About the Course
“You should come back in May” was perhaps the phrase of the trip! We were told we’d see Slovakia’s biodiversity at its best in spring. The good news? For woodlands, we were there at the right time, or nearly so. But we were all really delighted with our experience of Slovakia’s biodiversity and countryside management, interpreted for us with skill and pride by our guides and host.
This course in Slovakia took place in early September 2015, part of the EU funded strategy to support staff mobility, the Erasmus+ programme. The project is promoted in Scotland by ARCH (organised by the wonderful Libby Urquhart) based in Comrie. We were in the capable hands of Miro Knezo throughout our visit to Slovakia; Miro is the director of Krajina, a small organisation that works in eco-tourism, community development and cultural management. Miro is based in eastern Slovakia, the area of our visit. He acted as our driver, guide, translator and all round facilitator.
Slovakia’s most recent incarnation as a nation began in 1993 when it and the Czech Republic amicably divorced, bringing Czechoslovakia to an end. But Slovakia has existed as a nation for a very long time, albeit subsumed within other entities several times over the years. It’s a beautiful country and rightly proud of its splendid natural and cultural heritage. A member of the EU since 2004, the country is just over 49,000 km2 in size (cf Scotland: 77,933 km2) and has a population of about 5.4 million (cf Scotland: about 5.3 million). It’s a compact country, with several mountain areas and relatively little low land.
Our course group represents a range of interests and expertise: Sian Atkinson, a Senior Advisor in the Woodland Trust Conservation Team; Alan Crawford, who works for Rural Development Initiatives, engaged in an ancient woodland restoration project run by the Woodland Trust in the Cairngorms NP and surrounding area; Stuart MacKenzie, involved in various initiatives of the Scottish Wildlife Trust; Derek Manson, a planner with SNH whose tasks include inputting to development plans of various authorities to secure environmental benefits; Maggie McCallum, a Seasonal Ranger with Loch Lomond and Trossachs NP; and Laura Preston, a Head Ranger with Scottish Wildlife Trust based at Falls of Clyde. This is a joint report among the group members.
Our course consisted of 6 active days in eastern Slovakia with two travel days. We visited 6 of Slovakia’s 9 National Parks, walked a fair distance, enjoyed specialist input from local experts, attended a bat netting/survey night, saw the Milky Way in a Dark Skies Park, took a dip in a natural spa ‘crater’ at Vysny Ruzbachy (previously specialising in mental illness and occupational disease) and saw some of the country’s famed wildlife – black stork, red squirrel (nearly black), kingfisher, roe deer, three bat species, lesser spotted eagle, wagtail, damselflies, jay, bumblebees, a tiny endemic snail, some beaver habitat and lots more. We were all pleased to come upon bear scat, wolf scat, a fresh bear footprint and bear and wild boar hairs stuck to the resin emerging from a bear scratched tree.
Plant life was interesting in spite of it not being spring (“You should come back in May!”), with so much that was familiar and yet so much that was not. Carpets of Autumn Crocus/ Meadow Saffron (Colchicum autumnale) caught our eye, as did the Harebell Campanula carpatica, Willow Gentian (Gentiana asclepiadea), a Globe Thistle (Echinops sp.), Perennial Honesty (Lunaria rediviva), Alternate-leaved Golden Saxifrage (Chrysosplenium alternifolium,) Cornelian Cherry (Cornus Mas) – tasty, Asarum or European Wild Ginger (Asarum Europaeum), European Bladdernut (Staphylea pinnata) to name only a few.
Woodland in this lovely country was among the most impressive some of us had seen, there is so much of it and so much that remains in a semi-natural or even pristine state, very different from the position in Scotland. In spite of seeing an enormous saw-mill (and possibly biomass plant?) at Liptovsky Hrádok and innumerable log-lorries on the roads, the visual impact of forestry is less than that seen at home: clear felling is not common practice in Slovakia. Some of the forest and wood pasture we walked through was stunningly beautiful. Consideration of forestry, forest management and resilience in the face of current and future challenge forms a significant part of this report.
Inevitably, a six-day visit such as his can only scratch the surface, but it was information-rich and we all felt we’d learned and understood something of the special qualities of Slovakian geo and biodiversity and each of us has reflected on comparisons and transferable features relevant to our own concerns at home.
