May 28th – June 4th 2011
© Tracey Begg
On Saturday 28th May, ‘Team Tatry’ convened at Edinburgh airport: we were Tracey Begg (SNH Area Officer for South Uist), Nic Coombey (Southern Uplands Partnership – Building Opportunities in the Biosphere), Robin Fuller (Forestry Commission – Community Ranger) and Viv Halcrow (freelance ecologist & Ullapool Community Trust). We were sad to hear that Nancy Fraser was unable to join us due to travel delays on her trip from London to Edinburgh.
We were met in Krakow airport (Poland) by our guide for the trip, Miroslav Knezo, Director of Krajina. Miro drove us to the High Tatras area in Slovakia, where we stayed for five nights with a splendid view of the mountains. On Thursday we moved further east to Stakcin for the last two nights of our visit.
Our itinerary was as follows:
Sunday 29th: Slovensky Raj National Park (Slovak Paradise)
Monday 30th: Low Tatras National Park – bear tracking
Tuesday 31st: High Tatras National Park – windstorm area
Wednesday 1st: Slovensky Kras National Park – limestone area
Thursday 2nd: Pieniny National Park
Friday 3rd: Poloniny National Park
Saturday 4th: Hostovické lúky (Iris meadow) & return to Krakow.
The objective of the Nature Exchange visit to eastern Slovakia was to provide opportunities for those who are involved in training in Scotland to exchange experience and best practice of nature conservation through the framework of the ‘Leonardo da Vinci’ programme of the European Commission. The Nature Exchange visit was organised and co-ordinated by Archnetwork and delivered in Slovakia by Krajina, a small private company which works in eco-tourism, Community Development and Cultural Management.
Overview of visits
SlovenskyRajNational Park (Slovak Paradise): Miro guided us up Sucha Bela, the gully of a small river within mixed forest on limestone hills, where access is enabled by horizontal wooden walkways and steep metal ladders over big drops with only a chain to hold onto.
LowTatrasNational Park: Robin Rigg of the Slovakian Wildlife Society led us through native Norway spruce forest and meadows, and described the situation regarding the Big 3 of Slovakia – bear, wolf and lynx, and their interactions with people.
Robin Rigg collecting bear scat for analysis.
© Robin Fuller
HighTatrasNational Park: Peter Fleischer of the Slovakian Forestry Research Service showed us a film about the High Tatras, and explained some issues by reference to museum exhibits, before guiding us through an area where a severe windstorm had decimated Norway spruce in 2004. We also visited an area where spruce bark beetle has led to the death of many trees.
Peter Fleischer at one of the meteorological stations in the High Tatras National Park. © Robin Fuller
SlovenskyKrasNational Park: Lazlo Gordon, an independent ecologist, guided us through limestone meadows to Silicka L’adnica, a unique open cave at the base of a crag where icicles are present in June, in contrast with high temperatures above. We walked through Zadiel limestone canyon, up through native beech forest and back through sheep-grazed wood pasture with hornbeam and juniper.
The collapsed cave at Silicka L’adnica with the huge icicle visible at the bottom. © Robin Fuller
PieninyNational Park: Stefan Danko, Director of the National Park, described features of the park and we discussed European legislation and other issues. This was followed by a two-hour boat trip down River Dunajec, on the Slovakian/Polish border, to see the limestone landscape and mixed forest. We then drove east to Stakcin, to stay for two nights.
PoloninyNational Park: Miro guided us through the primeval beech forest up to Kremenec, 1221m, which is the meeting point of Slovakia with Poland and Ukraine. We met a forest ranger who discussed various issues with us.
Hostovické lúky: We spent some time in this five hectare nature reserve, dominated by Iris and other meadow plants. After a visit to Miro’s house to enjoy cake and coffee and admire his garden, we returned to Krakow for our evening flight back to Edinburgh.
