Israel is at the crossroads of three continents and four different climate zones, and is consequently rich in both plant and animal biodiversity; African, Asian and European species interact within this unique geographical and climatic configuration, further enriched by huge numbers of migrating birds passing by in spring and fall. Unfortunately, large parts of the country are degraded to an extent that offers few opportunities for this potential biodiversity to flourish. As a first step, Project Wadi Attir has subjected different habitats to strict protection, and has replanted over 20 locally extinct native tree and shrub species for the purposes of enriching biodiversity. A continuous observation program has been in place since 2011, which has been documenting continuous increases in the number and frequency of flora and fauna observed. Attempts to obtain quantitative estimates are made by counting the number of bird species onsite, by observing the growing numbers and sizes of harvester ant nests, and by counting numbers and densities of flowering plant species.
The final chapter of this section, “Biodiversity and Sustainable Agriculture” describes the developing, growing numbers of predator-prey interactions essential for balancing and maintaining a stable agro-ecological system. The initial conclusions of Project Wadi Attir’s ecosystem restoration efforts indicate that within the three years since project initiation, a dramatic improvement in ecosystem complexity and species richness has been achieved, as compared to the formerly degraded, abandoned and mismanaged farm/rangeland.
Israel as a Biodiversity Hotspot
Israel is at the crossroads between Africa, Asia and Europe, resulting in especially high animal and plant biodiversity. Forming the only land bridge between Eurasia and Africa, the area contains a high number of species native to all three continents. Consequently, Israel is classified as one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots.
In spite of its dry climate, Israel also features high plant biodiversity, as it encompasses the Mediterranean, Sahara Arabic, Irano-Turanian and the Sudano-Ethiopian vegetation zones.
Detailed interactive picture collections of all animal and plant life observed so far on the project site can be downloaded at these links: animals and plants. While in most cases species identification appears clear, in some cases, identification may be reliable only to the genus level. We would be grateful for any feedback concerning species identification.
The Negev, with its subtropical climate, holds prominent African and Asian species such as the leopard, the striped hyena and the gazelle, mixed with Eurasian fauna such as the ibex and the wolf. Historically, the area was home to both African and Eurasian megafauna: lions, giraffes and other African savanna species lived together with Eurasian forest and steppe dwellers such as bears, deer and others. The animal life in the area of Project Wadi Attir is surprisingly rich considering the scarce conditions of this largely degraded desert landscape, and the fact that until the emergence of the project, the area was largely devoid of life.
Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes palaestina) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_fox)
The biggest mammals found in the area are the gazelle, the striped hyena (tracks can be found near the site) and the golden jackal. Project Wadi Attir’s most conspicuous mammal species are the Red Fox and the African hare, with hedgehogs and a variety of rodent species equally present as breeding populations, e.g. the gerbil, the Tristram’s Jird and the Palestine mole-rat (Fig. 1). The latter may become a concern for agricultural activities as it can cause damage by feeding on plant roots. Control will best be achieved by the large number of predators and raptors populating the site. All of these species were recorded in the area before the project began as well, though their density and breeding success seems to be increasing with project evolution.
Southern white-breasted hedgehog (Erinaceus concolor)
Cape Hare (Lepus capensis)
Tristram’s Jird burrow
Fig. 1: The Red Fox and the hedgehog are the most conspicuous predators present at Project Wadi Attir. Both species are established as breeding populations having essential roles in biological rodent and pest control. The African Hare and the Tristram’s Jird (B) are the next largest established breeding mammal species on site. Both are expected to fare well in the diverse agro-ecological system without causing any damage.
The project site’s bird populations and species numbers has rapidly expanded with the establishment of the agroforestry plantations and the enhanced vegetation cover resulting from site fencing, tree planting, and good winter rain in 2013/2014. Before the project began, the only evident breeding songbird population onsite was the crested lark (Galerida cristata). The cliffs along Project Wadi Attir held a breeding population of the bee-eater, but ongoing cliff collapse threatened their breeding holes (Fig. 2).
