Continuing the international theme, this is the report from a fascinating study tour Emily attended in Bulgaria a couple of years ago. As one of the funding conditions was to share our findings as widely as possible (but we didn’t have a blog back then), I thought it would make good winter reading for those of you who enjoy this kind of thing!
The short version: I’ve just come back from a study tour to Bulgaria, and for once it’s good to come home to sunshine! We had thunderstorms and heavy rain showers, although it was warm. It was very interesting to see how they are coping with the changes in land use caused by changing political systems over the years. Some families who have had their land restored to them have become more urban-based in the last few decades so may not even know where their patch of forest is, let alone take an interest in managing it. The flat plains are quite intensively farmed with wheat, sunflowers and vineyards. However, within their national parks and protected areas (which cover 30% of the country), traditional ways of life continue and we saw beautiful forest-covered mountains with herb-rich alpine meadows containing fruit trees and small groups of sheep or goats always accompanied by a shepherd, meaning less need for fencing. Red deer are larger in size but fewer in number than in Scotland, and they also have wild boar, brown bears and wolves to add to the dynamics. Every rural house has its own neat vegetable patch and grapevine, and even in smaller towns their pavement ‘flowerbeds’ were being used to grow potatoes, and vines were growing up to first or second floor balconies in towerblocks! Part of an island in the Danube, once used for ‘political prisoners’, is now a marshland nature reserve full of birdlife, and they have white-tailed sea eagles there too!! There are regional rural tourism and development projects similar to our own Holiday Mull and Ross of Mull and Iona Development. We spent a lot of time talking to foresters, rangers, hunters, local mayors, academics, tour guides and staff of outdoor museums, generating lots of information and ideas, so no doubt you will hear me making comparisons with several of our local projects over the next few months.
Photos from the trip can be found here:
The long version, our detailed group report, follows below:
Between the 12 to the 19th of May 2012 a delegation of Scottish professionals involved in conservation, policy and education visited Bulgaria. They were concentrating on deer management but were also looking at wider species interactions and social and economic connections in rural areas.
The group was hosted by the Stara Planina Regional Tourist Association. The Association was established in 1996 to co-ordinate the activities of 12 local tourist organisations in order to create, develop and promote an ‘attractive tourist product’. They bring together diverse groups involved in heritage management and tourism from hotel owners to museum curators to develop a holistic plan for their area.
The Nature Exchange was developed by ARCH network and its European partners over the last 9 years. ARCH fully funded the study visit with the aim to exchange best practice and to establish new contacts and partnerships for future cooperation. The study visit was funded by the Leonardo da Vinci programme; the costs of travel, accommodation and subsistence were covered by the grant. The trip was open to everyone working in natural heritage, conservation and land management sectors. The group wishes to fully thank ARCH Network and the Stara Planina Regional Tourist Association for the excellent educational experience.
Nature Exchange Participants:
Rebecca O’Hara (Scottish Natural Heritage)
Jeanne Robinson (Glasgow Museums)
Emily Wilkins (National Trust for Scotland/Mull&Iona Community Trust)
Richard Luxmoore (National Trust for Scotland)
Andrew Treadaway (Barony College)
Bruce Wilson (Scottish Wildlife Trust)
Picture 1: The group gathered outside the Mountain Leader School in Cherni Ossam
The Group were expertly guided and driven throughout the trip by Velis and and Ivo and we would all like to thank them.
On day one the group travelled to Sofia and onward to the Village of Ribaritsa on the Northern slopes of the Central Balkan National Park. We spent time getting to know one another and discussing the week’s activities.
At the start of day two the sun was splitting the sky, this was not a precedent for the rest of the day or indeed the rest of the week…. The group met with Stoyan Hristov, senior ranger from the Central Balkan National Park. Stoyan gave a guided walk of hills at the boundary of Tsarichina Strictly Protected Reserve.
Tsarichina was designated as a reserve in 1949 and is 34.2 km2 and it was composed mostly from state owned land. The reserve consists of both forest (mainly ancient beech and hornbeam) and subalpine ecosystems and takes its name from the flower Scarlet Tsarich (Geum coccineum) which grows locally. Tsarichina is part of UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere program.
