2012 East Slovakia ARCHNetwork Nature Exchange – joint report

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Funding organisation: Leonardo de Vinci organisation
Promoting organisation: ARCH, Scotland
Host organisation: Krajina, Slovakia

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Itinerary

Main themes from week

1) Large extent and naturalness of woodland cover – Slovakia has 40% woodland cover nationally with a higher proportion in the areas we visited. Some of the woodland in National Parks is left entirely to natural processes, but even the commercially managed woodlands are semi-natural and rich in biodiversity with management based on long rotation and natural regeneration of native species (beech, spruce) for construction quality timber;

2) High importance and impact of hunting – The high commercial value of hunting and the wide participation of the rural population support the maintenance of large semi-natural woodlands as habitat for trophy species (wolves, bears, wild boar and deer). Hunting is unpalatable to many conservationists but the benefit for habitat conservation may well outweigh the impact of losses due to hunting itself as demonstrated by the high and apparently stable populations of wolf, lynx and bear. The combination of hunting and large predator populations also helps to control deer populations at a level where foresters can rely on natural regeneration to restock forests;

3) The richness and diversity of Eastern Slovakia’s wildlife – Slovakia contains two EU biogeographical zones – Alpine and Pannonian. We were struck by the extent of semi-natural forests and grasslands and the diversity of landscapes from the Carpathian beech forests of Poloniny to the coniferous forests of the High Tatras and the karst plateaux of Slovensky Kras. These areas support a large number of endemic species with a striking abundance of wildflowers and insects.

4) Funding shortages – Slovakia’s economy is faring better than many in the Euro-zone but budgets are still very tight. Access to EU funds such as LIFE is difficult because of the requirement for match-funding from national sources and because of the difficulty in managing cash flow for retrospective claims – will this become an issue in Scotland as domestic funds become tighter?;

5) Low Impact of Biosphere Reserves – Biosphere Reserve status appears to be adding little value to the management of National Parks because of the strength of Slovakia’s national nature conservation legislation and because the National Parks already operate a zoning policy – will this be true for areas considering biosphere reserve status in Scotland?;

6) Strong National Park legislation – zoning and access policies in National Parks are much stricter than in the UK with some areas left to natural processes and access restricted. These policies are (apparently) widely accepted though the recent trend to return state land to private owners or communities is leading to challenges to this policy with risks for nature conservation interests – would it be possible to enforce such restrictions in Scotland, even if there was a strong nature conservation benefit identified?;

7) Improving collaboration – Sustainable development and nature conservation initiatives suffer from low levels of collaboration between specialists & bureaucrats, across National Parks and across NGOs. Improved collaboration would be beneficial, especially as a response to restricted resources – how would we improve collaboration across similar groups in Scotland?;

8) Rural depopulation – The populations of remote villages are decreasing with a decrease in traditional farming leading to a reduction in the extent of semi-natural habitats, especially grassland. In nature conservation terms, support for marginal and pastoral farming may have to be focussed on the highest priority areas as it will be impossible to maintain the existing extent – do these same issues apply in Scotland to our use of agri-environment and rural development funds?;

9) More relaxed approach to Health & Safety – attitudes are refreshingly different with a higher degree of risk and individual responsibility expected, as demonstrated by the design of path and via ferrata construction at Slovensky Raj where the entrance fee provides insurance cover for rescue services – could we change the culture in Scotland to allow the provision of more interesting and challenging access opportunities?;

10) Volunteers – at most of the sites we visited there were small groups of volunteers involved in habitat and species management either to carry out work for landowners that aren’t being supported by land management incentives (scrub clearance at Pieniny NP) or to replace lost traditional practices (alpine meadow cutting at Poloniny NP) – can we in Scotland secure the long term commitment required for volunteering to replace traditional land managers?;

11) Translation service for interpretation – there were many instances of incorrect or stilted English in signs and publications. It should be possible for Slovakian organisations to get quick and free checks of English text from contacts in Britain – is this a service that could be provided more widely for European organisations by Scottish contacts?