Introductory Points on Geo and Bioiodiversity in Slovakia
Different altitudes, microclimates and soils are major factors in the biodiversity. Parts of the country are composed of flysch rocks such as sandstone and shales, and there are several prominent areas of limestone with distinctive karst features such as are seen in Slovensky Kras NP. Slovakia has within its boundaries most of the High Tatras Mountains, part of the Carpathian arc, where much of the rock is granite. The High Tatras are similar to the Alps in some respects, and, although there are no glaciers, they have glacially-formed features with dramatic peaks and cirques shining above the tree line and reaching to over 2600m asl. In the mountain and hill areas which dominate the eastern part of the country, a degree of zonation of vegetation by altitude is seen, with areas of highly valued beech woodland found at middle altitudes in only a few parts of the Carpathians within Slovakia, Poland and Ukraine. Mountain pine (Pinus mugo) and juniper are found just above the tree line (at about 1550m) in the High Tatras and are among the many protected species. Broadleaved woodlands we saw were well provided with dead wood, fungus and an understorey – in spite of Slovakians collecting wood for their impressive Alpine-style woodpiles.
Limestone landscapes provide niche environments for plants, where microclimates affect distribution. Gorges and canyons can provide moister and cooler conditions than the surrounding dissected plateaux through which water, either on the surface or underground (followed by cave collapse), has cut these gouges. In their turn, the steep sides of the gorges and of incised meanders of rivers give refuge to woodland cover that has been removed over time from the plateaux. Caves are a typical feature of karst areas and can harbour unusual fauna adapted to the conditions. Caves in Slovakian limestone are, as elsewhere, sources of archaeological interest and have revealed evidence of pre-historic cultures eg in the Ice Cave we saw, Silická ľadnica.
Slovakia is a meeting point in Central Europe, cradling part of the Carpathian arc of mountains in its territory: the mountains themselves could be seen as a refuge for species driven out by development and agriculture elsewhere in Europe. The variety of geology contributes to Slovakia’s wide range of habitats, and certainly in the east of the country the landscape appears to have relatively high levels of ecological connectivity and relatively low levels of intensive land use. The country has Scandinavian or Arctic plants on its hills and mountains, Mediterranean plants on drier sunny faces and plants typical of the Steppe grasslands are found as well. Indeed all of these types are found in the unusual microclimatic conditions of Zadiel Gorge in Slovensky Kras NP.
With its extensive forest cover, its areas of pristine forest, large number of national parks and nature reserves, and relative lack of development, eastern Slovakia has a robust starting point for maintaining healthy ecosystems but like all countries it faces challenges. Climate change, leading to changes in natural ranges of species and in species phenology, is a threat in a country with a significant number of endemic species especially where these are concentrated within nature reserves.
National Parks in Slovakia
We were fortunate to visit six National Parks.
Slovensky Raj National Park (Slovak Paradise): Miro and his son guided us up Suchá Belá, a gully within mixed woodland on limestone hills, where access is enabled by wooden walkways and steep metal ladders. Within the National Park there are about 300 km of hiking trails.
Low Tatras National Park: South of the High Tatras are the gentler slopes of the Low Tatras whose highest peaks reach almost 2000m. We enjoyed a guided walk through the spruce forest and meadows looking for evidence of and discussing issues around bear, wolf and lynx.
Pieniny National Park: Located in the northern part of eastern Slovakia along the border with Poland, this is a joint national park with Poland but run separately, with regular liaison meetings. Slovakia’s smallest NP at 37.5 km2 (cf Cairngorms NP 4528 km2), it is notable for its limestone features, its canyons and gorges.
Slovensky Kras National Park: Lazlo Gordon, an independent ecologist, guided us through limestone meadows on a low plateau to Silicka L’adnica, an open cave at the base of a crag where icicles are present in June, in contrast with high temperatures above. We later walked through Zadiel limestone canyon, up through native beech forest to a plateau and back through sheep-grazed wood pasture with hornbeam and juniper.
High Tatras – The Tatras National Park: is the largest National Park in Slovakia (738 km2). The National Park was first suggested in 1920, but private owners resisted the idea. In 1942 the State nationalised the land and it was declared an NP in 1949. Since the collapse of communism there has been a move for land to be returned to private ownership again. The current level is around 50% of the National Park in private ownership.