During our walk Stoyan explained the protected area designations in Bulgaria. There are 6 categories (in order of legislative protection); Strict Nature Reserves, National Parks, Protected Landscapes, Maintained reserves, Nature parks and Protected Sites.
The group walked on the boundary of the park but was interested to note that only hiking was permitted in the Strictly Protected Reserve and only on specially designated paths. This was in contrast with the “right of responsible access” in Scotland, and was more akin to the strict laws in protected areas in America. There was also an emphasis on “leaving things as you find them” see picture 2 below.
Picture 2: Please take your “junk” home sign
It was apparent from low erosion levels, lack of disturbance and litter that the trails had low usage rates compared with a similar area in Scotland. The group thought the difficult socioecomic climate in Bulgaria may have been a contributing factor in this. Also that the winters being harsher with heavy snow falls would restrict access during winter months.
The paths were maintained by rangers and there was some low-level “infrastructure” provided for hikers such as viewing towers, benches and a composting toilet. Stoyan indicated that money 10 years ago from the EU had been used to construct these facilities; however, he was not sure which funding stream this was from.
The agriculture conducted in the region was not intensive and was very traditional. A variation of transhumance farming was carried out with shepherds over-wintering their stock on the valley floor and bringing stock up to the lush pastures on the steep upper slopes to graze in the spring. Shepherds stayed with their flock (of sheep, goats and cattle) at all times to guard against wolf attack. However horses are allowed to roam free and are causing concern as to their exact numbers. This grazing regime provided an ideal habitat for wildflowers and herbs to flourish (see picture 3). This style of livestock farming is very different from Scotland (although has some similarities with the seasonal use of hill pasture and shielings in the past) and had very visible effects on the landscape and biodiversity. The group found it very different not seeing fences dividing the landscape even in areas where grazing pasture was interspersed with arable land.
Picture 3: Orchid on upper slopes
Grazing with sheep, cattle and horses (but not goats) is permitted in some parts of the National Park to assist with the management of the open areas of grassland. The shepherds are required to pay a nominal tax to keep their animals in the park and the numbers of stock allotted to each shepherd are strictly regulated. Fires, formerly used as a management tool, are not permitted and the burden of responsibility for managing this is placed with the shepherds. If fires are set, shepherds lose their grazing entitlement. Shepherds receive some subsidy for keeping animals in this less favoured area, with horses receiving the highest subsidy.
The group asked Stoyan if he had experienced problems with deer browsing; he stated that there was no problem with deer and, if anything, they could maybe do with a few more. He believed that hunting by humans and predation by wolves and bear was keeping deer populations at an acceptable level. The group noticed that there was very little understorey of the beech forest and this may have led to a lack of browsing material and therefore low density of deer (see picture 4). Tree regeneration was limited in most areas though relatively good in others. Grazing by deer was limited to the small pocket clearings and upland meadows. On the border of the reserve the group saw small clear cut regimes which were being allowed to naturally regenerate. These type of areas would have been more attractive to the deer and this area was under the actively management of a hunting club.
Picture 4: Beech forest with very little regeneration or ground vegetation.
As well as deer the group also asked Stoyan about other species present in the park and he stated that the park was host to around: 15 amphibian species including the fire salamander (Salamandra salamandra) see picture 5 – which we were lucky enough to spot – 30 mammal species including pine marten (Martes martes), roe deer (Capreolus capreolus), brown bear (Ursus arctos), river otter (Lutra lutra) and wildcat (Felis sylvestris). 75 bird species.
Picture 5a: Fire Salamander (Salamandra salamandra)
Stoyan was not involved in any invertebrate surveys, this was left to ‘the experts’. In Scotland’s most important nature reserves surveying for popular insect groups (butterfly transects, bumblebee surveys, moth trapping, dragonfly surveys etc…) is more likely to occur, often facilitated by our rangers. We did spot some interesting species including the Tau emperor moth (Aglai tau), whose caterpillars eat beech leaves; like the fire salamander a species we wouldn’t encounter in the UK.
Picture 5b: Tau emperor moth (Aglai tau) resting at path edge.
The group would like to thank Stoyan for his guided tour and greatly appreciated him sharing his expert knowledge with us.
