NET Managing our Natural and Cultural Assets
A programme funded by Erasmus
Danielle Casey, Scottish Natural Heritage
Stuart Shaw, Scottish Natural Heritage
John McGregor, SRUC Oatridge
The following three reports provide an insight into the natural heritage of Slovenia. The reports do not follow a set structure; they are a taster of what the participants took from this excellent opportunity to learn about this fascinating country. It is apparent, however, that some general issues and themes were at the forefront of our minds throughout the week – the similarities and differences between Scotland and Slovenia, economic development, funding, diversification, tourism, local communities, designations and flora and fauna.
My section of the report looks at a some of the parks we visited; Stuart’s looks at sustainable development and local tourist taxation; John’s is focused on forestry and agriculture.
Whilst offering a taster only, I hope the three different sections demonstrate what an interesting place Slovenia is in terms of nature conservation and sustainable economic development. The passion of the Slovenians was apparent to us, as was the largely held belief that the tourism offer should be one based on quality as opposed to increased visitor numbers which could ultimately lead to decline in the quality of experience on offer.
Parks in Slovenia – Danielle Casey, Scottish Natural Heritage
Notranjska Regional Park
Our first trip in Slovenia was to the Notranjska Regional Park (NRP) where the staff gave an interesting presentation into the different species in the area and how European funding is being spent. NRP lies in the southern part of central Slovenia. It was established in 2002 and covers 222km2 of the country. The regional park is recognised by UNESCO as internationally important and by Europe as a Natura 2000 (SPA) area due to its many valuable natural features.
Two thirds of the park are covered by forest – beech, mixed beech/fir, larch – tree species typical for the limestone substrate. Management the forest is done in such a way as to encourage natural regeneration processes, i.e. felling is selective as opposed to clear felling which is usually the case in Scotland. Large predator species such as bear, wolf and lynx are present. Other species of flora and fauna include the Alcon Blue butterfly, the wildflower Marsh Gentian, the longhorn beetle, the Ural owl, marsh fritillary (a Natura 2000 indicator species), salamander, and the fly orchid to name just a few. Many of the meadow plants in this karst area are endangered.
Management of meadows in the park is complicated due to there being 1000s of landowners. In the early 20thC, landowners tried to dry land to grow food. Streams were canalised and outflows made larger. This was unsuccessful and plots of land were abandoned.
The regional park is largely funded through the municipality. Recently, however, NRP staff have used EU funding, plus some money from the Slovenia government to buy a number of the abandoned plots so they can be managed on a larger scale for meadow (and bird) conservation. Around €4M has been spent on restoring meanders in the river catchment, and on viewing towers and paths that are designed to encourage visitors away from particularly sensitive areas where, for example, certain species of bird reside.
Staff at NRP regard the ability to buy land as their best chance of success in conserving their natural heritage.
Škocjan Caves Park
The Škocjan Caves were entered as the 220th site on the UNESCO list at the World Heritage committee meeting on 26 November 1986 (it was designated a Ramsar site due to its underground karst wetland in 1999 and then as a Man And Biosphere (MAB) karst biosphere reserve in 2004). Ten years later the Government of the Republic of Slovenia established the Škocjan Caves Public Service Agency.
To the southwest of Slovenia, on the edge of the karst, the Škocjan Caves Park (SCP) has a surface area of 4.13km2. The cubic area of the cave system is not yet fully understood as parts of the underground system remain unexplored.
The Škocjan Caves Regional Park Act defines the protected area which includes a ‘core’ area, a ‘buffer’ area and a ‘transitional’ area. This park is also a Natura 2000 site.
The ‘buffer’ zone is ~45,000ha. The area includes the Reka river basin, 6 municipalities and is one of the biggest uninhabited areas in Europe. Forest is extensive and biodiversity is rich.
Hydrology in the cave system varies hugely throughout the year and over time. During summer, the Reka River can completely disappear. At times of torrential rain the water flowing through the caves can increase from 9m3/s to a maximum on 387m3/s (this is during times of 50-100 year flooding). Marks in the cave system showing flooding can reach up to 132m high.