Fig. 2: The Crested Lark and the European Bee-Eater (Merops apiaster) were the only breeding song bird species present before the project began.
Interestingly, right after the tree planting onsite, much more conspicuous bird species started populating the site. The sparrow immediately took notice of developments and settled down in large numbers near the office building. In 2013, the chukar (Alectoris chukar), the falcon (Falco tinnunculus), and the little owl were noted as regular residents. Those were joined in 2014 by breeding populations of the spur-winged plover (Vanellus spinosus) and the Eurasian hoopoe (Upupa epops) (Fig. 3), all of them successfully breeding onsite in 2014 as a consequence of the significantly improved habitat quality, evidenced by far higher biomass, plant litter and insect populations.
Fig, 3: The Spur-Winged Plover and the Eurasian Hoopoe are two mid-sized bird species enjoying the rich ecosystem created at the Project Wadi Attir site.
The first new breeding songbird species were recorded at Project Wadi Attir in 2014, including the house sparrow, the European stonechat, and the Spanish sparrow, all species that require either trees or human development for nesting. The first Palestine sunbird was observed in the woodland section in January 2015; this species will likely rapidly become solidly established onsite, due to the fast-expanding, diverse woodland areas.
Additional, positive developments in songbird diversity were recorded during the migrating season and in winter, when increasing numbers of bird species passed through or temporarily settled in the area in response to the development and planting of the project area. Species such as the wagtail, the corn bunting, and the Isabelline wheatear spent the winter nearby or on site. In winter 2013/2014, only four species of such passers-by could be identified. This number increased to over nine (some observations could not be identified or verified) in winter 2014/2015 and is expected to grow rapidly with the higher diversity of food sources, and abundance of suitable places for resting and hiding developing onsite. Rarely-seen species such as the sand martin (Riparia riparia), majestic travelers such as the steppe eagle, as well as a variety of beautiful songbirds have already chosen the Project Wadi Attir site as a resting place (Fig. 4). The temporary ponds appearing in spring became a major meeting and resting place for various species, including an unidentified duck species, which can be seen enjoying an ideal resting place in the middle of the desert on its way north.
Of special interest to many bird species are the large numbers of trees, providing resting places and lookouts for various species passing by (Fig. 4). This uptick in biodiversity exemplifies the tight interaction between enhanced ecosystem quality and the establishment of healthily interacting animal populations, which in turn contribute to the biological control activities required to maintain a healthy agro-ecological or permaculture production system (see ‘Biodiversity and Sustainable Agriculture’).
Fig. 4: Passersby resting at Project Wadi Attir: An unidentified duck species in Spring 2014; a Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita) and a Steppe (or possibly Golden) Eagle on its way south in October 2014. A Sand Martin spying for possible prey from the top of a planted tree, and two Corn Buntings scouting from an adequately-sized tree in a Wadi Attir liman. All of these species were passing by or inhabiting the area during the winter season.
Annual bird migrations from Europe and Asia and back represent a major opportunity to observe some of the millions of birds that migrate those routes; vegetated locations in the Northern Negev such as Project Wadi Attir will be immediately exploited by migratory birds for resting or feeding. The beauty and diversity of the Project Wadi Attir ecosystem will create a major tourist attraction for bird watchers and other wildlife enthusiasts, thereby contributing significantly to the essential tasks of project dissemination, education, and community involvement. The increasing number, frequency and timing of passing bird species will be recorded and publicized to evaluate the merit of a seasonal birdwatching program onsite.
