolia affects a significant area of the estuaries, the basis of the project, which is home to a large variety of habitats that are very fragile and vulnerable to changes in the environmental conditions. As such, the planned actions in the project will involve recovery and/or improvement of the following habitats listed in Annex I of the Habitats Directive (43/92/EC): 

Furthermore, another habitat that benefits directly from these actions is the reedbed. The areas covered by the main species, the reed (Phragmites Australis), favours the presence of a large number of bird species of enormous interest at European level.

Species objective

The degradation of these habitats directly affects many species, mainly birds that use the estuaries as areas for resting and feeding during their migratory journeys or as their nesting or wintering areas. These are some of the bird species that are catalogued by the European Directives:

  • Aquatic warbler (Acrocephalus paludicola* - Annex I Birds Directive). Species present in the Basque Country during the autumn migration. The recovery and conservation of the largest area of suitable habitat is essential to ensure the breeding areas, migratory sedimentation and wintering grounds of the aquatic warbler. In this regard, the elimination of the Baccharis halimifolia with the subsequent recovery of natural habitats, such as the reed beds, would benefit this species in areas where we are seeing gradual recovery.

  • Reed warbler (Acrocephalus arundinaceus). Nesting species in the Basque Autonomous Community although the population trend is in decline. In the project area existing nesting grounds in Urdaibai and Txingudi have been lost, most likely because of the degradation of their main habitat, the reed bed, due to the invasion of Baccharis halimifolia

  • Purple heron (Ardea purpurea* - Annex I Birds Directive). Breeding and migrant species in the Basque Country. The lack of large-sized reeds makes it difficult for this species to settle. The recovery of this habitat through the elimination of Baccharis halimifolia in the high marsh will directly benefit the permanent settlement of this species in Urdaibai. 

  • Common bittern (Botaurus stellaris* - Annex I Birds Directive). Wintering species in the Basque Country. In the project area there are specific references but their presence must have been reduced by degradation of their main habitat, the reed bed, as well as the absence of open water where they feed, fundamentally due to the invasion of B. halimifolia. 

  • Little egret (Egretta garzetta* - Annex I Birds Directive). Nesting species in Urdaibai, with a contingent of about 25 breeding couples. This species will benefit from the recovery of the saline reed beds and the lowland hay meadows, habitats 1410 and 6510, since they act as rest areas during high tide and for feeding. 

  • Bluethroat (Luscinia svecica - Annex I Birds Directive). Migrant species in the Basque Country. In Urdaibai every year approximately 50 different species rest and feed, and many of them remain there for several days. They frequent the reeds, which are currently degraded by the invasion of B. halimifolia

  • Common spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia* - Annex I Birds Directive). Migratory species in the project area. The presence of this species in the project areas is essentially during the autumn migration. The recovery of saline reeds (1410) and the lowland hay meadows (6510) positively affects this species, as 11 years of monitoring in Urdaibai has shown that they are rest areas during high tides. 

  • Osprey (Pandion haliaetus* - Annex I Birds Directive). Migratory species in the project areas, present in Urdaibai and Txingudi The actions included in this LIFE project aimed at restoration of habitats in the estuaries will contribute to this overall improvement in the area of Urdaibai and as such will contribute to the conservation of this species.

The project is developed in three areas, where exist a total of seven sites belonging to the Natura 2000 Network:


(SPA ES0000144SCI ES2130006SCI ES2130007 and SCI ES2130008)

The Urdaibai estuary is formed at the mouth of the river Oka in the Cantabrian Sea.  This is the best preserved estuary on the Basque coast and integrates a wide variety of ecosystems. This area is the only Biosphere Reserve in the Basque Autonomous Community, declared by UNESCO in 1989, in addition to being included on the Ramsar Convention List of Wetlands of International Importance since 1993.

The most important habitats are the marshes which make up the backbone of the protected area. Both sides have two limestone ranges running lengthways covered to a large extent by extensive Cantabrian holm-oak woods. In the lowest-lying, most transformed areas, there are forest plantations and a patchwork of vegetation which shapes the Atlantic countryside, a consequence of the traditional agriculture and farming. 