Biodiversity in Eastern Slovakia
By Viv Halcrow
There are different forest types within Slovakia depending on the soils and altitude. On the granite of the High Tatras there is Norway spruce Picea abies forest up to a natural tree-line at around 1500m. Above this is dwarf mountain pine Pinus mugo, up to around 1800m. Above this are alpine meadows, giving way to bare rock higher up. Blaeberry Vaccinium myrtillus dominates below Norway spruce, with purple coltsfoot Homogyne alpina (which occurs in Scotland in a single location), Hungarian snowbell Soldanella hungarica and May lily Maianthemum bifoilum.
Lower altitude hills support a mixed forest of Norway spruce and beech Fagus sylvatica, with other tree species including hornbeam Carpinus betulus frequent on limestone. Mixed forest has a rich ground flora with many plants unfamiliar to Scottish botanists – but including herb Paris Paris quadrifolia, alternate-leaved golden saxifrage Chrysosplenium alternifolium, Solomon’s seal Polygonatum sp and whorled Solomon’s seal P verticillatum (rare in Scotland) . In the deep shade of coppiced hornbeam, lime Tilia cordata and hazel Corylus avellana were the saprophytic birds’ nest orchid Neottia nidus-avis, lesser butterfly orchid Platanthera bifolia and white helleborine Cephalanthera damasonium.
One of the many fallen dead trees in Stuzica.
© Robin Fuller
Stuzica, the primeval beech forest in the east of the country, is dominated by beech with silver fir Abies alba. Deadwood was frequent and fungi plentiful. Ground flora in the beech – fir forest was less obviously diverse, but includes many endemic species such as purple hellebore Helleborus purpurascens. A notable feature of the forests generally was prolific regeneration, with a well-developed age structure; grazing animals are kept in balance by predatory mammals and hunters, and there is not the legacy of sporting estates as in Scotland.
These differed in character; higher altitude ones having a true ‘alpine’ feel with tall herbaceous plants including great masterwort Astrantia major, globeflower Trollius europaeus and wood cranesbill Geranium sylvaticum.
Lazlo Gordon sharing his wealth of knowledge near Silicka L’adnica. © Robin Fuller
Lowland damp meadows supported bistort Polygonum bistorta and meadow buttercup Ranunculus acris, while the diversity of flowering plants in limestone meadows was huge: a colourful mix of blue meadow clary Salvia pratensis, pink sainfoin Onobrychis sp, violet spreading bellflower Campanula patula, pink sticky catchfly Lychnis viscaria, mauve field scabious Knautia arvensis, cerise tall pink Dianthus giganteiformis and many more. Grazing animals were controlled by fencing or shepherds, and haymaking was in full swing, with smaller areas cut by hand scythe and piled into tall stacks to dry before being stored loose in small hay barns.
Beetle on bistort. © Nic Coombey
Apparently not frequent in eastern Slovakia, the Hostovické lúky marsh nature reserve however was spectacular with five hectares of tall blue flowering Iris sibirica, and yellow rue Thalictrum lucidum, broad-leaved marsh orchid Dactylorhiza majalis and sedges Carex spp.
Viv amongst the irises at Hostovické lúky.
© Tracey Begg
These were unsurprisingly numerous and diverse. Mayflies, stoneflies and alderflies were seen close to streams, where freshwater shrimps occurred. Bright blue damselflies frequented Zadiel canyon, and dragonflies were seen over the surface of ponds. Grasshoppers and cicadas were plentiful in meadows, and a mole cricket was pointed out in Miro’s vegetable garden – the larvae are serious pests as they eat plant roots. Distinctive flask-shaped galls, presumably of gall-wasps, were noted on beech leaves. Hoverflies were numerous and could be heard in the canopy, but bumblebees were surprisingly scarce. Ant hills were seen in woodland pasture above Zadiel canyon. Many species of beetles were noted, including ladybirds, weevils, ground beetles, longhorns and leaf beetles. Bark beetles are a serious pest of forests. Several times we saw the large Carpathian endemic purple slug Bielzia coerulans – similar to our black Arion ater but a strong blue or purple colour.