As in many semiarid and arid subtropical climates, reptiles contribute significantly to animal biodiversity in Israel and the Northern Negev. However, due to millennia of intensive agricultural exploitation, dramatic losses in habitat quality including vegetation loss and soil degradation have led to dramatic reductions in the number and diversity of these interesting and important species. The reptiles identified so far at Project Wadi Attir are the Rough-tail Rock Agama (Fig. 5), which is commonly seen and breeding at various places onsite. Other small lizard species are frequenting the area but could not yet be documented and classified. The Mediterranean Spur-Thighed Tortoise was seen in the gullies before site development, but the denser vegetation now present makes them more difficult to find. Several unidentified snake species have been observed during the past years, requiring confirmation and identification. It can be expected that the number of reptile species and individuals on site will significantly increase with more plant cover and prey available, as dry shrub and bush vegetation with ample hiding places and food are the preferred habitat of this interesting vertebrate class.
Invertebrates, and specifically insect activity, have been monitored to assess the evolving animal biodiversity onsite. The large number of flowering plants during the 2014 spring months, as well as the relative increase in biomass productivity, gave rise to a larger amount and variety of insects than have been previously observed, including large numbers of ladybugs and their larvae, and dragonflies which have managed to breed in temporary ponds (Fig 6).
Fig. 6: A ladybug larvae (left) and a dragonfly (right), major players in pest control in the insect world. The ladybug is the major predator to aphids, while the dragonfly will prey on any insect of suitable size. Establishment of healthy populations of these predators will create biological controls to pests threatening the agricultural system.
All insect species of sufficient size were recorded, with at least five species of butterfly (Fig. 7) and five common species of beetle (Fig. 8 and 9) identified so far. Large numbers of varied grasshopper species are becoming common as well (Fig. 9). Butterflies, which became particularly active during peak bloom in spring of 2014, are important pollinators, while beetles fulfill important roles as both pollinators and decomposers of waste biomass.
Fig. 7: Butterflies are essential pollinators and key indicators for a healthy ecosystem. They largely depend on a diverse, pesticide-free ecosystem for their survival. Project Wadi Attir has had an immediate effect on the number of butterflies and butterfly species present onsite.
Fig. 8: Other pollinating insects such as beetles are of equal importance for maintaining a functioning ecosystem.
Fig. 9: Insect species such as beetles and grasshoppers play important roles as decomposers of biomass for recycling dead organic matter and nutrients.
The Harvester Ant: A key ecosystem engineer and bioindicator
As insect numbers and activities are very difficult to quantify without lethal trapping, we decided to assess the colonization and activity of harvester ants as a key parameter for correlating insect activity and progressive site rehabilitation. To obtain quantitative metrics, we initiated an ant observation program, following the establishment and development of harvester ant nests (Fig. 10) in differently-treated research plots.
Fig. 10: Harvester Ants (Genus Messor) depend on adequate vegetation as food, but also themselves engineer their environment for higher productivity by improving soil quality through digging activities, creating extensive litter and soil dumps, and altering soil organic matter and nutrient content.
Ant activity has been recorded every six months since summer 2014 to determine the impact of soil recovery on ant frequency and species numbers. Percent area affected by ant nests is being recorded in selected research plots (Fig. 11). Changes in time will provide data on the correlation of ant activity with the rate of ecosystem recovery and vice versa.
Fig. 11: Ant nest size, their frequency, and the relative plot areas affected by ant activity, are being recorded in differently-treated plots by measuring nest diameters and geometry. Areas influenced by different nests are estimated by applying the ellipse formula.
So far, clear differences in the extent of ant activity were observed in 13 differently-treated research plots (Fig. 12). More detailed and extended studies are underway to correlate increased ant activity with improvements in other soil, productivity and biodiversity related parameters.
Fig. 12: Research plot areas affected by ant nest activity in May 2014. A correlation between nest cover and soil and ecosystem quality is implied, but requires careful documentation.
