What are Biosphere Reserves?

Biosphere Reserves are ecosystems covering land, marine, and coastal areas of unusual scientific and natural interest.  The sites are nominated by countries and recognised under UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme that promotes sustainable development based on local community efforts and sound science.

The UNESCO World Network of Biosphere Reserves currently counts 651 biosphere reserves in 120 countries all over the world. 

COBWEB is working in four Biosphere Reserves; the Dyfi Biosphere in Wales, the Wadden Sea and Hallig Islands in Germany, and the Gorge of Samaria and Mt Olympus in Greece.

The Dyfi Biosphere, designated in 1977, is the first in Wales. The extent of the reserve itself was extended and redefined in 2009. This involved including Aberystwyth as a major town. It has an active bilingual community of around 26,000 inhabitants and is comprised of various areas of importance, notably the Dyfi estuary (area A) which forms one of the most important wildfowl and shorebird centres in Wales. Cors Fochno or Borth Bog (area B) is one of the largest and finest examples of a raised peat bog in Britain, and Coed Cwm Einion, which has has remnants of native oak woodland (area C).  However, most of the Dyfi Biosphere is not a conservation area, simply places where people live and work.

collage of three images around the Dyfi Biosphere Reserve. A) A group of people standing on a hill overlooking fields. B) The Salt Marsh. C) Aberystwyth

The Wadden Sea and Hallig Islands of Schleswig Holstein is one of 18 regions protected through the status of a Biosphere Reserve in Germany. Located in the northwest of Germany and characterised mainly by its proximity to the North Sea, this coastal Biosphere Reserve consists of salt-marshes, subtidal areas, tidal flats with creeks and channels, beaches, sand flats and sandbanks which generally lack vegetation cover.

The Hallif Islands are an important part of the cultural landscape and were proclaimed as a UNESCO Biosphere reserve in 1990 and extended in 2004. With a total area of about 443,000 hectares it is one of the largest reserves in Germany. 

Collage of three images of Wadden Sea and Hallig Islands Biosphere. Details below.

*Image sources via Flickr CC search: mud wanderer, St Peter-Ording Watt, Besuch der Hallig Hooge.

The Gorge of Samaria is located in the southwest of the island of Crete. Since 1962, this site has been designated as a National Park and in 1981 it was proclaimed as a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO. Today it is also part of the European Natura 2000 network of protected areas.

The National Park of Samaria covers an area of 4,848 hectares and is surrounded by high mountain peaks and deep gorges, typical of the limestone landscape. The gorge itself is one of the longest ravines in Europe (12km). The climate of Crete and of the area is typically Mediterranean with most rain falling between October and March and a long dry period between May and September. The rainfall in this part of the island of Crete is extremely high and flash floods are a real threat in Samaria Gorge.

Due to its topography and climate, Samaria hosts a wide array of habitats and species of conservation importance. The Samaria gorge hosts 16 habitat types of the European Habitate Directive. There are 77 endemic vasular flora specia, 37 rare, and 6 vulnerable. The fauna is very rich in species and includes the endemic wild Cretan goat (Capra aegagrus cretica).

Collage of three images of Samaria Biosphere. A) Samaria Gorge. B) COBWEB partners at the reserve. C) COBWEB partners on a nature walk through the reserve.

*Images taken by COBWEB on a visit to the Gorge May 2015

The second of the two Biosphere Reserves in Greece is Mt Olympus. Located in North-Central Greece, Mt Olympus covers an area of approximately 800km2; it is the highest mountain in Greece reaching an elevation of 2918m. In 1938 it was the first area in Greece that was declared as a National Park. In 1982, UNESCO declared Mount Olympus as a Biosphere Reserve. Today it is also part of the European Natura 2000 network of protected areas.

The landscape comprises Mediterranean shrublands, beech and oak woodlands, pine forests as well as montane grasslands and alpine areas. In the lowlands, the climate is Mediterranean with mild, wet winters and warm dry summers. At higher altitudes it resembles more a central European climate (subalpine to alpine). For approximately seven months of the year, Mt Olympus is covered in snow (from November to May). The region has a high level of precipitation throughout the year in the form of snow in the winter and rain and hail in the summer.

On the Biosphere Reserve of Mt. Olympus more than 1,700 plant species have been recorded, representing approximately 25% of all Greek flora. The site hosts 16 habitat types of the European Habitat Directive, including four priority habitat types. The fauna includes 32 species of mammals like the chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra), deer (Capreolus capreolus), and wolf (Canis lupus). Also, 108 species of birds have been recorded, including species like the golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) that are strictly protected under international agreements.

The main economic activity is tourism (reaching around 300,000 visitors annually). Agricultural activites also prevail in the general area. Finally the site is important for its cultural significance, traditional settlements, and sites of archaeological importance.

View from the west side of Mt. Olympus.

*Image: view from the west side of Olympus located about 10 to 15 km from Kokkinopilos village via Wiki Commons