New developments from previous ARCHnetwork visits

12) Impact of Natura 2000 – there was a consistent message that Natura 2000 has not helped conservation and that in some cases (e.g. Pieniny) designation was so unpopular with private owners that it destabilised existing protection through National Parks. There was some evidence of LIFE funding, in particular for leaflets and interpretation, but little evidence that Natura 2000 had led to increased investment in the sustainable development of sites or appropriate land management;

13) Dark Sky park – The Poloniny National Park was awarded Dark Sky park status in late 2011 and there is now the opportunity (and challenge) to find funds to promote the area to astronomers and provide facilities for their visits. For example, there is still no tourist accommodation east of Stakcin;

14) Regeneration of the High Tatras forests – There is increasing evidence of successful natural regeneration of woodland in the huge 2004 storm-damaged areas of the High Tatras. The current debate in post-storm management is to determine how much of the regenerating forest area should be left to natural processes – the forestry service recommends 30% whereas other nature conservation bodies recommend 50%;

14) Impact of the Euro-zone recession – the recession across Europe is affecting visitor numbers in tourist areas such as the High Tatras (down to 2 million from 6 million) and creating a general atmosphere where nature conservation is becoming a lower priority relative to economic development (e.g. development of new ski runs in the High Tatras).

Participants:

Hayley Anne Douglas
Mick Drury
Paul Barclay
Karen Morley
Sarah Cooper
Ross Johnston
Shelagh MacMillan

Appendix 1 Daily notes

Day 1 – Krakow – Stakcin

• Drive over hills to Stara Lubovna and gulasch soup,
• Strip agriculture with strips radiating out from villages and on hill sides,
• Svidnik and Valley of Death, with tanks in fields,30,000 Russian, German and Czech/Slovak troops died in 3 days,
• Iris siberica meadow, national nature reserve but not promoted despite great aesthetic appeal
• Wildlife highlights– Lesser spotted eagle near Polish border, beech marten carcasses on Polish roads

Day 2 – Stakcin – Poloniny National Park

• This National Park forms part of the East Carpathians Biosphere Reserve but no additional money or administration = no added value to sustainable economic development.
• The East Carpathians was the first trilateral Biosphere Reserve and is in Poland and the Ukraine as well as Slovakia.
• Forest managed traditionally for timber and hunting, good for preservation but long term conservation threatened by rural depopulation and ageing farmers so that alpine meadows now need to be maintained by volunteer “Friends of Carpathian Mountains”.
• Timber management practised in group felling strips, but not in zone 5 non-intervention zone.
• V. low visitor numbers (5 – 10k) and historically low awareness as kept as secretive prime hunting area for communist elite. This is the least inhabited national park in central Europe
• Dark sky park newly announced but v little money to promote it – try low cost internet options?
• They are currently trying to extend the designation through into Poland and Ukraine.
• Polish side has more vibrant ecotourism with tourist trains, higher visitor numbers and B&Bs – when Slovaks visited Poland showed enthusiasm for b&b business but didn’t follow up.
• Natura 2000 has not added value either – domestic legislation was just as strong and v. little financial reward – lack of ambition or skills or national support for funding bids.

• Starina reservoir flooded in early 80s under communist regime. Displaced 2.5k people from 7 villages in catchment. Idyllic resource but no fishing or boating allowed.
• Could promote their iconic or unusual wildlife more – salamanders and blue slugs to visitors. 5 Bison introduced into area in 2004, range freely, now up to 12 animals. Archie the male bison went wandering over 100km from the rest of the bison and had to be brought back. The animals all came from zoos and are collared. Their movements are checked daily
• Honey bought from bear proof hives
• Wildlife highlights– Carpathian blue slug, black stork, red-breasted flycatcher, yellow-bellied toad, salamander, red-backed shrike