Engineering effect of ants on their environment:
Nests of the harvester ant genus Messor are large and complex structures that have a significant impact on their environment. Digging, as well as the disposal of waste biomaterials and nutrient rich soil outside of the nest, can create several square-meter soil-litter dumps (Fig. 13) that are thus transformed into nutrient and soil organic matter-rich islands of fertility (Fig. 14). While nests are moving, ant activity restores soil quality and enhances the productivity of the ecosystem. The exact dynamics and speed of this process have yet to be investigated thoroughly, and we are now initiating a detailed observation program to quantify this important engineering effect.
Fig. 13: A one square meter sized dump of soil and organic matter created by harvester ant activity significantly alters local topography and soil ecology.
Fig 14: Nests of the harvester ant species Messor arenarius, Messor ebeninus and Cataglyphis lividus create significant quantitative soil enrichment effects. Kilograms of organic matter-enriched soil dumps and plant litter dumps (right) reintroduce, concentrate and redistribute essential nutrients and soil organic matter (left, measured as % soil organic matter, SOM) to create islands of fertility in areas of otherwise poor soil.
Only ongoing continued observation will permit the establishment of statistically more significant trends in those observation parameters, population sizes and species numbers independent of climatic variations, whereby the expected higher observation frequencies will be taken into account. While the increase in insect numbers may be related to higher plant productivity due to above average precipitation in 2014, the clear and significant increase in bird numbers and species is to a large extent a direct result of the significantly increased habitat diversity.
Animal Biodiversity Summary
Table 1 relates an impression of changes in the observation of animal biodiversity from before the project start (2007 – 2011) until February 2015, listing the various species and classes observed in terms of estimated, or actual, quantitative parameters. The parameters listed in the table are:
|Breeder- Breeding on or near the project site:||B|
|Resident – Spending significant time on site:||R|
|User – Using newly planted or built site infrastructure||U|
|Migratory, passing by||P|
|Migratory, temporary resident||T|
|Likely breeding presence||L|
Only ongoing observation will permit the establishment of statistically more significant trends in those observation parameters, population sizes and species numbers independent of climatic variations. While the increase in insect numbers may be related to higher plant productivity due to above average precipitation in 2014, the clear and significant increase in bird numbers and species is, to a large extent, a direct result of the significantly increased habitat diversity. Of special interest is the large number of bird species who are designated as users (U), depending on opportunities provided by new infrastructure onsite.
|Species – Mammals||2007 – 2012||2012 – 2015||Population Size||First Recorded, Remarks|
|Species – Birds||2007 – 2012||2012 – 2015||Population Size||First Recorded, Remarks|
|European bee eater||B||B||Possible decrease||Breeding along collapsing cliff|
|Spur-Winged Plower||R||B||Increase||Spring 2014|
|Eurasian Hoopoe||–||B||Increase||Spring 2014|
|Little Owl||B||B||?||Fall 2013|
|Masked shrike||?||U||May 2013|
|Eurasian Blackcap||?||T||Summer/Fall 2013|
|Isabelline Wheatear||?||T||Fall 2013|
|House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)||–||B||Spring 2014|
|Long-legged Buzzard||A||Spring 2014|
|Common Chiffchaff||–||U||Spring 2014|
|Unidentified duck||U||Spring 2014|
|Sand Martin||U||Spring 2014|
|Semi-collared Flycatcher||U||Fall 2014|
|Steppe or Golden Eagle||P||Fall 2014|
|European Greenfinch||U||Fall 2014|
|Spanish Sparrow||U||January 2015|
|European Stonechat||U||January 2015|
|Corn Bunting||U||January 2015|
|Palestine Sunbird||U||January 2015|
|Species – Reptiles||2007 – 2012||2012 – 2015||Population Size||First Recorded, Remarks|
|Mediterranean Spur-Thighed Tortoise||B (2007 – 2011)||?||?||Not recorded since site remodeling;|
|Snakes and lizards||B||B||?||Remain to be identified|
|Species – Insects||2007 – 2012||2012 – 2015||Population Size||First Recorded, Remarks|
|Butterflies||B||B||Increasing||Five species identified|
Project Wadi Attir lies near the intersection of all four of Israel’s vegetation zones, thus the local flora is composed of members of all four zones. Furthermore, the site is located at the transition from the Yattir Hills (South of Hebron Mountain) to the loess planes of the Northern Negev. The project site protects parts of all of these habitats (Fig. 15), which are characterized by diverse and distinct plant communities (Fig. 16). Surprisingly, some of the flat, repeatedly-tilled loess areas evolved into highly diverse plant communities, boasting species never before noticed onsite. Those areas will be protected and excluded from development, as they are becoming extremely rare in the Northern Negev.