Flora within the cave system is diverse and includes endemic, rare and endangered species. The microclimatic conditions can change from mediterranean to alpine within a very small area – a rare phenomenon resulting in some interesting plant species growing side-by-side.
SCP is a hotspot of subterranean fauna where ~90 species of butterfly can be spotted as well as wild rock doves, common raven and eagle owl.
Visitor numbers to SCP have increased from ~50,000 in 2000 to more than 140,000 in 2016. Staff at the park agency are not necessarily aiming to increase visitor numbers, rather to maintain the caves in a natural state while promoting the value of the area to locals and tourists. Park staff were working with other environmental agencies and karst experts to determine the carrying capacity of the caves but they have decided instead to monitor the area for changes in humidity, temperature, CO2, etc. that may be attributable to increased visitor numbers.
Sečovlje Salina Landscape/ Nature Park
These salt-pans are a great place to see commercial activity and nature conservation in one amazing place. Here you can see 700 year old salt-producing techniques and modern technology in operation side-by-side. The techniques and technologies being used help keep production going at a sustainable level while promoting the benefits of the coastal ecosystem.
Production of salt through traditional methods declined in the 90’s but the area was nonetheless established as a park in 1990, then declared a UNESCO Ramsar site in 1993, and is now also a Natura 2000 (SPA) for 30 bird species and a Natura 2000 (SCI) for 4 animal species and 6 habitat types.
The commercial side of the salt-pans has expanded to include premium products such as salt-flour, salt chocolate, natural cosmetics, and an exclusive spa resort where only 55 visitors are permitted at any one time.
Transport around the pans is largely zero-emission with limited exceptions for motors.
Stuart Shaw, Scottish Natural Heritage
The Slovenia study trip provided an excellent opportunity to learn about this fascinating country. Amongst my various roles within SNH I represent SNH on the EU funded Argyll and the Isles LEADER Local Action Group, and am involved with other projects seeking to stimulate sustainable economic development linked to natural heritage and nature based tourism. There were several inspiring success stories from the Slovenia study trip where facilitation by organisations has enabled the area’s rich natural and cultural heritage to be used sustainably to promote economic development in the rural economy.
A good example of this was the Škocjan Caves Park which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ramsar Wetland of International Importance, and Natura 2000 site. This Karst limestone landscape holds an exceptionally rich and diverse natural heritage. Prior to establishment of the Park, there were limited opportunities for economic development in the region. Listing of the site as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the subsequent establishment of Škocjan Caves Regional Park and Škocjan Caves Park Public Service Agency enabled improved protection of the areas unique natural and cultural heritage whilst facilitating sustainable economic development linked to tourism.
The Agency has undertaken a broad range of activities to protect the areas Karst landscape, natural heritage, and cultural heritage including undertaking restoration activities and implementing an ongoing monitoring programme. Significant investment has been made in improving and maintaining Park Infrastructure. The Agency has a significant programme of education and outreach activities including; joint projects with schools, hosting festivals, hosting thematic lectures, and organising professional conferences and events. There has been an ongoing need to manage public relations to maintain awareness of the Agency’s activities amongst the local community. Whilst having strong control over activities within the Park, they also undertake monitoring and engagement with landowners to ensure appropriate management within the 450 km2 water catchment buffer zone.
Work is currently underway to investigate the carrying capacity of the Park to ensure that visitor numbers are controlled so that no damage takes place. A monitoring regime has been established to monitor the cave microclimate and other parameters, and there are currently no signs of visitor numbers having significant impacts on the unique environment of the cave system. As the cave system is very large and dynamic (with regular major flood events) it is thought that the caves have capacity for further increases in visitor numbers. It is predicted that the key limiting factor for the Parks carrying capacity will be the local area infrastructure, and potential for associated impacts on local communities from increased visitor numbers.