Carpathiun blue slug
© Nic Coombey
Large snails Helix sp. were noted, and we were shown tiny endemic freshwater snails Sadleriana pannonica in Slovensky Kras. Happily, biting insects were not a problem, though horse-flies often buzzed around!
The most showy insects were butterflies in the meadows – many different species including small tortoiseshell, red admiral, orange tip, small heath, speckled wood, small blue, common blue, green-veined white, meadow brown, plus amongst many others white admiral, silver-studded blue and small or clouded Apollo (which is the subject of a specialised conservation programme in Pieniny).
Clouded Apollo Parnassius Mnemosyne. © Nic Coombey
Painted toad and fire-bellied toad frisked in puddles beside forest tracks, and a black-and-yellow fire salamander crossed our path in the limestone forest at Sucha Bela.
Fire salamander in Sucha Bella. © Robin Fuller
Common lizards Lacerta vivipara were frequent rustlers in dry vegetation. A large green lizard Lacerta viridis, with bright blue face, basked on a rock above Zadiel canyon.
Green lizard in Zadiel Canyon.
© Robin Fuller
In the shallows of the River Dunajek we noted a shoal of large silver fish with red fins, which may have been roach Rutilus rutilus or chub Leuciscus cephalus.
These were in full breeding season fervour, with singing starting in the dark at around 3am! Black redstart were frequent and vocal, as were chiffchaff, wood warbler, willow warbler, blackcap, and other familiar species such as blackbird, goldcrest, stonechat, tree pipit and cuckoo. Less familiar were garden warbler and pied flycatcher. Unsurprisingly, spotted woodpeckers were frequently heard and seen feeding young. We were delighted to have a good view of a black woodpecker in Sucha Bela, where a grey wagtail family flitted up the stream. Nuthatch and treecreepers were seen. An ural owl was seen at close range in dense woodland, buzzards and kestrel were frequent, lesser spotted eagles seen on a few occasions and marsh harriers once. Turtle dove was heard in Slovensky Kras, fieldfares were seen and magpies were frequent and noisy. Red-backed shrike perched on the top of bushes, and yellowhammers were in full song. Swallows and house martins zoomed over our heads and swifts screamed above the villages. White storks were often seen on nests in villages, and one at close quarters wading in the River Dunajec. We saw raven and hooded crow, and a corncrake was calling in the Iris beds – an interesting parallel with South Uist!
The Big 3 eluded us, though we did see fresh bear prints (the fore paw 12cm wide) and wolf scat. Red squirrel were observed twice, and a chamois was seen grazing on lush limestone vegetation in Sucha Bela.
We felt very lucky to see and hear such a wide range of famiiar and ‘new’ plant and animal species while visiting the National Parks – progress was slow with so many photograph opportunities – and it was great to have a very observant group with a range of background knowledge to help with species identification. Eastern Slovakia has a wealth of biodiversity to discover and enjoy, partly due to small-scale sympathetic management.
By Nic Coombey
My interest is in the Galloway and Southern Ayrshire Candidate Biosphere Reserve and during the exchange visit we visited three of the four Biosphere Reserves in Slovakia. The UNESCO MAB Programme is seen as a success in Slovakia despite difficulties in fulfilling the new criteria for the designation. Biosphere Reserves have evolved from a designation based on an international network of nature conservation areas with associated monitoring and research to a model for implementing sustainable development which tackles environmental, economic and social issues.
In Slovakia it is understood that to deliver such a wide ranging agenda it is necessary for the management structures to include a broad base of skills. Knowledge of nature conservation, economic and social issues, education and science must be combined with the ability to communicate and develop a bottom up approach which engages local people with sustainable development. Unfortunately the agencies involved in the governance of the existing Biosphere Reserves do not have the capacity to meet all these functions and the focus remains on conservation, monitoring and research of the natural heritage.