Fig. 15: Biodiversity hotspots at Project Wadi Attir marked as green ovals and dotted lines. Efforts are being made to conserve significant portions of all major habitats in order to maintain and enhance natural biodiversity.
Fig. 16: Conserved loess plains, and loess and rocky slopes provide habitat for a wide variety of diverse and attractive plant communities.
Basal plant biodiversity was mapped before site development in 2010/11, with about 40 species counted, mainly in a few niche habitats and along the Wadi Attir riverbed. During winter and spring of 2013/14, efforts were made to document, in detail, biodiversity in the different habitats onsite, and to map the most diverse habitats for conservation. Over 100 flowering plant species have been recorded and photographed so far on the project site and the nearby wadi slopes (Fig. 17). This photographic data will be used to observe and quantify major ecosystem shifts and successions in the course of project evolution. Primary observations of interest were the rapid dispersal of Mediterranean species such as Chrysanthemum coronarium, Sinapis alba and Malva sp into recovering habitats, possibly facilitated by above-average rainfall and site fencing. Further observations and data collection surrounding correlation with soil improvement will be performed to determine the significance of this trend. The high density of rare and protected plants (Fig. 17) is supported by the fact that the site features at least four species of Papaver, two species of Bellevalia and Iris, as well as both Anemona coronaria and Ranunculus, together with a large number of other rare and protected flowering plants. The increase in biodiversity has been further enhanced by the planting of 20 native shrub and tree species, most of which may have been endemic to the area in historical times and have now returned with strength (see file ‘The Trees of Wadi Attir’).
Fig. 17: A few of the many attractive protected plant species identified at Project Wadi Attir in conserved habitats in 2014.
Edible plants, medicinal plants and other plants of potential use are now present in large numbers at the project site. Fig 19 presents just a few of the many medicinal plant species found onsite. These observations confirm the importance of maintaining high biodiversity for future potential use of wild plants, both as gene pools for crop improvements, or as pools for the identification of much-needed medically active compounds.
Fig. 18: Local medicinal plant varieties
Fig. 19: Achillea fragrantissima (having antimicrobial and anti-insect activity), Salvia dominica (having anti–inflamatory activity) and Livid Stock (a putative anticarcinogen) are just a few of the many medicinal plants found at the project site.
Invasive or toxic weed plants
So far, only very few plants have been identified onsite that could interfere with its agricultural development. Tamarisk and wild tobacco invade the agroforestry plantations and require continuous mechanical removal. Bermuda grass and similar invasive weeds affect irrigated plots. These weeds are expected to decrease in frequency once irrigation is stopped as they thrive especially well in irrigated plots.
The small number of toxic and thorny plants remaining confirms ongoing improvement of the project site towards a rich woodland-savanna-grassland ecosystem evolving in place of the previous hostile and scarce thorn-scrub. Naturally invading sorghum is growing well in some agroforestry terraces, and provides significant biological production potential during summer. A few ornamental succulent species have been accidentally introduced together with nursery plants. Despite such minor invasions, the site, in contrast to many large-scale afforestations nearby, is an authentic Negev ecosystem, featuring attractive native flora of high aesthetic, agricultural and scientific value.