After dinner the group had a self guided walk through the orchards above Ribaritsa. We saw a number of shepherds tending their flocks and noted that some had constructed shelters.
The group visited a vocational forestry school in Teteven and were shown around by a past pupil and current teacher – Riko Rikove. The secondary specialist School is for pupils from the ages of 14 to 18/19 and provides courses for pupils interested in forestry and woodland management and carpentry. It also provides them with a route to higher education courses in land management/forestry. The school also runs short “ticketed” courses in practical skills such as cross-cutting and maintenance.
Rico explained that as well as teaching forestry skills and game management, a traditional syllabus with maths, English, economics and Bulgarian was delivered. The school also carried out commissioned joinery work, such as window construction and fitting, to raise funds and give practical experience to the pupils. There are three other similar institutions in Bulgaria. The school was equipped with a small museum and an arboretum which we also had time to observe.
Picture 6: The vocational forestry school at Teteven
After this visit we had a long drive to Belene, this trip gave a chance to view the wider countryside. The group noticed that in the flatter valleys and on the Danube plain much more intensive commercial scale agriculture was taking place. The main crops were maize, peppers, sunflowers, potatoes, wheat and barley. It was noted that this was a wide variety of crops for a region with such changeable climate e.g. the temperature when the group were there was 12degreesC and last year it was 30degreesC. There were also fenced dairy systems in operation.
We learned that, in communist times, most of the farms were run cooperatively in large farming units. Following the fall of communism, the land had been returned to the families of their original owners. Many of the farms appeared abandoned. There were several large vineyards due to Bulgaria’s long tradition of wine making. However, like the agricultural land many of these vineyards had become over grown.
There were abandondoned factories in many areas which had been given back to the families of the original owners but due to the economic situation and lack of modernisation they were unable to compete in a free market economy. Family disputes amongst descendants over ownership were said to be common. Often these families had not the retained knowledge or did not have the money to run these businesses so they were left abandoned.
The group noticed local people collecting edible snails which were for personal consumption and also for sale through a co-operative to Spain and other countries. The town of Belene is a former garrison town with a large military base which has been radically cut back. This, and the closure of a number of factories and communal farms has resulted in the town appearing to be rundown with many partly occupied blocks of flats in poor repair. We noted that many of the suburban houses had thriving vegetable gardens which had overflowed to take over the street flowerbeds which are now given over to planting potatoes and onions thereby displaying a entrepurenal spirit of the townspeople to harvest and utilise these bonus areas extra crops. It was felt that this would be a difficult example to follow in Scotland due to rigorously upheld bye laws and possible unexplained loss of these crops.
Picture 7: Potatoes and grapevines in the street
At the edge of the town is the Persina Nature Park had a recently constructed visitor centre. The centre was in stark contrast to the town, with modern facilities, picnic areas and viewing platforms. The centre was built with funding from the EU, World Bank and WWF and had interpretation facilities for hosting school groups. There did not seem to be much evidence that it was extensively used by other local visitors, and there was a lack of directional road signs would make it near impossible for foreign or local tourists to find the centre. There were no “bolt-on” extras to the visitors centre such as coffee shops, play parks etc. of the type which are extremely common in Scotland. The group observed that this may also make the centre less appealing to a wider audience.
At the centre the group was greeted by a ranger from the park, while colourful bee eaters swooped overhead catching insects. The ranger explained the history and general principles behind the Persina Nature Park.
The area was designated in 2000 by the Ministry of Environment and Water for Bulgaria and is one of newest natural parks in Bulgaria. It is located to the North of Bulgaria, along the Danube valley, near Romania. Persina covers 21762 ha and is included in the territory of three Bulgarian municipalities (Nikopol, Belene and Svishtov).
The park’s main aim is to conserve and restore the wetlands of the Danube river; this also includes the numerous islands found in the park, of which there are two groups, Nikopol (made up of four main islands) and Belene (consisting of 19 islands 5 of which are Romanian). The unique qualities of the site meant it was proclaimed a RAMSAR site in 2002. The group compared this to areas in Scotland where the largest RAMSAR site is the Solway Firth at 43600ha.
