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01.02.2010 - Veľkolélsky ostrov Island - a unique example of cooperation in the region

Veľkolélsky ostrov Island or Nagyléli sziget, as it is known, is familiar on both sides of the Danube as one of the last major Danube islands spanning more than 250 hectares. The island is named after the nearby settlement of Veľký Lél, which was named after the Hungarian warrior Lehela or Léla, who was executed in Germany in the 10th century. The settlement of Veľký Lél and the island itself are part of the village of Zlatná na Ostrove (Csallóközaranyos) today. The first reference to the village comes from the year 1094, when it is mentioned as Locus Aureus. All three names suggest that gold was already being mined here in ancient times. The waters of the Danube created meanders at this location, where significant amounts of gold had settled. Even today someone with luck and a deft hand may unearth a couple of pieces of gold from the sand of banks of the Danube. However, gold is not the main wealth of the region that makes the place worthy of a visit today.

In the past there were pretty river branches of the Danube situated here. Now most of the branches have been transformed into regulated channels. One of them brings us from the main road to the settlement of Veľký Lél, which once boasted farms, a beautiful park and a distillery. Nowadays the distillery is only a ruin with a chimney, unfortunately not the only one in the settlement; only a couple of newer houses are inhabited. Local residents used to keep cows, horses and sheep and grow wheat and maize. The island itself was accessible only by the ford; therefore, it was appropriate and safe pasture for domestic animals. During floods, when the island was often almost entirely under water, the meadows on land around the settlement provided a haven for four-legged inhabitants. Water meadows and pastures, which used to be found in the lowlands around all the major rivers, were widespread because they were able to feed herds of domestic animals throughout the year. The constant flow of fertile mud from the Danube ensured rapid growth of grass and broadleaf herbs. Regular grazing and mowing also helped to maintain the picturesque grassy landscape, with rare species of fauna and flora. Today, Veľkolélsky Island is a unique mosaic of forest, wetland and grassland habitats. Rough lowland ash-elm-oak forest and also soft lowland poplar – willow forest cover almost half the island. Part of the forest retaining its natural character was declared a nature reserve in 1974 in recognition of its uniquely intact state. Today´s “winged” reservation was ironically created after many years of conservation work by the doyen of Donau nature protection, Andrej Stolmann. He was working on the protection of huge breeding colonies of grey heron here. However, the protection of the bird colony unfortunately failed to be transferred from paper into reality, so it happened that at the time when the reservation was declared, clear cutting was taking place at the very edge of the breeding colony. So, the herons have moved to a small island on the Hungarian side of the Danube. The island is edged by the very wide main river bed on one side and by the Veľkolélsky branch, which is also relatively wide, on the other side. In the past, the water in the branch flowed freely, but since regulation in 1980s, the water remains standing for most of the year.