Novel Habitats Created
Size and characteristics of novel protected or agro-ecological habitats, created for the purposes of soil conservation, watershed protection, biodiversity conservation or enhanced agricultural productivity at Project Wadi Attir; 25% of the project site will be dedicated to providing these essential environmental services.
|Habitat Type||Size||Description||Key Species|
|Temporary ponds||Up to 500 m²||Four temporary ponds filled annually for several weeks at a time by floodwaters||Migrating ducks and wading birds; dragon flies|
|Dry woodlands||~10000 m² Additional 60000 m² planned||15 windbreak and erosion control limans so far; additional limans and 50000 m2 of silvipasture planned||Native, nitrogen fixing trees and shrubs; habitat and dwellings for songbirds, butterflies, other animals|
|Agroforestry woodlands||20000 m² agroforestry limans and woodlands||Olive, almond, lemon, argan, fig and other partly-irrigated agroforestry plots||Olives, almond, fig, pomegranate, argan, lemons; habitat and dwellings for songbirds, butterflies, other animals|
|Conserved shrubland areas||~2500 m²||Conserved rocky slopes with recovering shrublands||Dryland shrubs; Asphodelus ramosus; diverse annuals and geophyte populations|
|Conserved loess plain||~3000 m²||Recovering tilled or undisturbed loess areas||Annual plants and rare geophytes|
|Hedgerows – green fences, windbreaks||4000 m so far||Single rows with various native windbreak and honey species||Habitat and dwellings for songbirds, butterflies, other animals|
|Total||40000 m² established so far; (60000 m² planned)||25% of project area committed to soil conservation and erosion control, and biodiversity conservation|
Biodiversity and Sustainable Agriculture
Biodiversity has only recently been recognized as a key pillar in sustainable development. While agricultural development in the 20th century was built around sterile cultivation approaches involving massive use of pesticides, recent findings indicate that this approach is reducing the resilience and productivity of the world’s ecosystems. Only high diversity of well-adapted organisms in balanced and well-functioning ecosystems are able to provide essential services such as:
- nutrient and carbon fixation by a healthy microbe population in soils;
- watershed protection and soil improvement by trees and perennials;
- pollination services by bees and other insects;
- natural pest control by a wide range of predators, small and large;
- and others.
Enhancement of biodiversity on the project site by means of conservation of selected areas, reintroduction of local vegetation, and the establishment of windbreaks, are therefore at the heart of the project’s objectives. Site design has been dedicated specifically to providing the necessary breeding grounds for all kinds of beneficial organisms, in dense green fence hedgerows surrounding the site, as well as in specifically placed woodlands and organic agroforestry plantations across the area (Fig. 20). This was planned in a permaculture-like arrangement, with multiple ecological and productive functions supporting one another.
Evolution of the project site’s biodiversity has since been specifically assessed for organisms and biological interactions required to establish an adequate ecological balance in this agro-ecological production system.
Fig 20: Windbreak limans in the foreground and agroforestry plantations (back) provide protection from destructive winds, and enable soil conservation and nutrient recovery. They also provide the essential breeding and resting grounds for a wide range of animals essential for biological pest control.
A wide range of plants and animals provide so-called engineering services, altering local environmental conditions to create novel living spaces, which, in turn, result in more diverse and resilient ecosystems. In drylands, perennial plants, shrubs, and trees, but also all kinds of digging animals, small and large, are altering their environment in this way to maintain and enhance the necessary biodiversity (Fig. 21). From tiny ants to large trees, these ecosystem engineers fulfill essential roles in enhancing nutrient and carbon cycling, and altering the soil-water balance to enhance the ecosystem’s resilience and productivity.
Fig. 21: Eco-engineers, from tiny ants to large trees, exert a dramatic influence on their environment, remodeling local environmental conditions to the mutual benefit of a wide range of plants and animals alike, and playing an essential role in maintaining diverse and resilient ecosystems.