The ranger gave the group an overview of the current projects being undertaken by using an interactive “floodable” 3-dimensional map of the region. The main island of which half of (which also held a Farm prison) was slowly being “re-wetted” by opening sluice gates periodically to maintain habitat conditions. It was also explained that during the communist era the border with Romania (here formed by the Danube) was largely closed and there was a 10km buffer beside the river with limited access. This had meant that there was a large strip of semi-natural habitat for many species. However, there were only three river crossings between the Black Sea and Sofia; this may have been a barrier to development in the region. It was also noted that next to the visitor centre were Roman remains that were due to be excavated at some stage in the future.
Picture 8: Danube Model
The group would like to thank the staff and rangers at the park for their time.
The group then went on a bird watching boat tour of the Danube where we spotted several species on the water and on the land including: Great cormorant, Pygmy cormorant, Mallard, Little egret, Night heron, Grey heron, Sand martin, Swallow, House martin, Nightingale, Hooded crow, Red backed shrike, Goldfinch, Bee eaters
The group noted that we were the only “pleasure” craft out on a clear day in May and this would be different in Scotland, again it may have been possible to attribute this to the socio-economic situation in Bulgaria. Boats still need a special permit to be out on the river as it forms the border with Romania.
The group then set off to our next destination of Gabrovo. On route we drove past PR signs for a proposed nuclear power station near Belene. Our guide explained there was a thirst for energy independence from Georgian and Russian gas and the power station would probably be built in the near future, once the economic situation had stabilised. However, current politicians had called a halt to its building, taking a lead from the anti-nuclear stance of Germany.
We stopped off in the town of Veliko Tarnovo , which was the most “touristy” destination we had been to on our trip and looked well used to catering for coach parties etc… and was much more akin to “tourist towns” in Scotland (it also had an entry in the Lonely Planet guidebook, unlike most other places we went to this week). This medieval town had formerly been the capital of Bulgaria and had a walled fortress of former rulers which had been restored.
Picture 9: The town of Veliko Tarnovo
In the morning the group enjoyed a walking tour of the Etara Architectural and Ethnographic complex, the only open air museum in Bulgaria. This is a state owned venture. It consists of three original installations, including an 18th century mill house and a “water powered washing machine” that is still used by local people. The site has been enhanced with a large number of other historical water-powered devices rescued and relocated from the neighbouring villages, which would otherwise have fallen into disuse after industrialisation. These included a sawmill, spinning mill, lathes, several grain mills and a braiding mill, the first of its’ kind in Bulgaria. There were a number of artisans demonstrating traditional crafts and selling their wares in stalls throughout the complex. Some of the artisans were on Etara’s payroll, others paid for the privilege of being there. The group commented on similarities between Etara, an open air museum which shows pre industrial technology, and the Beamish Museum in the North of England (which celebrates the age of the Industrial revolution in Britain), whose artefacts and buildings are more modern but also allow you to see historical life in an open air setting.
Picture 10a: Craftsman, Etara museum Picture 10b: Water-powered washing machine
The group then met with representatives of the Bulgarka Nature park, which is located on the northern slopes of Central Stara Planina mountain, above the towns of Gabrovo and Tryavna.
The park’s highest point in 1524m and it supports 32 flora species that are included on the IUCN red list and also many mammal species including Pine Marten and Bear. The predominant land cover in the park was beech forest but there were also several rocky outcrops where lichens and mosses thrived.
The group were intrigued to learn that forestry age is measured differently in Bulgaria where the mean age of trees is used rather than the length of time the area has been afforested.This is due to the influence of other European countries where a more holistic approach thorugh continuous forestry methods are adopted. Unlike Scottish forestry which is still in the infancy of this and mostly managed on a financial /accountancy basis. The oldest tree in the park was a 500 year old beech.
The group asked several questions about deer but it was apparent there was no problem with high densities due to a combination of factors, primarily predation by wolves and anthropogenic hunting. One of the rangers stated that there was probably less than one deer per 100 ha. The hunting in the region is managed by local hunting groups and licences are issued by the Ministry for Food and Agriculture.
The rangers stated that there had a problem with poaching of chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra) and that the shooting of wolves was forbidden within the park but was legal outside its boundaries and so allowing better protection of livestock.
The park also included several ancient archeological sites mainly Roman and Thracian roads and buildings.