Tatry Biosphere Reserve
The Tatry (High Tatras) is a mountainous area on the northern border which has been a National Park in Slovakia since 1949. A National Park across the border in Poland was established in 1954. The Biosphere Reserve was approved by the UNESCO MAB Programme in 1993. The Biosphere Reserve concept was adopted by Poland and Slovakia because it offered an internationally recognised model which allowed a crossborder protected area to be developed and managed.
Peter Fleischer, a member of the Slovak MAB National Committee who is a forest researcher, revealed that while the designation had proved useful in securing funds when first designated its value was now being questioned. Although it had been a good tool to encourage research and monitoring as well as fostering a working relationship between Slovakia and Poland it was not clear how local communities would be involved with sustainable development. A history of heavy handed regulation, (for example people in the National Park in the past were not allowed to cultivate flowers or vegetables in their gardens) mean that there is a lack of trust between communities and agencies. Promotion of the National Park takes precedent over the international designation of the Biosphere Reserve (journals produced do not mention the Biosphere Reserve or the MAB logo). There are also complex zoning issues (the National Park zones do not match with Biosphere Reserve zones) and conflicting policies within agencies responsible for forestry and conservation. There are many issues to be resolved and plans and policies will need to be developed for the Biosphere Reserve to continue to be a success.
Slovak Karst Biosphere Reserve
Located on the southern border with Hungary the area became a protected landscape area in 1973, was designated as a Biosphere Reserve in 1977 and a National Park in 2002. The area is particularly noted for its different micro climates which has resulted in a rich biodiversity.
Unlike the logo for the Tatry National Park the logo for the Slovak Karst National Park includes the Biosphere Reserve text and interpretation often included the Man and Biosphere logo, (note the sticker added asking people not to be litter pigs).
Our guide, Lazlo Gordon a local botanist, recognised the Biosphere Reserve status to be an international accolade which confirmed the high value of the biodiversity found in the area. The Biosphere Reserve had encouraged research and monitoring and papers had been collated in a publication about the Biosphere Reserve.
A number of the geomorphological features in the Karst landscape have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It is these World Heritage Sites which appear on maps and are promoted by the Slovak Tourist Agency rather than Biosphere Reserves.
A tourist brochure in Polish
promoting UNESCO sites in Slovakia
East Carpathians Biosphere Reserve
Also known as the Poloniny National Park this Biosphere Reserve is located in the north east of Slovakia and borders with the Ukraine and Poland. The primeval beech forests have a history of nature protection long before it was designated as a protected landscape in 1977.
It was first recognised as a bilateral Biosphere Reserve with Poland in 1993 and became a National Park in 1997. It was redesignated as a trilateral Biosphere Reserve in 1998 when it was extended to include the Ukraine.
The logo for the national Park incorporates the Man and Biosphere logo and interpretation boards include information about the Biosphere Reserve designation as well as identifying the area as being added to the World Heritage list in 2007.
A National Park Ranger indicated that the UNESCO designations were confirmation of the nature conservation value of the place rather than a tool for promoting the National Park to visitors.
The area was awarded the status as a Dark Sky Park in 2010 because the area has a very low residential population and is the least visited National Park in Slovakia. Galloway Forest Park in the Galloway and Southern Ayrshire candidate Biosphere Reserve is also a Dark Sky Park.
Personal experience gained
By meeting people from different nature conservation backgrounds I have been able to exchange ideas and build a network of contacts who will inspire new and exciting projects involving the development of training and understanding of the Biosphere Reserve concept.
For me the most striking lesson of the visit was that the designation of Biosphere Reserve has a different meaning and use for every country and even region because each one will have its own characteristics which the Biosphere Reserve designation can strengthen and issues that it can help resolve.
We were introduced to a wide range of countryside management issues which the ongoing research and monitoring will help to address. It is also clear that the main focus of the Biosphere Reserves in Slovakia is nature conservation in the National Parks and they take precedent over the need to encourage sustainable development.