Polininy National Park: Well to the east of the country and bordering Poland and Ukraine, this is the site of Slovakia’s primeval beech forests and is a protected area/biosphere reserve across the three countries; it is a Dark Sky Park.
National Parks in Slovakia represent the pinnacle of protection of the best of its natural heritage. Whilst they have several other forms of designation including Natura 2000 sites (now they are part of the EU), biosphere reserves and national nature reserves, many of these areas are within the National Parks and don’t have the same high profile as National Parks themselves. Natura 2000 sites offer high levels of protection in the UK, where our National Parks are less strictly protected than in Slovakia. Currently in Slovakia 23% of land area is under some form of protection.
National Parks in Slovakia have a long history compared with Scotland. The (High) Tatras National Park was proposed in 1920 and established in 1949, the same year that designation of protected areas (including National Parks) began in the whole UK (though the roots of the conservation movement go back a long way, of course). In Scotland the National Parks are more recent, with Loch Lomond and The Trossachs NP established in 2002 and Cairngorms NP in 2003. The Slovakia National Parks are sometimes at the border with another country, such as Pieniny NP which has its Polish counterpart immediately adjacent. There is a history of protecting sites of importance in Slovakia, and of cross border cooperation to that end.
The Slovakian National Parks have different levels of protection within them, specifying what activities can take place. There are 4 different zones with the highest level of protected zone categorised as a ‘non-intervention zone’ where no land management or intervention is undertaken and access may be entirely restricted or limited strictly to marked paths. Other zones may have access and activities such as cycling, hiking and skiing but restricted to designated areas within the parks. Within the lowest level of protection there are some land management activities and development is possible This approach to zoning is very different from Scotland; the main reason provided for these zones is that the focus of the Slovakian National Parks is on nature conservation and minimising disturbance to wildlife. In Scotland the whole of each National Park is considered as having equal importance with no zones defining and highlighting a hierarchy. With a long history of landscape change by humans and with significant population centres, our NPs across the UK are ‘managed landscapes’ within the IUCN classification while Slovakia’s NPs are categorised as ‘National Parks’, intended “to protect natural biodiversity along with its underlying ecological structure and supporting environmental processes, and to promote education and recreation.” (IUCN).
From our discussions in Slovakia, it’s clear there is strong protection of the NPs; however around boundaries of the NPs or in the buffer zones there is more pressure for development and the NPs have no influence to limit development in these areas – the general conservation legislation is seen as weaker, so valuable habitat and wildlife corridors could come under pressure if the economy picks up or tourism development increases.
Outdoor Access in Slovakian National Parks
In Scotland we have the Scottish Outdoor Access Code allowing members of the public to enjoy almost limitless responsible access, including within National Parks. In Slovakia walking is a popular pursuit for visitors, and there are way-marked trails through the forests and into the mountains. However there are restrictions placed on users within the National Parks. The rules given in a publication from Pieniny NP are shown below.
- Follow marked tourist and educational paths only, and places assigned for hiking outside tourist and educational paths
- Respect places assigned for camping, making fires and landing of sports boats –kayaks, canoes and rafts
- Do not harm, destroy, kill, collect or touch plants and animals
- Do not harm, destroy or collect protected fossils and minerals
- Keep peace and quiet
- Respect the ban on leaving dogs unleashed
- Take food rubbish with you
- Movement in the territory of the park is allowed within the following time period – one hour after sunrise until one hour before sunset.
We wondered how these ’rules’ would be received by hikers at home, even though some of it was in the old Country Code and is included in SOAC. We saw a number of examples of signage highlighting which activities were not allowed within the National Parks. Waymarking of routes tends to be simple and usually appeared uncluttered.
Information panels in the Slovakian NPs are colourful and well illustrated if often a bit fact-heavy: they can focus on giving information rather than aiming to ‘provoke (curiosity), relate (to everyday experiences of audience) and reveal (a memorable message)’ as in the classic approach to interpretation. Here is some of our own SNH advice on writing interpretive panels: for example, Write in a lively and conversational style in short sentences and paragraphs. Avoid jargon and technical terms. As in the UK, several panels we saw had too much writing, too many technical terms and just generally too much on them, though they always had an English version to squeeze in! But there were plenty of better examples as well.