Local communities are embracing the opportunities offered by natural and cultural tourism through the provision of visitor accommodation and services. The Agency is a significant employer with 23 permanent staff and 50 seasonal staff. Revenue income from ticket sales plus significant project funding (e.g. European Regional Development Fund, national Slovenian funding etc.) has enabled the provision of first rate visitor infrastructure and enhanced nature conservation management. Between 2000 and 2016, visitor numbers have increased from 50,000 to 140,000 per annum with the Park now being a key driver for the local economy.
In the Julian Alps, the Soča Valley Development Centre implements local and regional development projects across three municipalities (Bovec, Kobarid and Tolmin). The natural heritage of this area has always been integral to the identity of the region (the region is partly within Julian Alps Biosphere Reserve and Triglav National Park), and is increasingly becoming a key driver in promoting sustainable economic development. Whilst the Soča valley brand is internationally recognised and is intrinsically linked to the area’s natural heritage, the marketing of the regions natural heritage is going to be increased through enhanced promotion of the Biosphere status which has as yet not been marketed as widely. The Region has a very varied offer to visitors including skiing, walking, cycling, wildlife, water sports, and adrenaline sports.
The Development Centre and associated Regional Development Agency have played a key role in bridging the gap between local (municipality) level administration, and national level administration. This has enabled projects and activity to be strategically planned, funded (including EU funding) and co-ordinated at the regional scale. In addition to individually sourced large project funding administered by the Development Centre/Agency, the local tourist tax provides a steady income which enables flexibility in spending to promote further improvements to the areas tourism offer.
At the national level the Slovenian government has made the strategic decision not to opt for mass tourism, instead preferring to opt for a lower volume, higher quality, higher value tourism offer. This is reflected in the activities of many of the providers and agencies that we visited whilst in Slovenia, from agencies implementing projects at the regional scale through to farm tourism providers.
This study trip has allowed me to observe the many benefits to be derived from key agencies playing a proactive facilitating role in promoting sustainable economic development. These agencies have acted as a gateway to access EU funding which has been essential to get significant projects off the ground.
In Scotland there is some reluctance within the tourism sector to the concept of a ‘tourist tax’. However, the Slovenia model shows that once a tax has been implemented it becomes accepted as the norm, and provides a steady revenue stream which can be directed towards environmental projects and improvement of visitor infrastructure. Voluntary visitor giving schemes are currently being implemented in Scotland in areas such as Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, and this model could be further expanded to other areas with a distinct natural and cultural that can be marketed and branded appropriately. The Slovenian approach to high quality, low volume tourism also has many parallels to what we have to offer in rural Scotland. In Scotland we have similarly rich natural and cultural heritage, and while the Tourism Scotland 2020 Strategy has set us on the right path, our efforts could be further expanded to improve our tourism offer.
The efforts of, and the ongoing need for, the Škocjan Caves Park Public Service Agency to raise awareness of their activities, can also be related to nature conservation in Scotland. Whilst voluntary sector organisations have traditionally been good at making the public aware of their activities in Scotland, the public sector has been less effective. This is changing within SNH already, but further effort is needed to communicate what we do to the public and to celebrate our successes.
The study trip has provided me with an excellent opportunity to learn about the amazing country that is Slovenia, and to enable me to reflect on how we work in Scotland. The warmth of welcome and hospitality from our hosts was wonderful. Our countries have many differences, but there are some striking similarities in the challenges and opportunities for nature conservation.
John McGregor, SRUC Oatridge
As we were driven from Trieste airport in Italy and over the border into Slovenia it seemed that trees stretched from valley floor to the summits of most hills / mountains, quite unlike anything I had ever seen in Scotland.