Admiring the view from the top of the East Carpathians. © Nic Coombey
The lack of sustainable development and community engagement initially suggests that the Slovak Biosphere Reserve model does not offer many opportunities for future co-operation. However, perhaps the difference in approach provides greater opportunity to contrast a Biosphere Reserve in Scotland with a Biosphere Reserve in Slovakia.
The East Carpathian Biosphere Reserve appears to have the most to offer with its recent designation as a Dark Sky Park and the desire to promote the area for tourism. The deciduous forest and mountain grasslands provide opportunities for comparison with the Southern Uplands and the reintroduction of extinct species is a topic which may offer opportunities for co-operation.
Biosphere Reserves Summary
Sustainable development embraces the need to use our resources wisely and because every place has different needs and issues it is inevitable that Biosphere Reserves in different countries and regions will have a varying response. The UNESCO MAB Programme has enabled nature conservation to succeed in Slovakia and reach across borders so encouraging transnational co-operation between conservationists, scientists and countryside managers. However, opportunities to encourage sustainable development of the built environment and business have not yet been fulfilled. From the limited experience of our brief stay there appears to be merit in exploring future cooperation to compare approaches to the development of Biosphere Reserves and the desire to improve sustainable development.
Protected Areas in Slovakia
By Tracey Begg
During our visit to Slovakia, we were fortunate to gain a comprehensive overview of protected areas and their management. We visited many of the key protected areas in Slovakia, including six National Parks, the focus of our visit, which comprise many of the best habitats and species that Slovakia has to offer.
One striking observation that can be made about the network of protected sites in Slovakia is the predominant importance of the National Parks. This stems from the long term protection in a national context that has been provided to these large (usually >1000 ha.) sites. These are identified as areas where ecosystems are largely unaffected by human activities and which represent the best of Slovakia’s natural heritage. Many of the National Parks have been established for some considerable time e.g. High Tatras National Park was established in 1949. In contrast, National Parks in Scotland were comparatively recently established, with the first, Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park in 2002.
National Parks are very much considered to be the pinnacle of protection of the natural heritage in Slovakia. Zonation within the parks ensures protection of some of the most sensitive areas from human disturbance and management. Four zones provide differential protection: the most protected zone is A where the 5th level of protection applies. In this zone, no land management or intervention is undertaken and access may be entirely restricted or limited strictly to marked paths. Other zones (B,C,D) may also have access and activities such as cycling, hiking and skiing restricted to designated areas within the parks. Some land management activities can occur, development is possible in Zone D. This is in stark contrast with the situation in Scotland where management can take place anywhere within the parks and the Scottish Outdoor Access Code allows members of the public to enjoy almost limitless responsible access, including within National Parks.
Natura 2000 Sites
While parallels can be drawn between the existence of Natura sites in the UK and in Slovakia, following Slovakia’s membership of to the EU in 2003, there is a clear dichotomy between the importance placed on Natura sites, compared with other designations to protect natural heritage in Scotland and Slovakia. This contrast can perhaps be explained in part by the firmly established sound protection provided through the network of National Parks in Slovakia. Many Natura sites including Special Protection Areas (SPAs) for birds and Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) (established and proposed) usually form smaller components of existing National Parks. SACs are termed Sites of Community Importance (SCI) in Slovakia and 381 of these sites have been designated so far. A total of 21 SPAs have been designated to date, with a further 17 proposed for designation.
The relevance and effectiveness of this additional layer of Natura protection provided by these EU designations does not appear to have the same repercussions for managing protected habitats and species as it does in Scotland. This is most likely explained by the relatively stringent protection already provided through the National Park network. However, conversations with National Park staff indicate there is a lack of understanding about what a Natura designation means outside the conservation community. This has resulted in some suspicion and opposition to Natura designations due to the impression by some members of the community or landowners that these designations mean they will have restricted use of or may even lose their land.