Health, Safety and Welfare in the Outdoors
One might be mistaken in thinking that Slovakia’s attitudes to health and safety are relaxed compared to our own but this may not be the case. After visiting a number of different National Parks in the country and the surrounding conurbations it could be concluded that health and safety is important but the difference is that the onus is on individuals to have adequate insurance and take responsibility for themselves.
Slovensky Raj National Park is one of the busiest in Slovakia and before our gorge walk began we paid an entrance fee covering insurance for rescue in case of emergency. In 2006, a ‘user pays’ pricing policy became law, under which mountaingoers are required to pay for the cost of their rescue. This effectively forced mountaingoers to take out insurance covering rescue, even if visitors get into difficulty while on officially marked paths. Evacuation from ski resorts is different: accidents on marked ski slopes are covered by common health insurances.
There is a significant cost to delivering Mountain Rescue in Scotland. The voluntary Scottish Mountain Rescue Teams receive grant aid from the Scottish Government and assistance from their major sponsor. This funding covers up to half of individual team costs depending on the team. The remaining necessary funding comes from voluntary donations. Maybe it would be more appropriate for those out using the hills to pay for their own insurance to cover the cost of rescue? Many people go out into the Scottish mountains unprepared and ignorant of the risks involved. Maybe mandatory insurance would encourage better preparation? This is something that is discussed regularly and widely in Scotland, especially in the wake of well-publicised and expensive rescue operations. As yet there has been no change to our policy of volunteers rescuing those in difficulty on our mountains – ‘volunteering to save lives’.
We visited Slovensky Raj NP on a busy Sunday morning. Podlesok is a small resort with bars and gift shops for visitors, along with information about the trails in summer and in winter (snow conditions). The walked in the Suchá Belá wooded gorge, going along wooden walkways and up metal ladders with chains to help us. Often the walkways were missing steps or steps were rotten, chains were loose in their fixings and trees were overhanging paths. Annual maintenance of this equipment is carried out. It was interesting to see families hiking these trails, young children helped by their parents and everyone taking their time with little fuss. It was hard to imagine a similar scene in Scotland where our attitude to risk seems more conservative!
Sometimes in the UK we like things to appear (too?) tidy and cared for. Maybe we clear away, for example, overhanging trees that could be deemed untidy or unsafe even when these branches pose little real threat. Organisations may fear that the appearance of a lack of care can leave them vulnerable should there be an accident.
To implement a scheme in Scotland where insurance is mandatory would be rife with issues. How do you make sure everyone has insurance, who would be out there checking and who currently checks in Slovakia? At Slovensky Raj an employee sat at the entrance to the trail but we saw no other people at the entrance points to other National Parks. One possibility in Scotland could be that voluntary insurance could be taken out similar to that which many cyclists have. The Mountaineering Council of Scotland provides combined civil and public liability insurance to members. Maybe an addition to this could be to provide cover for mountain rescue as well?
This could be seen as another facet of the same issue that prevails regarding access: the Scottish model is based on not being told what to do!
We went along to an evening bat event where survey tasks (followed by release) were carried out on bats caught by a net fixed up across a small river. We saw experienced bat handlers, sometimes wearing gloves and sometimes not. On occasion members of the public taking part in the event were encouraged to touch or handle the bats, and the bats were held still for prolonged periods to be shown around. In the UK our licencing systems are strict: one of the Slovakian bat handlers that evening said “In Scotland you have more bat handlers than bats!”
Forests & Forestry in Slovakia
Slovakia, and eastern Slovakia in particular has extensive, ecologically intact, interconnected wooded areas with the specific characteristics of these areas varying with, in the main, altitude and geology.
In summary, 42% of the land is forested (2.1 million hectares), with most of this in the east and north of the country.
- 5% of the forest cover (or 2.1% of the land) is pristine woodland which has evolved entirely through natural processes.
- 60% of the forest cover (or 25.2% of the land) is natural forest i.e. native species that arrived by natural regeneration but which have had some human intervention, usually harvesting and extraction of timber by means of continuous cover forestry. In Scotland we would describe this as Ancient Semi-natural woodland.
- 35% of the forest cover (or 14.7% of the land) is plantation woodland which often uses native species and again is managed by means of continuous cover forestry, most commonly using a strip system where a strip twice as wide as the height of the adjacent trees is felled and then restocked using natural regeneration without the need for fences. Once regeneration is successfully established in this area, a further strip can be felled.