Day 3 – Stakcin – Pieniny – Tatrnska Lominica

• Pieniny started early on in 1932, through various changes now a joint national park with Poland but run separately, with liaison meetings every three years.
• 500,000 visitors a year to rafting but very few/unknown to rest of national park.
• Run on a shoestring. Little promotion, director’s son prepared the website. No EU funding for Park Authority, partly because they cannot manage match funding or cash flow given payment in arrears.
• No current Management Plan for the park due to frequent government policy changes (last plan ran from 1997-2007).
• Director in post for about 30 years which was unusual as staff often changed in NPs when new government parties were in power.
• N2K caused a lot of controversy and threatened the future of the national park.
• Apollo butterfly is symbol of national park – habitat not maintained by grazing but by volunteer group. Rangers supplemented by volunteer wardens.
• Breeding project for Apolo butterfly set up with colleagues in Poland.
• Private owners could apply for EU agri-environment money but ineligible because all small scale strip agriculture. Instead constituted themselves as a group to apply successfully for funds but no EU money for park authority itself.
• Little co-operation with other Slovak national parks – more of a rivalry for funds with High Tatras seen as big beast. Socio-economic development not seen as park’s responsibility.
• River Dujanec modified to allow rafting to take place safely. Locals try to make money by giving tourists horse and cart journeys back to the car park from the river. Environmentally friendly activity as rafting does not use an engine, but success reliant on dry weather due to open-air nature of craft.
• Rafts run by four companies, May to October. Our raft staffed by law graduate looking for longer term job.
• Different naming of zones? I have ABC here but 123… in other national parks? Translation?
• Restrictions in Zone A (5) through Forest Management regulations rather than National Park Status
• Number of rangers reduced from 4 to 3
• Have a ‘Friends of the National park’ scheme a bit like voluntary warden/ranger some of these the ‘Guards’ can issue fines, (Guards 13 out of 30 volunteers)

Day 4 – Lominicki Stit – Slovensky Raj

• New cable car, ski lift routes and new ski runs from village up to high peak. Some cut through wind damaged areas. Appropriate for national park? N2K issues? Visual impact off cutting ski run into mountainside is adverse when snow is not covering the ground.
• Cable car very expensive especially for Slovaks (39 Euros),whole area relatively expensive and reliant on foreign tourists (Poles, Czechs, Germans mostly)
• Slightly garish nature interpretation at midway point. Good system of paths and bothies (Chatas)
• Lomincki Stit itself has high profile on alpine plants as well as views.
• Good network of paths, rough going and indicative times are for the fit and fast
• Tatranska Lominica is pleasant resort, lots of school parties using hotels out of season.
• Slovensky Raj a 30 minute drive across more intensive agricultural area with empty speculative developments near Tatranska L. and saxon romanesque churches in area of Spit.
• Low key entrance with bars and accommodation and good network of paths maintained by entrance fees and local businesses.
• Entrance fee also includes insurance to cover cost of mountain rescue/helicopter call out should you be injured on slightly risky walkways, via ferrata and ladders. One way system and stop notices to reduce risk.
• Bilingual panels provided – English not perfect and could be improved at no cost by sending text to English contacts. No leaflet available at small kiosk
• Beautiful gorge walks leading to monastery on plateau which is maintained by small NGO – no evidence of government funding.
• Would a similar approach work in H&S/liability paranoid UK environment? Exhilarating walk denied? Mainly school/youth groups encountered on walk, perhaps unsurprising with the style of access. Route would be more hazardous in or after wet weather.
• Natural woodland left alone so lots of dead wood in evidence but little bird life evident. Red squirrel with black coat seen drinking from the river, black red squirrels are apparently quite common in Slovakia.

