Israeli scrublands may not be beautiful, but they're still crucial
A leading environmental organization is fighting to save Israeli scrublands that provide important ecological services, even if they are filled with shrubs.
It is relatively easy to get the general public to mobilize in an effort to save a beautiful beach, an iconic lake such as the Kinneret, or a natural wonder such as the Ramon Crater. It is a lot more difficult to garner public support to save spots that are not breathtakingly beautiful, areas where less than dazzling shrubs and greenery grow, but that are ecologically important.
But the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel is not letting mere aesthetics determine its course of action when it comes to nature preservation. In its recent annual report, the group listed several grassy areas and scrublands (plant communities of short-lived shrubs and low-lying plants ) as open spaces that need to be protected. The organization's biodiversity coordinator, Alon Rothschild, also released a detailed report on the importance of these areas, with recommendations for how to protect them.
Scrublands are common in the Mediterranean region and the arid areas bordering the region. In Israel they can be found from the Upper Galilee to the edge of the Northern Negev, as well as in the Judean plain, the Jerusalem hills and in the area of Ramat Menashe in the north. These areas include low, thorny bushes, notably such species as the prickly burnet and Israeli thyme. In more arid areas, scrublands often have more types of shrubs than in less arid areas. They are sometimes adjacent to areas with a large variety of grassy plants.
The location of scrublands, in the transitional areas between Mediterranean panoramas and desert terrain, makes them uniquely important. Scrublands and grassy areas have a particularly rich variety of wild plants, including bulb plants. For example, the Rothschild report mentions a scrubland in the Yatir region where wild wheat grows. "The importance of preserving this habitat as a genetic pool for sustaining wheat plants in varying heat and aridity conditions is clear, especially in an era of climate change," the report states.
In the spring, the almost-homogenous scrublands of the winter turn into what resembles a very colorful carpet. They provide a habitat for many wild animals, as well as other ecological services. For example, scrubland areas have a large variety of wild bees and they help pollinate plants. In addition, the shrubs and grassy plants serve as a habitat for birds of prey, songbirds and large mammals, such as the Israeli gazelle.
Humans also gain benefit from these areas. Rothschild's report notes a survey conducted at the Ramat Hanadiv nature park in northern Israel, which found that many visitors prefer to hike in open spaces with greenery rather than in a dense forest.
SPNI is concerned that scrublands and grassy areas are facing the same fate as other natural spots that have shrunk over the last few years, largely due to increased construction and greater infrastructure needs. In the coastal region, most sand dunes have been mined or covered by homes. The limestone cliffs along the shore and the loam of the Sharon region are rapidly disappearing as a result of mining and construction. In the Negev, the loess plains are facing the threat of extinction.
Rothschild's report lists a series of threats the scrublands are facing. A major one is the expansion of cities into open spaces. Expansion plans for cities like Elad and Modi'in directly threaten the Mediterranean scrublands and green hills where gazelles now cavort freely and spring flowers blossom, attracting thousands of visitors.
Another threat is the activities at army bases, where many scrublands are located. While there is no danger they will be harmed by home construction on these bases, they can be damaged by the military training on the grounds. During military operations in recent years, there have been huge fires that seriously damaged the open spaces.
Moreover, grazing which helps to regulate the natural undergrowth, is not permitted in these areas. There is a lot of jeep traffic, which causes major disturbances to the animals and plants in these areas. Forests, which are usually perceived as an important addition to the Israeli panorama, threaten the ecosystem when they are planted in scrublands and block the development of flora typical for this area. Thus, plans to expand forests in Yatir, Ramat Menashe and Shoham will lead to fewer scrublands.
Before we even think about what to do to save these scrublands, it seems there is an urgent need to educate decision makers about the issue and its importance. Rothschild tells of a visit to a scrubland by a mayor of a city seeking to expand. "After all," declared the mayor while surveying the scenery during his visit, "there is nothing here."
Once awareness is raised, some of these scrublands must be designated as protected areas in a government master plan, as part of an effort to recognize them as key habitats in the Mediterranean region and to preserve them. In addition, grazing should be permitted so that natural growth will be sustained and there should be a limit on the expansion of forests at the expense of valuable natural areas.