- Levels of deadwood are approx. 40m3/hectare
By comparison, in Scotland 18% of the land is forested (1.38 million hectares).
- We have no pristine woodland.
- 3% of the forest cover (or 1.5% of the land) are Ancient woodland sites – with half of this resource ecologically degraded by plantations established on these sites post second world war, leaving 4.2% of the forest cover (or 0.8% of the land) as Ancient Semi-natural woodland. And much of this is fragmented and heavily browsed by sheep and deer.
- 7% of the forest cover (or 16.5% of the land) is plantation woodland. Some of this uses native species, but most is non-native conifers planted as monocultures and managed under a clearfell and restock system, most commonly using planting and deer fencing.
- Levels of deadwood are approx. 4m3/ hectare
These summary statistics show some stark differences between Scotland and Slovakia in terms of forest cover and also give an indication of differences in the ecological integrity of forest ecosystems between the two nations. Patterns of forest ownership also show significant differences. In Slovakia 42% of forests are state owned, 12% is privately owned, and 46% owned by villages and communities. In Scotland 33% is state owned, and 61% is privately owned by landed estates and investment owners. Slovakia has 14,475 private owners for 823,000 ha. Scotland has 4,017 owners for 932,000 ha, 53% of whom are absentee owners. Scotland has the most concentrated pattern of private forest ownership and the lowest proportion of the population involved in owning forests in Europe. If we are to improve our forest resource and encourage a broader and deeper appreciation of that resource, then we will have to allow more woodland to establish, and manage that woodland in a more thoughtful manner than we do at present. We will also have to encourage a greater number of people to be involved with woodland as owners, land managers and as recreational users to re-invigorate our woodland culture.
Beech is the most abundant native tree in Slovakia (30% of woodland cover); followed by Norway Spruce (26%); Oaks (12%); and Scots Pine (8%). Firs, Larch, Hornbeam, Maples, Lime, Ashes, Elms, Hazel, Birch, Rowan, Hawthorn and other broadleaves are also present. There are seven native species of Oak, four native Elms, and four native Ash species. There are also floodplain and riparian woodlands, with Willows and Alders most common.
The altitudinal ranges of different forest types are shown below.
|Woodland Type/ Main species||Altitude (metres)||% of total forest resource|
|Beech – Oak||200-500||13|
|Oak – Beech||300-700||24|
|Fir – Beech||500-1000||21|
|Spruce – Beech – Fir||900-1300||10|
Three areas in particular made an impact on us: the Boreal forests of the High Tatras, the Limestone woodlands of the Slovak Karst, and the primeval Beech and Silver Fir forests near the Polish and Ukrainian borders in the east.
In the High Tatras there are extensive boreal forests dominated by Norway Spruce (approx 70% of wooded areas here are Norway Spruce) with Scots Pine, European Larch, and occasional broadleaves (Birch, Rowan, Aspen & Willow) also present, as well as montane woodland characterised by Krummholz woodland (crooked, bent and twisted, also known as ‘knee timber’) above 1500m in altitude, where dwarf Pine (Pinus Mugo) are common. These areas have had relatively recent large scale disturbance events, and have some serious concerns with pests and diseases, and with climate change going forward, as indicated in another section of this report.
The Slovak Karst is a world heritage site partly in Hungary and partly in Slovakia, with diverse woodland most commonly of Hornbeam, Maples, Oaks, Limes, Ashes, Elms and Beech developed on shallow soils derived from Limestone at between 200m and 800m in altitude. It has high biodiversity value with 1500 plants and 300 species of butterfly already recorded and more being found all the time. Much of this biodiversity is a result of the fact that the area is at the northern edge of the range of the Mediterranean plant communities, and the southern edge of the range of Scandinavian plant communities, and therefore depending on variations in microclimate, you can find plants from communities that are usually geographically distinct from one another living in close proximity to one another. Its unique nature is further highlighted by the high number of endemic species present.
The Beech and Silver Fir forests at the eastern edge of Slovakia and stretching into Poland and Ukraine are described as pristine, having had only natural processes operate during their evolution since the last ice age. Both Beech and Silver Fir are shade tolerant and so can regenerate in relatively small gaps in the forest which come about as and when the older trees collapse and die. Standing deadwood and associated decay fungi were quite notable. The woods felt deeply quiet to walk in and it was quite breath-taking to witness the extent of the forest seen from the viewpoint.