The park staff gave a presentation about the opportunities for “eco” tourism in the park. The mix of natural and historical attractions made the park attractive to tourists as did the range of habitats and walking trails available. There are 4 long distance eco trails, 13 tourist trails and 3 mountain bike trails.
The park staff have developed a working farm where children can see animals and take part in “green” outdoor lessons. They also hold open days and have fairs and exhibitions. A significant amount of time is devoted to promoting the park on the web.
The Central Balkan National Park park is a member of the PAN parks network which is a European-wide organisation focusing on the protection of wilderness areas it applies an approach combining wilderness protection and sustainable tourism development. The PAN park partners aim to create a network of European wilderness areas where natural systems of animals and plants can thrive and where people can appreciate the pleasures offered by wilderness. The park management aims to co-operate closely with the people who live around the park. Local PAN Parks partners, offering facilities and working together with the park, are recognized by the PAN Parks logo based on environmental standards and their commitment to conservation.
The group then had “break out sessions” with various experts from around the region. The implementation of the next round of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was discussed with Lora Jibreel (a WWF expert in public funding for green projects) and it was agreed that greening of the next CAP programme was vital for biodiversity across Europe. Differences and similarities, in high nature value farming, between Scotland and Bulgaria were also discussed.
After lunch the group met with one of the curators of the museum. She told us that they received up to 160,000 visitors a year. Only 20,000 of these were from outside Bulgaria. They were very well used by the school. Even on a damp day the visitors were quite numerous. There was plenty to buy and a restaurant serving a Bulgarian menu. The hotel we were staying in provided a further revenue stream for the complex. Etara charges everyone a small entrance fee. The money generated by the complex exceeded what it cost to run, the state was making a profit from this venture. Despite the majority of the visitors being Bulgarian, all the interpretation was presented in both English and Bulgarian.
The museum also helped attract more people to the neighbouring Bulgarka Nature Park. The group would like to thank the museum staff for their time.
It was edifying to discover that the curator had visited Scotland on a similar cultural exchange and had been so inspired by a display on childhood she had seen whilst visiting that she developed one on her return.
The group next received a presentation at the Central Balkan National Parks Central Office in Gabrovo from the Head of Biodiversity and tourism. We were given more in depth information about the conservation status, land-use/zonation and management and the unique wildlife of the area. He talked about the large numbers of rare, endemic and relict invertebrate species that inhabited the Central Balkans including 36 on European/Global endangered species lists and 10 species protected under Bulgarian legislation. He highlighted the fact that only certain groups of invertebrates had been surveyed in the most accessible areas, so the 2400 inverts recorded so far are likely to be the tip of the iceberg. They were keen to collaborate with international invertebrate experts.
The final visit of the day was to the office of the Stara Planina regional tourist association, host partner of Archnetwork in Bulgaria, where we met Silvia Hinkova who explained a number of ecotourism and other projects with which her organisation is involved.
The group awoke and drove to the Devetaki Plateau. On route we stopped off at Gavran (ravens hole), a large limestone cave that supported a lively amphibian community, including fire-bellied toads, see picture 11, and newts.
Attempts had been made by the local community to turn this site into a “beauty spot” with picnic benches and toilets. However, after disputes with local planners the site infrastructure was dismantled.
Picture 11: Bombina bombina – Common or European Firebelly Toad
Gorsko Slivovo was our next destination and we explored the spectacular Devetashka limestone caves. The caves were absolutely fascinating and were a Natura Site for their numerous species of bats as well as many species of amphibians. Six species of hirundines were nesting in the vicinity, including crag martins, red-rumped swallows and alpine swifts.
Picture 12: Caves
The communist regime had used the cave system as a fuel silo and it had recently been used as a location for an action adventure film (Expendables 2) during which a large concrete access bridge over the river had been constructed and gifted to the region by the movie company.
The group then travelled to the small town of Karpchevo where we met with the mayor and local residents. We were shown a booklet that was produced to attract Bulgarians to visit the region. The booklet included recipes and folklore and was a good example of entrepreneurship in trying to attract more visitors to the town. We were also shown the beautiful town hall where concerts, plays etc… were shown.
