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Authorization of works within Natura 2000 protected areas that are threatening bird species and contravene environmental legislation

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26.01.2022
The Regional Environmental Licensing Council of Central Macedonia and the Decentralized Administration of Macedonia and Thrace approved at the end of December 2021 the installation and operation of two large solar photovoltaic power plants in the protected areas of Elos Artzan and Anthophyto in the prefecture of Kilkis:

The first one, with a total capacity of 248.963 MW, in Kotyli, Kilkis, and specifically within the Special Protection Area (SPA) "PERIOCHI ELOUS ARTZAN" (GR1230005).

The second, with a total capacity of 460,239 MW, in Neo Sirakio (Neo Syrako), Kilkis. It is noteworthy that this power plant was approved without a prior Specific Ecological Assessment study, as required by law, even though the installation site is just 9 m from the SPA "PERIOCHI ANTHOFYTOU" (GR1230006).

Both protected areas, “PERIOCHI ELOUS ARTZAN” and the "PERIOCHI ANTHOFYTOU" fall under the jurisdiction of the Thermaikos Gulf Protected Areas Management Authority, and, as of the beginning of January 2022, under the jurisdiction of the Natural Environment and Climate Change Agency (NECCA). The Thermaikos Gulf Protected Areas Management Authority gave a negative informed opinion for the project in Kotyli, as the submitted Specific Ecological Assessment study was considered to be incomplete. A negative informed opinion was also given for the project in Neo Syrako, requesting the Specific Ecological Assessment study which was not included in the project file even though it is required by law. And yet, ignoring the opinions of the relevant competent bodies, which have the necessary scientific staff and are familiar with the areas, the above-mentioned authorities proceeded to issue the permits immediately and within a very short timeframe.

The fast-track licensing of wind and solar energy projects is often done with incomplete or even questionable studies, especially regarding the cumulative impacts on the natural environment and biodiversity. According to the Management Authority, the project approved for the site “PERIOCHI ELOUS ARTZAN” covers a very large part of a protected area hosting high biodiversity and its construction will result in habitat fragmentation for several species of avifauna. Specifically, the solar panels will cover 146.7 hectares, corresponding to 8.54% of the Natura 2000 protected area. At the same time, since a Specific Ecological Assessment study was not carried out for the site "PERIOCHI ANTHOFYTOU", there are significant knowledge gaps and no documentation on how to prevent adverse pressures on the bird species that the area hosts and their habitats. Undoubtedly, the key provision of the European Habitats Directive (92/43/EEC), which states that any planned project in a NATURA 2000 site can only be approved if there is a certainty that it will not compromise the integrity of the protected area, is not met.

The Hellenic Society for the Protection of Nature and the Laboratory of Ecosystem and Biodiversity Management of the University of Thessaly, partners in the LIFE project «Better Life for Lesser Kestrel» (LIFE19 NAT/BG/001017) that is implemented, among others, in “PERIOCHI ANTHOFYTOU”, are sounding the alarm: these areas, apart from other protected species of avifauna, host important breeding populations of the Lesser Kestrel (Falco naumanni), which is protected at European level as it is included in Annex I of the Birds Directive and in the Red List of Endangered Animals of Greece. The Lesser Kestrel is a migratory falcon that breeds in colonies and prefers to nest in holes in tall buildings, warehouses, or roofs within rural settlements. It is primarily an insectivorous bird and forages in open and dry habitats, natural grasslands, or mildly managed and extensive croplands.

During the preliminary survey implemented in the framework of the LIFE project in 2021 in Kilkis, and specifically in the area of Anthophyto and its surroundings, colonies of Lesser Kestrels were recorded in 6 of the 12 settlements monitored, but the populations are small and stochastically unstable. In addition, a significant number of breeding Lesser Kestrel pairs are also hosted in Neo Syrakio.

Loss of foraging sites and reduced hunting success due to land-use changes result in low reproductive success and are considered to be among the main causes of the decline of the Lesser Kestrel.  The settlements around the perimeter of both aforementioned Natura 2000 sites offer sufficient availability of nesting sites. However, it is estimated that the uncontrolled licensing of solar power plants will lead to the occupation of large areas of grassland within or near the protected areas, significantly affecting the species' habitat and putting local populations at risk.
This part of the geoinformation map of the Regulatory Authority of Energy shows that the settlements that still host significant colonies of the Lesser Kestrel (Neo Syrakio and Anthofyto are indicated) are literally surrounded by solar photovoltaic stations in the process of licensing!

The lack of Special Environmental Assessments and Presidential Decrees setting out objectives and management measures for the protection of important areas has resulted in problematic licensing of projects such as this one and endangers threatened and protected wildlife species. It is precisely this absence of conservation objectives and measures for Natura 2000 sites that led to the recent condemnation of Greece by the European Court of Justice.
 
The Hellenic Society for Nature Conservation and the Laboratory of Ecosystem and Biodiversity Management of the University of Thessaly, request that:
  • the informed opinions of the bodies responsible for the management of these protected areas be taken into account,
  • both the letter and the spirit of Greek and EU environmental legislation be respected,
  • sound scientific practices be followed for proper documentation in the studies approved by decisions of the administration,
  • the sensitive biodiversity of the area be protected
Source: University of Thessaly (Laboratory for management of the ecosystems and the biodiversity), Hellenic Society for the Protection of Nature.