Brown bears in Slovakia – conservation and conflicts
By Tracey Begg
Slovakia has significant and important populations of three key European carnivore species: the European or Eurasian brown bear (Ursus arctos), wolf (Canis lupus) and lynx (Lynx lynx). Exploring the ecology and conservation of brown bears was a key part of our trip and is the focus of this component of the report.
Brown bear front paw print found on forestry track near Liptovsky Hradok. © Robin Fuller
We were fortunate to spend a day tracking bears and discussing their conservation and issues surrounding conflicts between bears and people with Robin Rigg from the Slovak Wildlife Society. Robin is Chair of the Slovak Wildlife Society and has developed and co-ordinated many projects to enhance research and understanding of the ecology of large carnivores in Slovakia. Projects include the Protection of Livestock and Conservation of Large Carnivores, The BEARS Project and the Slovakia Wolf Census Project.
The brown bear population in Slovakia is one of the largest in Europe. There are estimated to be 50,000 bears across Europe, with 600 – 800 bears in Slovakia. Most of these bears are found in north and central parts of the country. The bear population was, however not always this healthy.
Bears numbers declined significantly across Europe until the beginning of the 20th century. The reason for the decline was primarily due to hunting, either for sport or because they were viewed as pests, but also as a result of human population growth, deforestation and intensification of agriculture.
In Slovakia too, bears were almost eradicated. In the 1920’s only a few dozen were left. It was not until 1932 that protection was put in place in the form of a hunting ban. Subsequently, growth of the bear population has been correlated with an increase in reports of incidences of bears around settlements, livestock loss and agricultural damage (mainly to domestic bees) by bears.
Bears are considered to be an internationally rare and endangered species and are therefore included among those species strictly protected by EU legislation. It is also protected by the Bern convention, although Slovakia has a reservation to allow hunting of bears. Under Slovakian law, it is illegal to capture, injure or kill bears. Under Slovakia’s national hunting laws, bears are game species without an open season. Permission is required from the Ministry of Agriculture to hunt bears.
Stuffed brown bear in the High Tatras National Park museum.
© Robin Fuller
Regulation shooting of brown bears
Although there is a high level of protection afforded to the species, bears can be hunted under regulation. Exceptions are issued for hunting 60 to 80 bears annually (the estimated annual growth rate of the population of 10%). This is termed regulation shooting to maintain the population at an acceptable level. Hunting quotas are often not reached and hunters state that the conditions of the permission make it too difficult for them to fulfil the quota. The conditions are:
- Hunting between 1st June to 15th December only.
- Baiting with plant material only (carcasses would have been used traditionally, although approx 90% of a bear’s diet is plant-based).
- Limit take to individuals weighing up to 100 kg or with a front paw width of up to 12 cm and a hind paw length up to 21 cm (to allow for weight change during the year) can be hunted.
Spring hunting would be preferred by hunters but it not permitted as females with cubs could potentially be shot. Hunting smaller individuals is a condition for two reasons: this is an attempt to alter the age/sex structure of the population and reduce nuisance from young bears which are thought to be more likely to try and scavenge for food from people.
Protection shooting of brown bears – types of conflict
Bears can also be legally shot for the protection of people. Individual bears ranging near human settlements e.g. areas of the High Tatras National Park may seek out food or refuse in towns and villages. These ‘container bears’ can lose their natural wariness. This causes a higher risk of injury to people and may require these bears to be removed or shot.
The BEARS project does a significant amount of educational work to assist people to understand bear ecology and behaviour and gives advice about what action to take if you encounter a bear and how to manage container bears by using bear proof bins and manage refuse appropriately.
Like wolves, bears are attracted to sheep farms. Penned sheep are particularly vulnerable as they cannot escape. Livestock owners and managers are advised to keep stock away from forest edges to deter bears from attack, which they are less inclined to do so in open areas. Appropriate deterrents for attack of livestock for both bears and wolves are traditional Slovak sheep guarding dogs such as the Slovenský čuvač. Electric fences can also be used to effectively deter bears and wolves from attacking livestock.