For those with passion for woodland it was wonderful to see the extent of woodland cover in Slovakia, and to experience some of its variety. To see relatively intact ecological systems, extensive interconnected woodland types and areas where natural processes still operate was profoundly rewarding. It did however underline how far from these conditions we are in Scotland and how much work we have to do.
Future challenges and ecological resilience: Case study of the forests of the High Tatras
The natural spruce forests that cloak the lower slopes of the High Tatras, within the High Tatras National Park, provide an interesting case study. Large scale disturbance is part of their natural state, but recent events illustrate how easily the balance can be tipped.
The State Forest Service manages the 40,000 hectare expanse of forest with the main objective of stability and health of the forests, and nature conservation, rather than commercial timber production. The forests are valued for the ecosystem services they deliver, including recreation – the High Tatras are a popular destination for tourism including hiking and skiing. Around a third of the forest area is managed through minimum intervention, with the remainder actively managed, with a “close to nature” approach. Only native and local provenance trees are grown, and natural regeneration is favoured over planting.
This natural Taiga forest is dominated by Norway spruce (70%) which tends to grow in even-aged stands. Natural disturbance creates gaps in which pine and larch are able to gain a foothold, but broadleaved trees, which include rowan, birch and aspen, are limited, and tend to be out-competed by conifers once they reach a certain age. Above the tree line are areas of mountain pine.
The Tatras themselves form a high barrier with flat surroundings, which makes them vulnerable to pollution and to severe weather events. During the 1970s and 1980s the Tatras were the most polluted part of Europe, due to industrial pollution from the “Black Triangle” area resulting in acid rain that severely affected the trees. This threat has receded due to changing industrial conditions but in 1994, heatwaves led to high ground-level ozone concentration, considerably higher than in cities in Europe, and this also impacted on the trees.
More recent still is damage from an unprecedentedly severe windstorm in 2004 that led to half the forest area being windblown. Windstorms are a natural and regular phenomenon in the area. These “Bora” winds occur when high speed north-westerly winds across the plains hit the Tatras, and are accelerated as the air is compressed in “downslope winds” on the Slovakian side of the mountains that can reach speeds of 250 km/h or more. In 2004, the amount of timber that fell was estimated at 2.5 million cubic metres, compared with less than 50,000 cubic metres in previous storms. It is possible that strict protection of the forest was partly to blame, having led to a large increase in timber volumes with therefore more to be lost, but the effects were devastating.
This loss was compounded by an explosion in populations of the European spruce bark beetle Ips typographus. While this is a native species and a natural part of the ecology of these forests, its phenology is driven by bark temperature. A combination of warmer conditions and the sheer volume of fallen timber (temperatures are higher on the fallen trees which are exposed rather than shaded) means that the beetle is able to produce two or three generations in a year rather than just one. The population has taken such a hold that it is now attacking large areas of living trees, including within the areas of pristine unmanaged forest that remained standing, with 2-300 hectares of forest across the National Park now being lost each year.
Before 2004, researchers were already studying the forests to gauge the importance of forest structure on resilience to windstorms. Since 2004, monitoring has focused on the impacts of the storm and forest loss, and the effects of different treatments in the recovery and longer term stability of the forest and its habitats.
Study of soils has shown a long history of disturbance, with pits and mounds created by uprooted trees a natural feature, with very few undisturbed soil profiles. The presence of areas of larch can be interpreted as indicators of past disturbance as it creates the opportunity for this species. Dendrochronology can help pinpoint the patterns of disturbance from the different growth rings in the trees that survived past events.
After 2004, monitoring was initiated in four study sites: an area of windthrow that was subsequently managed; a similar area that was not managed; an area that was damaged by fire; and an area that was undisturbed (though this was unfortunately damaged by another windstorm in 2014). The study has shown so far that the windthrow and fire sites are recovering well, with trees returning, mainly by natural regeneration rather than planting. Surprisingly the water regime did not change dramatically as a result of forest loss as in this area it depends more on geology than the forest cover – therefore there was no excess erosion or flooding as a result of the disturbance. There have also not been significant effects beyond the first few years on either carbon balance or biodiversity. The main impact would therefore appear to be the aesthetic landscape impact with the associated impact on the forest’s recreational value, along with the worrying impact of the bark beetle outbreak. There was of course an enormous human and economic cost directly from the windstorm.