Slovenian demographics in comparison to Scotland’s
Slovenia has a population of approximately 2.1 Million people, comprising approximately 51% females and 49% males with a life expectancy of 81 & 73 respectively. 15% of the population is under 16 with 18% over 66. Slovenia has a land mass of approximately 20,151Km 2 and for every km 2 of arable land there are approximately 1186 people. When this is compared to the demographics of Scotland there are some striking similarities as well as differences for example the population of Scotland is approximately 5.3 million comprising 51% female and 49% male 17% of Scotland’s population is under 15 and 18% is over 65. Scotlands land mass is approximately 78,772Km2 with a population of around 1047 per Km2 of arable land. Birth and death rates for each country are the same with Slovenia surprisingly having lower infant mortality and fertility rates when compared to Scotland.
Tree cover comparison and Forest ownership in Slovenia
More than 58% of Slovenia’s land is under tree cover with approximately 70% of this, in private ownership due to denationalisation, leaving some 30% still state owned (Government of the Republic of Slovenia). However according to forester, Mirjam Mikulic of the Slovenian Forest Service (SFS) it has taken more than 100 years for Slovenia to get to this point and suggests that if there is the will in Scotland then we should make concerted efforts now to create similar forests that will allow future generation to reap the rewards. In Scotland there seems to be a disconnect between the people and the forests when compared to Slovenians and their connection with forests. This may be as a result of the private ownership of forests in Slovenia where it appeared that every land owner/subsistence farmer had areas of woodland which they used to gather wood for fuel, as a material for building and for gathering wild foods such as fungi, berries from the mulberry bush, wild garlic, etc.
In Scotland our forests comprise mainly of monoculture Sitka spruce plantations, planted primarily for commercial timber production and which offer very little in terms of biodiversity value when compared to native broadleaved forests, although small steps have been taken by the Forestry Commission (Scotland) to plant native broadleaved trees around the peripheral edges of forest plantations. This is being done to help improve levels of biodiversity, also in an attempt to hide the ugly uniform blocks of plantation trees and the scars left behind after clear felling.
In 1900 only 5% of Scotland was covered by forest and over the following 100 year period this was increased by a mere 12% to 17% tree cover (SNH). One of the reasons for this slow progress was most likely due to the amount of timber needed to help meet the UK’s timber requirements during both the world wars. Today, the vision of the Scottish Forestry Strategy is that, by the second half of the 21st century, woodlands will have expanded to around 25% of Scotland’s land area, with 4500 ha of native woodland being planted or restored each year. It is anticipated that this could provide an array of benefits from increasing levels of biodiversity, flood prevention measures and helping to slow down the rate of climate change. However the latter may depend on where these new forested areas are created. During the 60’s and 70’s when land owners were off loading peat bogs/moorland areas which at the time were seen as areas with little value either financially or biologically and were purchased in some cases by wealthy celebrities. At the same time attractive funding packages were available for the creation of woodlands, this resulted in many of these peat bogs / moorland areas being planted with non native trees which eventually led to the degradation of the areas, Peat bogs are now recognised as an essential tool for storing carbon and a report by James Fenton (2010) highlights this fact.
The forests of Slovenia thrive due to natural regeneration where the need for tree planting simply does not exist. Slovenia does produce timber on a commercial scale, however, clear felling which leaves ugly scars on the landscape is not normally practiced. Instead a selective approach to tree felling is used helping to create forests diverse not only biologically but in structure and age.
The Krokar Virgin Forest in Kocevje region of southern Slovenia, (north 45° 32′ 29″, east 14° 46′ 9″) was recently inscribed on the World Heritage list due to its “Primeval Beech Forests” according to Mirjam Shehas managed and promoted the virgin forest for a number of years. Tree cover in this area currently stands at around 65% and is dominated by Beech (Fagus sylvatica) and Silver fir (Abies alba). In this area trees with a girth exceeding 90 cm are not normally felled.
The forest here is diverse in both flora and fauna and is home to European brown bear (Ursus arctos), Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx), wolf (Canis lupus), pine martin (Martes martes), wild boar (Sus scrofa) and as one walks through the forest the air is thick with the smells of wild garlic (Allium ursinum) while in other parts the ground is carpeted with wild strawberries (Fragaria vesca).