Picture 13: Group with Mayor in town hall
The town had an ageing population as many young people move away for education (as the local school had been closed down) and work. Bulgaria has a problem of depopulation at present where people are emigrating and the birth rate has dropped with a present population of about 7.5M– several of the villagers’ children had moved to the UK for work. The population was around 80 permanently but this swelled to 120 at the weekends and on holidays. The local residents also all had multiple jobs and comparisons were drawn with small Scottish communities.
We then travelled to a stunning set of local waterfalls at Krushuna for lunch and were lucky to see the waters in full flow after a heavy few days of rain! Stunning metallic-green Rose Chafer beetles (Cetonia aurata) lined the route to the falls.
Picture 14: Rose Chafer beetle
The group then met with the mayor of the municipality of Letnitsa – Dr Krassinii Dzhoner. The mayor was a vet to trade, enjoyed studying local flora and fauna and was also interested in hunting. The group discussed the main issues in this rural region with the mayor mainly the effect of rural development and agriculture programmes and the diversification of businesses in the local area. The mayor felt the region was slowly diversifying its economies and proudly told us of the Walltopia factory in the town that produced world class climbing walls and indeed built several of the walls at the Edinburgh International Climbing Arena (Ratho).
The mayor was concerned that there seemed to be a lack of forestry expertise in the area and they were looking for ways to reduce the risk of forestry fire. He seemed keen to keep in touch with our forestry tutor, Andrew.
The group enquired about deer management in the area and the mayor explained that the deer population was kept in check by the local hunting group who also shot many other species including wild boar. The mayors thought the population of deer to be around 100 over about 1500ha and were regulated by strict government management plan guidelines as to what could be shot. This is in contrast to that of Scotland where there is no government intervention and deer numbers in some areas are becoming a nuisance .
Picture 15: PAN parks logo
After a lovely breakfast the group drove to Drashkova polyana to see an “eco” guest house. The group discussed tourism with the owners. The guest house was a member of the PAN parks network and also “green lodges” (a quality and “green” assurance scheme), the owners felt this had positively affected their business. They estimated that around half of their guests were from outwith Bulgaria and this was higher than most other attractions/accommodation. The owners also provided an informal “guided walk” service, photography lessons and pottery making classes and the food they served was locally sourced and traditional.
After the meeting at the guest house the group went to the mountain guide school in the village of Cherni Ossam. We met with the head teacher who gave us a short run through of the curriculum of this vocational school.
The school acts as normal between the ages of 7-14 but it then specialises out into “mountain guiding education” e.g. skiing, walking, first aid, avalanche rescue, climbing, rescue, first aid, navigation, cartography etc… as well as the normal curriculum. Pupils often went on to study geography and related sciences at university or became mountain, walking, skiing guides. The school accepts pupils from all over Bulgaria and boarding was available locally if necessary. The school has high standards and good grades must be achieved to gain entry. The group thought that the only comparable institution for school children in Scotland would be the Plockton traditional music school. The head teacher was very interested in our impressions of their school and asked if we could draft something about them for the local press, which we did. The group were most impressed by the two outdoor climbing walls at the school!
Picture 16: Climbing wall at school
After the visit to the school the group visited the museum of natural history. The animals had once lined the classrooms and hallways of the school, the work of their former Biology teacher, a keen taxidermist. In 1976 the state built a formal museum to house the collection. The museum does charge a small entrance fee and is also supported by small grants from local government. The museum is currently run for by the founder’s son, who is also a taxidermist. The museum staff had many keen students to pass on their animal preservation skills to, 20 students a year for 15 years, until the Ministry of the Environment requested that these lessons ceased. Many British Natural History Collections have also lost the ability to prepare their own specimens just as the popularity of the art has started to escalate. Apart from being used for taxidermy the museum was being enjoyed by the students from the attached school as a teaching collection, a facility that few, if any British Schools still enjoy. The collections were all native species and were donated by the local community; with the exception of a pet iguana and a polar bear which had come to them from the local zoo. Mounted birds and mammals, wet preserved fish, reptiles and amphibians and pinned insects were all displayed. There was building work underway to extend the museum.
