Redefining pasture management in the Iori River Valley

In southeast Georgia, at the core of the Caucasus Biodiversity Hotspot, lies the Iori River Valley.  This fascinating landscapes supports a range of life, including birds of prey, gazelle and lynx, as well as range-restricted plant species such as Caucasian hackberries, floodplain oak and juniper. Despite its rich biodiversity, this landscape is threatened by livestock overgrazing and climate change, demonstrated by eroded gullies along the river’s steppes, and the dominance of wormwood species such as Artemisia lerchiana. Now, a new project funded by the Endangered Landscapes Programme – “Restoring gallery forest and grassland in the Iori River Valley” – is looking at creative solutions to a complex problem.

Overgrazing of livestock has allowed the growth of some species such as Artemisia sp. to go unchecked.

Led by international conservation NGO BirdLife Europe and their local partner Society for Nature Conservation (SABUKO), this project will use funding from the Endangered Landscapes Programme (ELP) to restore the ecological processes, habitats and species within Iori River Valley landscape, including: steppe habitat, floodplain riverine forest, Caucasian light forest, and the heavily eroded but characteristic ‘badlands’.

As recently described by ELP Manager, Dr David Thomas, from his visit to the area, the Iori River Valley landscape is one of the most important winter pastures for tens of thousands of sheep descending from the surrounding mountains, part of a still-existing pattern of semi-nomadic transhumance. However, current overgrazing by sheep coupled with historical conversion to arable agriculture and irrigation, has caused large-scale degradation, desertification and biodiversity loss in the reserve.

Bringing livestock grazing down to sustainable levels, and allowing the Iori River Valley’s ecosystem processes and rich biodiversity to be restored, is one of SABUKO’s greatest challenges. The solution is not straightforward either; most of the steppe is now in private ownership, so landowners need to see and understand the benefit of managing livestock levels or be incentivised in some other way.

Pastoralism and seasonal livestock grazing form a key part of the Iori River Valley’s cultural landscape. Photo credit: Teimuraz Popiashvili.

Unfortunately, conversations with shepherds suggest that they won’t be easily persuaded. Although they recognise that the pastures are becoming degraded and pasture quality is not what it was, the common response is to blame climate change and reduced rainfall, rather than the ten-fold increase in livestock numbers.

At SABUKO, one part of their strategy to address this issue is to carry out a detailed study on 900 hectares of steppe that is in public ownership and forms part of the Chachuna Managed Reserve. SABUKO have signed an agreement with the Agency for Protected Areas that grants them permission to pilot restoration in the area, and learn how alternative management might benefit the pasture and its biodiversity. This is an important demonstration site that will provide an opportunity for SABUKO to open up a dialogue with shepherds about pasture management.

It is important for the success of any conservation project to respect and integrate local people within the research and management process, and scientists are often able to learn from locals based on their daily interactions with and knowledge of their surrounding environment. SABUKO’s National Resources Manager, Marinus Gebhardt, has started to slowly gain the trust of the shepherds in Chachuna, with both sides beginning to share knowledge and perspectives with each other.

Marinus’ work combines traditional ecological fieldwork with modern techniques of remote sensing and integrative socio-economic research approaches. The use of a drone in cooperation with the German organisation GIZ has helped to map the grasslands with high-resolution pictures and surface models, serving as a database for sustainable management planning and gaining a deeper understanding of the interactions between herbivory and ecosystem function.

Images taken by the project’s drone equipment, as part of ongoing efforts to map the topography of the area. Photo credit: Marinus Gebhardt, SABUKO.

Marinus was assisted in the field by two undergraduate students – Sopho Maglakelidze and Rezi Kvaratskhelia – from Ilia State University, a partner of SABUKO and one of the few public universities that ensures students get a chance to be involved in research projects. Without the mod cons of phones and internet, the students spent two weeks in Chachuna Managed Reserve, getting a taste of the job they want to dedicate their lives to.

After two months of field work, SABUKO has developed a map of Chachuna Managed Reserve and presented pasture management recommendations (see below). Although sheep stocking densities will almost certainly need to be reduced, it is hoped that if the shepherds started practicing rotational grazing (based on the productivity and state of individual areas of pasture) the impact might be lessened. It is hoped that the recommended plan will serve a basis for a future leasing contract that will meet the requirements of a ‘protected area’.

A map showing degradation levels and planned rotational scheme. Credit: Marinus Gebhardt, SABUKO.
A table depicting the proposed rotational grazing scheme and underlying variables, based on current conditions of the pastures. Credit: Marinus Gebhardt, SABUKO.

To read more about the Iori River Valley project, please visit here.