Some similarities between forestry in Slovenia and Scotland can be found mainly regarding the impacts that large populations of herbivores and impacts of climate change can have on our natural heritage. The forests of Slovenia would appear to be under threat from pollution, climate change, large populations of red and roe deer and more recently (2003 – present) an infestation of bark beetle which has resulted in over 0.5 million trees (600,000m3 of timber) being felled since 2003/4 and the problem is still ongoing.
In 2010/11 a huge ice storm which swept through the area caused many trees to fall over as a result of the weight of the ice accumulating on them. This has resulted in an open canopy in some areas of the forest and has allowed in more ground covering species and young saplings (the next generation of trees) to take hold. However, the large populations of Red and Roe deer are taking their toll on natural regeneration as they browse and damage the young trees while attempting to remove the velvet from their antlers. Pollution in the form of acid rain has taken its toll on Slovenia’s fir trees with a 25% increase in die back as a result of pollution since the Slovenian Forestry Institute started to gather data 20 years ago.
While visiting the numerous sites around Cerknic, Bloke plateau, Kocevska Reka ,Ribnica, Kocevje, Planina fields,etc it became apparent just how biologically diverse, not only were the fields but, even the grass verges by the road side were. While walking through one field at the end of our walk through the Virgin forest we were met by a cacophony of noise from the insects found there (grasshoppers, Cicadas, bees, etc) and ones eyes were drawn to the range of colours on display from both the wild flowers in bloom and the butterflies and day flying moths present. This is only achieved through the strict cutting regimes that the land owners have in place for gathering hay as an animal feed / bedding. During the entire trip to Slovenia I never saw a modern large heavy tractor in a field, most looked ancient and fairly small thereby reducing the effects of compaction of the soils and in some cases hand tools were still in use for the cutting of hay. It also appeared that most of the land was farmed in an environmentally sustainable way, where there was little need for the use of herbicides or pesticides. During my time there I did not witness huge mono crop fields. The norm seemed to be strips of crops not exceeding approximately 10 meters wide followed by a buffer zone of approximately 2 meters.
These buffer zones were similar in terms of biodiversity to the meadows that we visited therefore one can assume that they contained high numbers of insectivores which preyed upon any pest species thereby reducing the need to use pesticides. Like their Scottish counterparts Slovenian farmers also benefit from grant payments for employing environmentally friendly farming techniques according to the owners of Mlakar ecofarm, in Visevek. The owners of this ecofarm have also diversified to rear Aberdeen Angus &, Wagyu cattle for the production of Kobi beef, both of these breeds of cattle command a premium price in Slovenia. The owners have desires to tap into the tourist market with the provision of accommodation to be added in the future and the restoration of the 300 year old flour mill which it is hoped will help to draw in tourists.
Slovenia has much to offer in terms of tourism with stunning views, both natural and cultural heritage a growing activities / adrenalin tourism market, numerous events and entrepreneurs looking to exploit whatever market they can. While it is understandable that the Slovenian people and Government wish to create jobs and increase levels of employment etc, I would hate to return to Slovenia in 5 -10 years’ time to find that Slovenia had gone down the same route as countries such as Spain and develop their country to the point that it was unrecognisable and unsustainable. Throughout the trip the emphasis in relation to the tourism industry, farm diversification etc was on quality rather than quantity. However, when consideration is given to the fact that the mass tourism industry grew out of a few intrepid explorers / back packers returning from their journeys to tell friends about what they had experienced, is the same likely to happen when word gets out regarding the hidden gem which is Slovenia?
Fenton, James. (2010), THE IMPORTANCE OF SCOTTISH BLANKET PEAT IN CARBON STORAGE: Visual comparison of peat stored in blanket peat and commercial forests. (Publisher and place of publication unknown) Available as a download from www.james-hc-fenton.eu accessed on 17/07/17
http://www.vlada.si/en/about_slovenia/geography/forests_in_slovenia/ (accessed 14/07/17)