Damage to beehives
Bees love honey and if they have successfully obtained honey from apiaries, they are likely to return frequently to access more. Bears can cause significant damage to beehives while trying to access honey and prevention is considered to be the best defence against these economic losses. Three defences are advised and promoted by The BEARS project:
· Choose a location away from forest cover or bear habitat. Placing beehives over 100m from cover reduces damage by half
· Use electric fences to exclude bears from areas where hives are kept
- Elevating hives on platforms at least 2.5m off the ground
Other pressures on bears resulting in conflict
While the most obvious conflicts have been highlighted, there are other issues which are more of a threat to Slovakian bear populations than control by regulation or protection hunting. Habitat loss is a major threat to the bear populations. Recreational use of remote areas and development can encroach on core areas of prime bear habitat, for example, skiing and hiking developments in the High Tatras National Park. Although there is currently sufficient habitat for bears, also wolves and lynx, habitat fragmentation, which has occurred in other parts of Europe, could have serious consequences for these large carnivores. These species require large territories to successfully forage and reproduce. Fragmentation of habitats can lead to isolated populations, loss of genetic diversity through limited mating opportunities and the possibility of in-breeding depression in some very fragmented populations.
It can be concluded that while Slovakia has a thriving bear population at the moment, it is recognised that large carnivores such as bears and including the other two key carnivores, wolves and lynx are sensitive to disturbance by people. It is at this interface that most conflict arises between bears and people. Awareness raising and education by important conservation projects such as the BEAR project help to contribute to the long term viability and prosperity of bear populations in Slovakia.
Forests and People in Eastern Slovakia
By Robin Fuller
With 40% of the country covered in natural and semi-natural forest, Slovakia is the third most forested European country after Slovenia and Finland. Ownership of the forests is 40% state, 25% community, 15% private, and 20% other. Forestry is the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture, and managed by the state Forestry department. Although forests are the backdrop to Slovak society, state financial support for forest management for activities in the public interest has declined in recent years.
Use of Forests
Local recreational use of forests in Eastern Slovakia is predominantly for hunting and fungi collecting. Interest in walking and wildlife watching seems to vary, but is not as popular as in Scotland – bird watching as a pastime is virtually unheard of! The relationship between rural communities and their local forests is more to do with products than leisure, with firewood collection being top of the agenda.
The average monthly salary for Eastern Slovakians is only around 600 Euros, and with gas prices due to rise by 40% in autumn 2011, the demand for firewood is sure to intensify. Although the populations of larger towns cannot utilise firewood as easily, new biomass power plants, such as the one in Liptovsky Hradok are utilising short rotation coppice and forestry by-products.
The biomass plant next to Slovakia’s largest sawmill in Liptovsky Hradok. © Robin Fuller
There is little promotion of Slovakia as a tourist destination, although there are a reasonable number of visitors from other European countries and further afield – in particular Korea. Walking is a popular pursuit for visitors, and there are many way marked trails through the forests and into the mountains.
Typical signpost showing walking trails.
© Robin Fuller
Although the maintenance of these trails is undertaken by tourist boards, walking groups, and local town councils, users are responsible for their own safety and are encouraged to have accident insurance. Within Slovakian National Parks it is illegal to leave the trails – minimising disturbance to wildlife, and reducing the chance of accidents. Although this was severely enforced in the past, today’s more visitor-friendly foresters and NP staff encourage positive behaviour through engagement with visitors.
In Slovensky Raj, ladders and boardwalks have been installed through the limestone canyons to allow visitors to access the area. They are mostly of basic construction and extremely exposed. However, with users expected to be responsible for their own safety this is not seen as a problem. In fact, the view is that at least this approach allows visitors to see some of the most spectacular features in the National Park. In contrast, Scottish law places the duty of care with the landowner, and groups such as the Forestry Commission are now careful to plan all visitor access projects with this in mind.