Control of the bark beetle is difficult, especially with close-to-nature management. Spraying is not an option in an area of high biodiversity. Bark beetle pheromone traps are used to monitor population levels but are not sufficient as a control measure. De-barking of fallen trees in the managed windthrow area reduces the opportunities for the population to expand.
While the wind damaged areas are recovering well after 11 years, there are more challenges for the future. A 2.5 degree rise in temperature (possible under the more pessimistic projections for climate change by 2050) would alter the natural ranges of both the major species, Norway spruce and larch, making the High Tatras inhospitable for them. The response is to encourage a wider variety of species in the forests to ensure their resilience, which may also counter the vulnerability of the forests to the effects of the bark beetle, but will also clearly affect their distinctive character and have knock-on effects for the plant and animal communities that have developed there over a long period of time. The approach is parallel to that being taken in Scotland, where forest owners are being encouraged to promote species and structural diversity to make their forests resilient to the multiple challenges of the 21st century.
In theory Slovakia’s diverse habitats and relatively high degree of ecological connectivity should provide a better opportunity for species to move and adapt to environmental change, including climate change, than in a more populated, intensively used and fragmented landscape, such as that in the UK.
In practice, though, some of Slovakia’s most intriguing areas host species that may not be able to respond in this way – as in the High Tatras, the ecology of these areas is finely balanced. The microclimates and great biodiversity of the Zadiel Canyon give an example.
The Slovakian Big Three: Bear, Wolf and Lynx
What can we learn from Slovakia about possible predator re-introduction in Scotland?
One of the most hotly debated conservation topics in Scotland at present is predator re-introduction. The success of the white-tailed eagle re-introduction in recent years has helped fuel the debate about the possible re-introduction of land predators, with the Eurasian lynx being widely considered the most likely candidate, providing a more natural means of controlling the deer population as well as possibly helping increase economic gain from ecotourism. While there are valid ecological arguments for a lynx re-introduction, there are also valid arguments from livestock farmers who would be against such a move, especially sheep farmers.
On day two of our course in Slovakia we had a guided walk in the Low Tatras National Park led by Robin Rigg of the Slovakian Wildlife Society ( see Slovakian Wildlife Society website and the site of the Bears Project, here). Robin works directly with local farmers in helping mitigate any threats to livestock presented by predators such as the Eurasian lynx Lynx lynx, brown bear Ursus arctos and grey wolf Canis lupus. We hoped to gain information from this excursion to bring another perspective to our understanding of the current debate in Scotland around lynx re-introduction.
Although predators, like most wild animals, prefer to avoid people, we had to be aware of the risks so Robin gave us advice regarding the do’s and don’ts should we have an encounter with a predator such as a bear. The general advice is to walk away calmly and on no account behave in a manner which may cause the animal to perceive you as a threat. Robin told us of an encounter that he himself had with a female bear and her cub a few years ago, and although no harm came to either party in that instance, it was a close enough encounter for him to thereafter take precautions. He told us that he had with him a bear repellent ‘pepper spray’, but thankfully it never had to leave his rucksack during our walk. We were told there are some 800 bears in Slovakia.
While it would have been unrealistic of us to expect to see predators during the walk, we had high hopes of at least finding evidence of their presence, and we were not to be disappointed. A short distance into our walk we came across the remains of a roe deer by the side of the footpath, consisting only of a rib cage and part of its spine. While it was impossible to say for sure what had killed the animal, it gave us a sense that we were at least on the right tracks. Further into our walk we came across a large scat in the middle of the footpath, containing a large number of small seeds. This was our first clear evidence of the presence of brown bear. Although they are predators which do eat meat, it was interesting to discover that 90% of the brown bear’s diet consists of fruit and berries. Bear scats therefore contain a large number of undigested seeds, and it has to be said, do not have an unpleasant smell.
As we got further along the forest path we came across another scat, this time containing a lot of hair and having a foul smell. This was clearly a wolf scat according to Robin. The hair most likely came from a roe deer, and the high meat content of the wolf’s diet provided the foul smell. The best was still to come, however. Later we came across a distinguishable paw print in a muddy part of the footpath, clearly the fore paw of a brown bear. Close to this location we were also shown a coniferous tree which had been used as a scratching post. The trunk of the tree had distinct scratch marks, starting about 30-40 cm above an average person’s head height. There was also a mark where the bear had bitten into the tree trunk, and visible hairs on the bark of the tree, stuck in the sap which had leaked out. Wild boar hairs were also visible on the sticky sap.
