Loess plains stretch from the Gaza Strip all the way to Arad, and in the spring they are covered in a colorful carpet of flowers that draws thousands of visitors. But due to the threats they face, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel has identified them as the most degraded ecosystem in Israel. A new report by the nonprofit organization calls for declaring part of these plains protected areas, the development of which should be restricted.
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The report was written by ecologist Amir Perelberg and botanist Mimi Ron, with the assistance of Alon Rothschild, of SPNI. They estimate that only four percent of the loess soil areas of the Negev is protected.
The loess plains are made up of dust particles that were carried on the wind thousands of years ago from the Sinai Desert and North Africa, and deposited in the northern Negev. For most of the year they are covered by low bushes, and by flowers in the spring. A complex symbiotic relationship exists between the soil crust – which consists of bacteria, fungi, algae and lichens – and a large variety of animal species that have adapted to this unique habitat and the heavy floods that drench it in the winter.
A number of the rarest species of flora and fauna in Israel live in this environment. Some of these can be found only in Israel and only in this region, such as the Be’er Sheva Fringe-fingered Lizard (Acanthodactylus Beersheba), the Dark-Brown Iris (Atrofusca Baker) and Allium kollmannianum. The Negev iris is also in danger, as is the Greater Egyptian Jerboa – a larger relative of the gerbil that is vulnerable to extinction. A number of ground-nesting birds, including the Cream-Colored Courser and MacQueen’s Bustard, are also endangered.
One of the report’s main recommendations is to give protected status to at least 10 percent of the northern Negev loess plains, and especially to Loess Park, near Hatzerim, which in the past was declared a park but is not under official protection. The authors also recommended not establishing new communities on the loess plains, and instead to expand existing communities. In addition, they propose greater management of grazing in the region, as part of a comprehensive program to concentrate scattered, unrecognized Bedouin communities in a smaller number of settlements while at the same time protecting the loess plains.
While the authors of the report say the afforestation activities of the Jewish National Fund have caused significant damage to this rare habitat, the organization argues that its efforts have contributed to preventing desertification and soil erosion.
In addition to being an attraction that draws large numbers of hikers and other visitors, the loess plains are also used by local Bedouin for traditional agricultural practices and as a source of many medicinal plants, some of which could be used in the future in the development of medicines. The plains are also important to regulating flooding in the area.
The report does not quantify precisely the extent of the damage to the loess plains, but the establishment of new communities and the widespread expansion of unplanned, unauthorized Bedouin communities have clearly reduced the size of the plains.