Wooden boardwalks in Sucha Bella, Slovensky Raj, showing the ‘rustic’ construction methods. © Robin Fuller
Nic, Viv and Tracey ascending an exposed metal ladder in Sucha Bella, with Miro waiting patiently at the bottom. © Robin Fuller
There is evidence that some land managers in Slovakia are making more consideration for visitor safety, such as in the High Tatras NP, where dead trees infested with bark beetles have been felled alongside walking trails, despite being in Zone A where no management is normally permitted. Although the state conservation department wanted no intervention, the NP authority and town council negotiated a concession to allow trees within one-tree length to be felled and left on site, reducing the chance of accidents.
Warning sign on a walking trail in the High Tatras National Park reminding visitors to
enter at their own risk. © Robin Fuller
Interest in the forests for environmental education is relatively low amongst schools, but seems to be gradually increasing. Initiatives, such as the Slovakian Wildlife Society help to teach children about the importance of Slovakia for species such as brown bear and wolf, and to stimulate appreciation for the country’s forests as important European habitats. The High Tatras NP recently won an award for the best environmental education programme in Slovakia, for their team’s work with local schools.
On the edge of the Low Tatras NP we encountered a ‘school of nature’. This was one of many established during the communist years, which although sounds like it would have been a great way for children to engage with nature, was actually used at the end of each term to reinforce communist values with the pupils.
Community forests in Slovakia differ from those in Scotland in that the main objective of management is usually to produce firewood for local use, and timber products for sale. Provision of hunting opportunities is also often seen as a priority. Whatever the aim, the forest must be managed by a trained forester who submits ten year plans to the state forestry department for approval. These will have been compiled with the community council (the forester’s employer) to ensure views and requests from local people have been considered. Interestingly, there is little objection from communities when land management takes place – perhaps a legacy of the communist years. Land in eastern Slovakia is defined as forest, farmland or village, with virtually all local residents living within the villages. This is seen as beneficial, as everyone can help out with problems, or share in celebrations – family and friends are highly valued in Slovak society. Workers travel out to the farmland or forest in the morning but return to the village at the end of the day.
Since the 1990s there has been a steady acknowledgement of the non-timber values of forests – particularly for recreation and the environment. Some rural communities in Eastern Slovakia are investigating ways of diversifying their activities to harness the potential benefits (e.g. ecotourism, agrotourism, non-wood forest products). Successful projects may also help to reverse the current trend of young people heading west to find work, which is resulting in an ageing population unable to tend the land. It is perceived that there is little financial support from the state at present for these activities, but there does appear to be a gradual change in policy as Slovakia develops its place in the EU, and gains access to rural development funds. The National Forest Programme for Slovakia (2009 to 2011) has the strategic objective of: ‘Ensuring sustainable forest management based on reasonable use of economic, ecological and social functions of the forests for development of the society and in particular for development of rural areas’. Initiatives such as the Man and Biosphere programme could also help to support this goal, and help rural communities to protect their forests whilst supporting their families.
Community members socialising in a village near the Ukraine border. © Robin Fuller
Slovaks and Scots both love their countries, and proudly celebrate their natural and cultural heritage, but there is a much stronger bond between people and nature in Slovakia. Perhaps it is due to the sheer scale of the forests that cloak the country and surround every village, or maybe it is the passion for hunting and fungi collecting passed down from father to son, but as younger generations move away and traditional forest management is abandoned, perhaps this relationship will fade? The future challenge for Slovakia will be to balance the increasing demands on its forests, whilst maintaining its overall ambition for sustainability and growth in Europe. Hopefully with exchange visits such as this one, the knowledge and experience gained in other countries can support its aspirations. In return, perhaps we can remind the people of Scotland what we have lost from our landscape and help us to remember that our society depends on the health of the environment we live in.