Robin explained that brown bears can present a problem to bee-keepers as they will raid bee-hives for honey. Robin took us to a bee hive building that had been raided in the past by bears which can easily break through the wooden walls to get at the honey. A simple electric fence powered by a car battery rigged up to a solar panel was put in place around the hives. With a height only of around 1.5 metres and with a 30cm gap from the ground, this provides a deterrent to bears. Since the electric fence was installed 2 years ago there have been no further successful incursions by the bears.
During our walk Robin answered questions about a possible lynx re-introduction in Scotland, particularly in relation to sheep farming and how conflicts with predators are managed in Slovakia. While attacks on sheep by both lynx and wolf are relatively rare, they do occur from time to time and in such cases farmers are compensated for losses. Various methods for mitigating the threat to livestock from predation are used in Slovakia with some success. Specially bred livestock guard dogs, sturdy breeds such as the Slovak Cuvac, are found. Lengths of rope with brightly coloured flags can be placed around the fencing of sheep enclosures to provide some protection against wolves as it seems to make them nervous, though its effect may only be temporary.
While it would be easy to assume that whatever happens in Slovakia regarding lynx and sheep would apply to Scotland, there are important differences to consider. Slovakian farmers manage their sheep differently, keeping them in much smaller flocks, and in smaller enclosures. They are not usually very far from humans, and trained guard dogs and other methods can be put in place to protect the stock. In Slovakia and other parts of Europe where a threat from predators exists, sheep are not normally left outside all winter but are taken into barns. Because the threat of predation is almost non-existent in Scotland (where climate remains the biggest killer of lambs), sheep typically graze open hillsides all year round. While the lynx could potentially pose a threat to sheep in Scotland, another important difference is that we have a significant over-population of deer, so lynx could possibly be less likely to leave the protection of their favoured woodland habitat to predate on livestock, at least while their natural prey is in abundance.
While ecologists and livestock farmers each make valid arguments about a lynx re-introduction, Scotland’s landscape conspicuously lacks top predators. They maintain population balance, promoting a more healthy population among their prey species. Predators such as the lynx could be said to belong in the Scottish ecosystem, and their absence from it has arguably caused damage. Although methods exist to help protect livestock from predation, a re-introduction would of course have to be carefully planned to minimise conflict with rural land use. It goes without saying that habitat and legal protection would have to be assured, but that can already be provided within existing legislation. It may be that Scottish livestock management practice might have to adapt in the future, perhaps using the experience of countries such as Slovakia, to allow Scotland’s ecosystems to enjoy the benefits that lynx re-introduction could bring.
The nature of Slovakia is under pressure from changes that apply elsewhere in Europe. Changing environmental conditions increase the threat from pests, diseases and invasives as the natural balance between species is disturbed. We saw Japanese Knotweed and Himalayan Balsam, and one of our guides complained about the prevalence of Giant Goldenrod alongside many roads.
While the recession has slowed growth in Slovakia, it was previously the fastest growing economy in Europe. There is great potential for tourism in eastern Slovakia, including eco-tourism, and while this would bring great benefits to the population, without the right controls it could also impact negatively on the country’s greatest asset – its natural spaces, forests and wildlife. In particular, while the areas of greatest value receive protection through nature reserve and National Park status, the areas in between are also crucial to maintain connectivity and resilience in the wider landscape.
The natural capital of the country is increasingly recognised as valuable, we were told. Attitudes to the natural world are changing so that more people are, for example, bird watching. Partnership working with fellow Carpathian countries is already in place through, eg, the cross border Carpathian Convention to support sustainable and sensitive development in the mountain range, and cross border National Parks and biosphere reserve coverage.
However, Slovakia’s income levels are relatively low and employment and economic considerations weigh heavily in any debate about development. The ecosystems services approach could offer a counterbalance by according the appropriate value to Slovakia’s spectacular natural capital, even though such an ‘instrumental’ approach may not turn out to convert peoples’ appreciation of the natural world into doing the right thing in relation to the environment.