Day 5 – Konska foothills of Western Tatras

• Liptovsky Hratok to meet Robin Rigg, speeding fine for Miro,
• Robin Rigg in Slovak Wildlife Society (SWS), been in Slovakia since 2001;
• Content with current state of bear conservation in Slovakia with 100s (about 800) and possible increase at present despite resumption of hunting and emergence of new conflicts in areas where food is left out for bears leading to claims that there are too many bears and issues with bears becoming less wary of humans;
• SWS is trailing an electric fence scheme around bee hives where bears are causing problems. Bee keepers can try the fence for 2 months and if effective they can buy the fence for half price or rent it from SWS.
• Hunting regulated with 1 or 2 bears permitted in each hunting area though prestige trophy of bear can go to dignitary or highest bidder. Hunting can be baited but not with meat for bears, must use fruit, vegetables or carbohydrates. Can only kill animals below 100kg (12 cm paw) to reverse impact of previous focus on trophy hunting of largest males. Many observation towers were noticed at woodland edge facing onto grassland areas. Using these towers seems to be the main method of hunting rather than hunting parties on foot.
• During May & June bears mostly eat grass so good place to see them are meadows in foothills, explored an area of this near Western tatras where bears had been seen the day before. Found lots of droppings, including very fresh droppings and paw prints. No smell;
• Later on bears head for shrub areas with berries and 2004 storm areas are now very good bear habitat
• Several companies lead bear watching trips in Slovakia but without using bait so no guaranteed views, must go early morning or late evening to have best chance;
• Small NGO hasn’t received much funding, perverse bias of funding towards smaller populations at edge of range in Czech republic and Germany; though collaboration internationally is generally good,
• Lack of funding for national parks so that Low Tatra NP rangers are stuck in office because they can’t afford petrol for their cars.
• N2K hasn’t had much of an impact for species protection though quota introduced for wolves – set high but population seems to be sustaining self. Robin reckons there was a lot of illegal hunting taking place previously but now people are reporting the wolves shot. Current quota is 180. Hunters see this as the target to reach so go all out to make sure that number are shot
• 300-400 lynx in Slovakia and no hunting policy in place since 2000. (European requirement not to shot) There is some call to relax this policy but it is not loud enough yet.
• Habitat threats in High Tatras due to tourism and problems generally through high levels of corruption in development decisions and in accessing funds;
• Shop owner had been living in Chelmsford for 6 years, now back to get married
• If hunters want to hunt they have to provide food for the animals in the winter time
• Current estimates by hunting areas(~1800 hunting areas) suggest that there are 2000 bears in Slovakia but it isn’t taken into account that the same bears may be seen in a number of hunting areas. Robin reckons no more than 1000
• Robin also showed annoyance that Czech Republic gets funding to conserve their bears(pop est of 5-6) which is just a small fragment of the Slovak population entering Czech Republic but its harder to get funding in Slovakia
• Recently ~7 bears across Slovakia have been fitted with radio collars
• Plans to do this with Wolves and Lynx
• Wildcat populations in Slovakia are the same as in Scotland with ~400 individuals. After discussing the stuffie wildcat at Polaniny Robin agrees that Wildcats are approxamitly twice the size of our subspecies of Felis sylvestris. He had seen them and had been shocked by their size. Found a Southern Birch mouse which ran over Robin’s shoe
• Wildlife Highlights– Quail, Midwife toads

Day 6- Gombincki Cave and Slovensky Kras (Zadiel Gorge)

• Low key cave attraction (forms part of the Aggtelek Karst and Slovak Karst World Heritage Site), up to 300 visitors a day. Interesting straw stalactites up to 2m, remote control palm top interpretation in up to 5 languages, well-behaved children, 7 euros to take photos Si site for Horseshoe bats
• Laszlo Gordon’s garden with endemics in his rock garden. Self employed karst specialist, very sceptical about national parks and all forms of bureaucracy, refuses to give out data as previous experience was that he would not be paid and that the data would be misused – but he can’t save karst himself?
• Lovely walk up canyon, lots of interest pointed out by Laszlo showing diversity within canyon from arctic species at bottom of gorge to xerophytic limestone plants at top.
• 5-10,000 visitors a year, visitor pressure not a problem except for trampling in limestone areas.
• Bigger issue is loss of open grassland/pavement habitat through undergrazing and afforestation – smaller areas still very rich. Some grazing in place but not enough, absence of fences means that shepherding is required, how can this be maintained. Funds not available due to corruption and/or inability to match fund EU funds. Laszlo has volunteered but felt exploited by NP staff and doesn’t respect them as ecologists. How to get both parties together to provide resources and expertise required for conservation?
• Natura hasn’t helped yet. LIFE money obtained for imperial eagle project but it is now extinct in Slovakia as is Saker falcon. Inevitable fluctuations because of edge of range? Didn’t accept this though detailed debate difficult because of translation. Some collaboration with Hungary (he is Hungarian Slovak).
• Lack of young people coming through as naturalists.
• Scary walk along cliff edge to look at local specialities. Probably would have been fenced if in UK but this would have spoiled aesthetics. Unfortunately large quarry and industrial works seen from top of gorge which ruined the view slightly.
• Loss of young people from villages and pastoralism that is necessary for habitat
• Wildlife Highlights– abundance of fire salamanders, false Apollo butterfly