The Veľkolélsky branch is now overgrown by sedges and willows from the banks, and on the open water surface we can find a rare flower: Trapa natans. The Veľkolélske meadows, though lined with massive poplars and head willows, remained unnoticed by nature conservation. Nowadays, these valuable communities provide habitats for many endangered species in Slovakia (e.g., beetles and butterflies) and, of course, for the unique Pannonia hydrophilic flora. However, after the general decline of livestock production, the meadows became overgrown with weeds and invasive species transported by the river. It would take not too long for the island to be changed beyond recognition. Fortunately, it was included as part of the protected bird area SKCHVU007 Dunajské luhy and so integrated into the network of protected areas Natura 2000 in the years 2004-2005. The Island itself is also a separate territory of European importance: SKUEV0183 Veľkolélsky Island, an area of 328, 65 hectares. This step created more opportunities to manage and protect nature on the  island, along with farming. The management of Veľkolélsky ostrov Island is provided by the Regional Association for Nature Conservation and Sustainable Development in Bratislava – BROZ, in cooperation with the State Nature Conservancy of the SR and local inhabitants. Through a number of projects financed by foreign funds, the European Union, national and private sources, a unique partnership has been forged, which has progressively engaged water management enterprises, foresters and local farmers. In 2006 they managed to rent or purchase most of the fields on the island into the hands of nature conservationists. This allowed new managers of the area to introduce many measures, which led to the improvement of the conservation status of several types of habitat on the island. First of all, free access to the territory was prevented. This easy action - one ramp- protected nearly 300 hectares against unnecessary disturbance. After replacing the first few locks, everyone has become accustomed to it, and it is now generally accepted that one does not normally go on the island or to the Danube by car. A typical feature of the island is called the head willow. After many years of neglect, these have once again been systematically restored and treated. Regular trimming of branches at intervals of several years to obtain fuel creates the typical feature of “hollow willows by the brook”. Their rotted bark and decayed cavities provide habitats for many rare species of beetles and birds. If the regular care is interrupted, however, their branches break under their own weight and fall apart. The solitary old oaks in the middle of island meadows are also valuable for landscape quality. These have been professionally treated in the past year to prevent further threat to their surroundings. Moreover, they are themselves habitats for several species of insects and nesting birds and are also a rich source of acorns, which are used for planting new seedlings for the next renewal of floodplain forests in the Danube region. Natural forest habitats are left to themselves. In contrast, indigenous tree species, such as white birch, black poplar, willow, oak and ash lupine, are established in the disturbed parts of the forest after the removal of invasive species of plants. Spurious species of plants began to spread gradually from the forest edge to the grassland. There are some particularly unwelcome visitors, such as Ash-Leaved Maple, American ash and Red ash. Since 2009, BROZ has succeeded in removing non-native species of herbs and plants-- also thanks to animals. A cattle herd of seventy animals was moved to the island in cooperation with local farmers and with aid of the LIFE project. These local people have been tasked with ensuring progressive grazing of areas overgrown with thistles, nonoriginal goldenrod and invasive plants. Less accessible localities and thorny shrubs are in the care of a numerous herd of sheep and goats. Among ordinary farm animal breeds, there are also traditional breeds – Hungarian grey cattle (Szürke Marha) and black sheep with long horns. In recent years ten horses were added, and the idyllic picture of our largest island in the Danube was complete. The mowing and grazing regime of the island has been, of course, under the strict supervision of nature protection from the beginning. This system has created permanent jobs for shepherds and support staff, too. During the next three years we are planning several equally important interventions on Veľkolélsky ostrov Island. Twenty years ago, the Veľkolélske rameno river branch was cut off from the main stream of the Danube for the planned construction of the Nagymaros dam. A panel road to the island was built to relieve access to it, but it slows the water flow. The water in the branch is thus of no appreciable flow, and it has gradually become clogged and overgrown with trees. Greater water flow is usually observed only during floods, when the level of the river is higher than the Island itself. But altogether it is not enough to thoroughly scour the branch of a lengthy deposition. Measurements and studies have been done in the past year, which would form the basis for revitalization work to reconnect 5.5 km long Veľkolélske rameno branch to the main flow of the Danube. Removal of the embankment at the beginning and the end of the branch will again enable fish migration to the spawning grounds on the island, which will also contribute to the enrichment of food and nesting habitats of birds tied to water habitats. The banks are lined with large stones, which are meant to prevent river erosion. But they also cover the original aluminum profile or sandy shore, popular places for the breeding of some bird species, especially the Bank Swallow, which was a common species in the past. In the summer this bank protection was gently removed from one 50-meter secion on the island. We plan to repeat this action in another locality further down the river. Long-term initiatives by many volunteers and professional nature conservationists, in cooperation with water management enterprises, ans active participation by local farmers and residents is beginning to yield positive results step by step. This would not be possible without the dedicated work of all involved. Let us hope that Veľkolélsky ostrov Island, at first sight linking such different approaches to revitalization, will become a successful example of cooperation for other regions in Slovakia.

The revitalization measures on Veľkolélsky ostrov Island are realized through contributions from the European Commission and the Ministry of Environment in the project LIFE07NAT/SK/000707 Conservation of endangered bird species populations in natural habitats of the Danube inland delta. More information about activities on the island can also be found on the page: http://www.dunaj.broz.sk/vtaky/.


Andrej Kovarik, Katarína Radvanská, Tomáš Kušík, Mgr. Matúš Kúdela,

Foto: K. Radvanská, K. Tuhárska, J. Michalíková