The specific areas of action are located in the inner estuary, in the supratidal and high marsh areas. These are areas that were anthropized in the past, i.e. altered by mankind, such as made-up grounds, semi-isolated areas by infrastructures, banks of artificial canals and that at present are colonized by the exotic species Baccharis halimifolia. If there was no anthropization, reeds and reed beds would be located in these areas as well as herbaceous pre-marsh communities (Basque Government, 2007). Degraded marsh areas due to the presence of Baccharis halimifolia amount to 288 hectares, of which 88 are monospecific masses of this species.


(SPA ES0000243 and SCI ES2120018)

The area known as Txingudi is located on the north-eastern corner of Gipuzkoa, between the border towns of Irun and Hendaye. It forms part of the river Bidasoa in its passage towards the sea, forming an estuarine environment that groups marsh areas together, countryside and cultivated areas, intertidal areas (silt and mud) and flooded areas. This estuary is listed on theRamsar Convention’s Wetlands of International Importance since 2002.

Within the areas comprising the Txingudi area, the Bidasoa Islands stand out for having preserved remnants of original marsh vegetation, while in previous decades they were transformed into arable land. They are considered the best representation of marsh vegetation in Txingudi and stand out for their isolation, which makes it a unique refuge for fauna in the area of Txingudi.

Nonetheless, the potential quality of these ecosystems is somewhat diminished due to the existence of the exotic species of flora Baccharis halimifolia. The dams surrounding the islands and out of reach of the tides are completely colonized by this species, that has taken a total of 5 hectares, displacing other groups such as the Cantabrian alder and the reedbed. Being the largest mass of Baccharis halimifolia in the area of Txingudi, its elimination and recovery of natural vegetation represents a major advancement in the eradication of this species from the whole bay, and a hugely significant step in the recovery of the Txingudi marshes.

Río Lea

(SCI ES2130010)

The river Lea is a Cantabrian river, with a river-basin covering 82 Km2. A large number of irrigation channels flow into the main channel of the river, from its source in Mount Oiz to its mouth in the coastal town of Lekeitio. Its estuary is, despite its small size, the one which has experienced transformation to a lesser degree of all the rias in the Basque Autonomous Community and as such, it is representative of all Basque estuaries. It is home to an abundance of plants that are typical in the Basque marshes.

The importance of the river Lea basin lies in the presence of the European mink (Mustela lutreola), a species catalogued as in Danger of Extinction in the BAC and included in Annex II of the Habitats Directive. The good state of conservation of the water quality and the scarce change in the basin favours the presence of this endangered species. Other species of interest present in this area are the Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) and the ray-finned fish or south-west European nase (Chondrostoma toxostoma), also included in Annex II of the Habitats Directive.

With regard to the avian fauna, its small size limits the possibilities of being home to important avifauna, although numerous migratory species included in the annexes of the Birds Directive are present, such as the little egret (Egretta garzetta) and various wading birds such as the dunlin (Calidris alpina) or the redshank (Tringa totanus).

The LIFE programme is the European Commission’s financial instrument that supports environmental and nature conservation projects. Since 1992, LIFE has co-funded close to 3,115 projects throughout the whole European Union, contributing to nature conservation, the improvement of the environment and the development of environmental instruments and strategies in the Member Countries.

LIFE+ is currently being developed, between 2007 and 2013, which is where this project fits in. This programme consists of 3 components: nature and biodiversity, environmental policy and governance and information and communication.

Within this extensive programme, LIFE-Nature provides financial assistance to promote the sustainable development and establishment of adequate management tools for habitats and species of flora and fauna. Its scope of activity is the Natura 2000 Network.

The Natura 2000 Network is the centrepiece of the policy on nature and biodiversity in the European Union. It is an extensive network of protected natural areas established under the 1992 Habitats Directive (92/43/EC). The aim of this network is to ensure the long-term survival of the most threatened species and habitats in Europe, thereby reducing the loss of biodiversity in this region.

It includes Sites of Community Interest (SCI) designated by the Member States under the Habitats Directive and also incorporates Special Protection Areas for Birds (SPA) designated under the Birds Directive (79/409/EC).

In the Basque Autonomous Community there are 58 places that are part of the Natura 2000 Network, accounting for approximately 20% of the territory. The three areas of the LIFE project for the restoration of habitats in the estuaries of the Basque Country are part of the Natura 2000 network. 

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