1st-of-its-kind rewilding project links disused farmlands in eco-corridor

Ability of insects, small animals, plant species to migrate safely between areas is expected to boost biodiversity, benefit avocado orchards, meet EU eco-agriculture standards

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

A chameleon on an avocado tree. (Courtesy, Milopri farmers)
A chameleon on an avocado tree. (Courtesy, Milopri farmers)

The first project of its kind in the country to connect patches of unused agricultural and other land into a corridor through which insects, small animals, and plants can get from one natural area to another kicked off Sunday in the Western Galilee in northern Israel.

The aim is to provide a continuous avenue between the Keziv and Gaaton streams to ease the passage of mammals and reptiles such as badgers, hedgehogs, mongooses and tortoises, and insects including butterflies, bumblebees and praying mantises.

To connect the parcels of land, the project makes use of field margins, which run around the edges of fields — in this case avocado orchards — and, as uncultivated patches, serve no real agricultural purpose.

A local fruit packing and marketing company is centrally involved to ensure that the avocado farmers meet evolving European environment and biodiversity standards and that the insects that pollinate the plants and eat pests are protected.

The area to be returned to nature, or rewilded, will combine 40 patches of field margins — covering a total of 8.5 hectares (21 acres) — near two treated wastewater reservoirs and across farms on five kibbutzim — Kabri, Yehiam, Kfar Masaryk, Gesher HaZiv, and Saar. It will also run through 1,600 hectares (nearly 4,000 acres) of the Koren Valley between the two streams.

In European countries, such as the UK, farmers are being encouraged to replant and better manage hedgerows to serve as wildlife highways and homes.

A woman takes a photo of a lion statue, part of the Big Rewild’ campaign, London, April 27, 2022 (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

Hedgerows mark the boundaries of fields and control the movement of livestock, but in Israel, they don’t exist, which is why the field margins are being earmarked.

The first stage of work will involve removing invasive (non-native) vegetation and planting 10,000 plants — trees, shrubs, and bulbs — from 83 native species, according to project leader and ecologist Aviv Avisar, who heads the research and policy unit at the Open Landscape Institute (known in Hebrew as the Deshe Institute) at Tel Aviv University’s Steinhardt Museum of Natural History.

Gaps will be opened in fences.

In around a year, when the habitats have stabilized, plants in danger of extinction will be added.

The farmers involved have pledged to maintain the rehabilitated field margins.

Ecological corridors in the Western Galilee.(Courtesy, Open Landscape Institute)

Avisar explained that while maps of ecological corridors — which connect wildlife to protected natural areas — often include agricultural land as open space, the reality is that farmland is usually anything but welcoming.

The dangers range from soil tilling and the use of chemicals to being run over by tractors or crushed by other heavy equipment or not being able to find the right food.

“A butterfly progresses in line with its food. If there’s no suitable food in a field, it won’t go there,” she said. “Some parasitic wasps (important for consuming aphids and other agricultural pests) go into aestivation” (a state of dormancy, similar to winter hibernation), she continued. “During this period, they need a quiet place to go.”

Many small creatures advance slowly, Avisar said. They might need a few days to get past a field, with rests in between. For other creatures, such as lizards, rodents and some arthropods, crossing an ecological corridor was done over many generations.

Predatory insects that eat pests on agricultural produce or help pollination also needed to be able to move around safely and find food along the way, Avisar added.

Aviv Avisar plants the endangered Euphorbia microsphaera next to a rehabilitated winter pond at Kibbutz Shomrat in the Western Galilee in northern Israel. (Yael Hartmayer)

The institute has teamed up with several partners — the Milopri fruit packing and marketing cooperative, the Western Galilee Drainage Authority, and the Western Galilee Environment Association, representing 17 local authorities.

The project is being financed by a NIS 300,000 ($87,000) grant from the Fund for the Protection of Open Spaces, established in 2009 by the Israel Lands Authority.

The ILA allocates one percent of its revenues to the fund, which this year has NIS 300 million ($87 million) to hand out.

But, as Avisar told a conference on Wednesday organized by the Society for the Protection of Nature, with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, the fund does not support research.

A farmer at Kibbutz Kabri in the Western Galilee in northern Israel planting wild species. (Courtesy, Kabri Orchards)

It was essential to be able to assess the corridor’s impact over time on nature and agricultural productivity, she said. She is currently trying to find research funds elsewhere.

“We’ll want to encourage additional farmers to do this in future, but what will we have to show them?” she said.

Sagit Haim, quality assurance manager at Milopri, said that the company had been working with Avisar for several years on environmental projects. These included creating a seasonal winter pond at Kibbutz Shomrat, as well as protected “refuge gardens” for endangered plants that had disappeared from the area nearby due to intensive agriculture.

Milopri, which packs and markets produce on behalf of 25 kibbutzim, three cooperative moshavim, and 37 private growers, exports three-quarters of its avocados, mainly to Europe, she said.

There, environmental as well as social welfare standards for growers were constantly evolving.

Rehabilitated winter pond at Kibbutz Shomrat. (Aviv Avisar)

She said that Milopri had been working with farmers for years on practices such as proper disposal of waste, efficient use of water, most of it treated wastewater, and the safe and minimal use of chemical pesticides and weedkillers.

She added, “In addition to meeting the standards, we want to encourage biodiversity that will ensure the insects needed to pollinate the avocados.”

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