Pollination is an essential ecosystem service provided by a variety of species including bees, butterflies, and other insects and flying animals. This activity is threatened due to widespread and uncontrolled use of insecticides; recent research indicates that mysterious bee illnesses and mortality are directly linked to classes of such pesticides. Project Wadi Attir is designed to promote and cater to pollinating insects by maintaining continuous reservoirs of flowering trees and flowers, while avoiding any pesticide use. The rapidly increasing number of flowering plants observed in 2014 has led to an immediate increase in pollinating insects such as butterflies, beetles and bees (Fig. 22).
Fig. 22: Pollination by insects is an essential ecosystem service threatened by widespread pesticide use. The natural niches and reserves at Project Wadi Attir will maintain these key organisms for the benefit of local agriculture and ecology. The large number of flowering plants and trees will also be used to maintain beehives for onsite honey production.
The most complex and important task of enhanced biodiversity is the control of multiple pests threatening agricultural crops. Microbial pests, nematodes and mites, insect and mammalian pests are all being held in check by a variety of natural enemies that prevent their proliferation to numbers that can cause serious damage. From the very beginning, Project Wadi Attir was designed to contain high densities of biodiversity reserves, agroforestry terraces, green fences and windbreaks, in order to provide the necessary living and breeding space to host a wide range of organisms beneficial for biological pest control.
Some examples of the biological control principles already in place at Project Wadi Attir are:
- Healthy soils. Healthy soils are based on dynamic and balanced microbial and invertebrate activities and are the best defense against soil borne pests. Therefore restoring SOM and soil fertility will immediately cause a dramatic increase in soil microbial diversity, which will suppress spreading of single pathogenic species.
- The fox is the most efficient rodent control agent in the world; a single fox can catch around 5000 mice or other rodents per year.
- The ladybug (Fig. 23) is so successful in aphid control that it has been widely applied as a biological control agent.
- Birds, raptors and owls. Insectivorous birds (Fig. 23), raptors and owls populating the site (Fig. 24) are often the only—and certainly the most efficient—means to maintain a natural balance in our agro-ecosystem, helping to reduce pest numbers to acceptable levels without the need for pesticide application.
Fig. 23: The ladybug and insectivorous birds such as the Semi-Collared Flycatcher are highly effective in controlling a wide range of insect pests, thereby reducing damage to a tolerable level.
Fig. 24: Some of the natural pest control agents at Project Wadi Attir, keeping rodent and insect populations in check.
Food and fodder plants
Semi-arid and arid ecosystems have been rich in nutritious, high-protein food and fodder plants. Many such plant species have been the origin of crop domestication, and are the basis of successful sustainable livestock herding in the Northern Negev. However, most of these plant species became extinct or extremely rare due to overexploitation by grazing livestock, soil tilling or the deteriorating quality of degraded soils. Therefore, today’s degraded Negev ecosystems are notoriously poor in nutritious annual vegetation and consist predominantly of non-palatable thorny or poisonous shrubs and geophytes that provide little of the nutritional value of the lush annual grasslands of conserved dryland ecosystems. As a result of improving soil and water use efficiency at Project Wadi Attir, high-quality grassland vegetation typical to the area’s conserved ecosystems is starting to return and will contribute significantly to feeding the project’s herd of livestock (Fig. 25).
Many such nutritious dryland species also served as the basis for domestication of various current crop plants and vegetables. The number and density of high-value food or fodder plant ancestors returning to recovering habitats at Project Wadi Attir demonstrate the importance of maintaining and protecting adequate biodiversity. Such ancestral crops have, in many instances, been used to bolster stress and pest resistance in modern crops; besides being important components of the local ecosystems, such plants represent an important genetic resource for future use in agricultural biotechnology (Fig. 26).
Fig. 25: Recovering highly diverse annual grassland vegetation at Project Wadi Attir will contribute significantly to feeding the project’s livestock in years with average or above average precipitation. They will also play an important role in soil restoration and the enhancement of soil carbon pools.
Fig. 26: several of the edible plants found at Project Wadi Attir that have given rise to today’s crop plants.