Day 7 – High Tatras NP and forestry after 2004 storm

• Two bodies run the national park, one is State Forestry c.170 employees in Park and the other is Ministry of Environment with fewer employees. Peter commented on needless overlap and complication caused by this arrangement, especially given general lack of resources within Slovakia;
• NP forms Tatra Biosphere Reverse which stretches into Poland.
• Peter’s role is part of permanent research team of four and focuses on physical environment and conditions for forestry. They publish work and look to influence management largely through longer term studies of forest processes, recently focussed on aftermath of 2004 storm which cleared 20% of the forest in the NP in one hour. The exceptionally high winds affected a band of forest 2km in width and 15km in length all along same altitude of southern slopes of High Tatras. Upper slopes unaffected;
• Huge volume of wood had to be shifted on to market- wood sold to Poland, policy of leaving 30% of deadwood volume on site but wood value has increased and even partly rotted woods are not being collected and sold;
• More of forestry being carried out by private contractors and on private land acquired from state by local communities. Focus on these is commercial within context of national parks generally environmentally sound approach. Quality of management is poorer – parallels with public-private forestry debate in UK;
• The area support a higher percentage of coniferouse species and numbers than elsewhere in the country and this is indicative of the area as well as forestry management. Sate forestry services exprementy careful about genetic stock and proviance, sometimes leading to different provenance with a few hungred meters. However increasingly private forestry owners just plan the cheapest stock available with no reference to local provinance
• Traditional management seeks to preserve varied forest structure rather than monocultural stands and Peter would argue that the so-called “intervention” by foresters to prevent further spruce bark beetle damage is better for natural balance of forest overall. In some cases horses are still used to extract timber; Spruce Bark beetle particularly bad after the storm because of a spell of Dry warm weather
• Health spa business built by local doctor who worked at Davos and wanted to transfer model to Tatras because of similar climate. NP used to have 6 million visitors a year from surrounding areas of E Europe, especially E Germany. Policies of visitor management (no deviation from paths, whole parts of NP ruled out of access) developed in response to this heavy pressure but visits now down to 2 million and haven’t yet adapted. Access further complicated by reluctance of private owners and hunting groups to tolerate disturbance so plans for big network of mountain bike routes have been scuppered;
• Access (trails) closed during the winter months for safety reasons on the Polish side trails are open all years and its is thought this is having an impact on wildlife (disturbance?)
• Used to be most affected area in Europe for acid rain but problem has declined in recent years with pH of rain increasing;
• Local path built by British Ambassador and others following local visit by Queen who has a link with the area. Path was built before the queen visited. Wooden logs which are beginning to rot
• Further tourist development still being proposed but current occupancy is only 35% even in high season. Not sustainable and Peter’s view is that some businesses will have to close and that the quality of product will have to improve. Most visitors are just there for the day so do not generally use hotels or restaurants; There is a buffer zone around the national park but the NP have no power to limit development in this area, so has very little effect.
• Skiing development appeared to be targeted at Russian market but low altitude, dependent on snow cannons and power expensive and water in short supply. May not have much of a future. N2K impact on development not apparent;
• Mountain trails closed for visitors during winter to reduce disturbance on fauna, but Polish side is open year round and there is pressure for Slovakian side to do the same.
• Bears common in the village and schoolchildren need to be accompanied on morning run
• Museum has 30,000 visitors a year, mostly used to promote local natural and cultural history to school groups using cabinets and dioramas. Light and airy building had modern feel;
• Film presented was quite old-fashioned but became clear that Miro had chosen this older version for us rather than a more modern film that was available. Had discussion with Miro about interpretation and wasted expenditure in Britain
• Have a online webcam on a stork nest. The species changes every year and attrachs approx 7000 online viewers per year
• The National Park follows the zoning system as seen elsewhere in Slovakia and other neighbouring countries. The Zoning system was first developed 30 years ago and was also implemented on the Polish side, here its has works better because it has not been changed over the years as it has on the Slovak side where legislation and political ideas have changed the nature and form of the zoning every few years.
• NP/Forestry services are undertaking a research programme to investigate the carbon impacts of the forestry and events such as the storm damage. So far it appears that carbon sequestration is greeted in standing growing forest, lowest in Standing dead forest, particularly high in actively growing forest so they are now looking to create openings in the mature forest to increase photosynthesis. They are looking for other European research partners to work with them and to share data.
• Wildlife Highlight– corncrake in woodland clearfell areas, unusual habitat?

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