Picture 17: Stuffed animals at the natural history museum
Also housed within the museum was the park’s visitors centre which included information boards, simple manual interactives and a small herbarium. The combining of the visitors centre with the natural history displays seemed a very sensible combination.
For lunch we visited a local restaurant where some of the team bravely managed to consume the vast quantity of locally prepared high quality inexpensive nutritional delicacies. The group opted for sliced pork fat, tripe soup and “meat tridents” and, in one case, all of the above. The food was very nice but had no real strong spice much like traditional British food.
Picture 18 : “Meat Trident”
The rest of the day was spent looking at local arts and crafts and sampling the merchandise on sale at the National Exhibition of Popular and Artistic Crafts, a large series of exhibition halls funded by the EU.
On day 7 the group travelled to the Forestry University in Sofia and met with the head of the forestry faculty. The professor gave us a brief history of forestry practices in Bulgaria. After world war two there was an early recognition that many of the ecosystem services – such as avalanche and erosion control – that were provided by forestry in Bulgaria had been lost, so several replanting programmes were adopted. French experts assisted with this programme.
Previously forestry had been taught in combination with agriculture but in 1925 forestry started being taught separately to a “higher education” standard. This was done in a traditional “German/Austrian” style as these were the main centres of expertise.
The state owns 74% of the forestry in Bulgaria and the rest is owned privately. Most of the owners of this forestry do not manage the land properly due to the diversity of land holding sizes and most live in urban areas as a result of land redistribution post communism. The feeling is that these owners lack expertise on how best to mange the forest asset.
In 2009 there was a change in legislation to encourage regeneration of native woodland, which normally happens spontaneously. However, if trees have not appeared after a period of 7 years, replanting is undertaken. Reasons cited for when there was a lack of forestry regeneration were: an inadequate/depleted seed bank, trees being outcompeted by grasses, browsing by deer and insect damage.
The university’s game management expert, Stoyan Stoyanov, also discussed current issues with the group. In Bulgaria there are 25 species of mammal legally hunted and 29 species of bird.
In relation to red deer, hunting quotas are calculated on the basis of the carrying capacity which is estimated in each region (average around 2-3 deer per km2). The number of deer to be culled is worked out depending on age structure but usually it is 25 per 100 per year. This comprises, a management cull of hinds and poor stags and a trophy quota of about 3 trophy stags (9 – 14 year old). The North East of Bulgaria, near the Danube, boasts some of the biggest red deer in the world and the world record stag comes from this region (273 CIC points). Bulgarian red deer are significantly larger than Scottish deer, with stags weighing up to 400kg due to a far superior diet.
During the communist era the population of red deer was around 28000 but fell to around half of this after the removal of communist controls. Now the number has recovered slightly and is at around 20000 which is believed to be sustainable under the current hunting regime. Wolf predation may be significant in the mountain regions but is low in the Danube Plain.
The roe population is estimated to be in the region of around 80000. There is no hunting quota but hunters must pass proficiency qualifications. Venison may only be sold through state sanctioned outlets.
Wolves are widespread but are primarily concentrated in the National Parks. The total population exceeds 1,000. believed there to be around 1000, from which around 350 are shot each year. Wolves may not be shot in the National Parks, but elsewhere there are no restrictions. There is no compensation for wolf damage to livestock and control is down to the land owner. The population is believed to be stable.
In the Danube Plain, Golden Jackall (Canis aureus) is widespread, though it is less common where wolves are also present. It is not protected and is heavily culled as it fills the equivalent role of foxes in Britain in concerns to livestock damage.
Brown bear are strictly protected with an estimated population of between 500 – 1200 but there are no accurate figures. 10 licences a year are issued to shoot bear but poaching probably accounts for a further 50 deaths a year which also includes problem bears. Where predation of livestock can be proved, compensation is paid to the owner.
The forestry school was home to a very large collection of game species, second only in size to the Natural History Museum in Sofia. The collection showed an enormous variety with age, sex and pathology of the various game species and was still a key tool to the delivery of their forest management teaching.
Picture 19: Sofia Universities extensive natural history collection
The final stop on our trip was the Bulgarian Biodveristy Foundation (BBF). Here we met with the acting director, Petko Tzvetkov. He explained that the Foundation was formed with the re-birth of environmental NGOs, which took place after the political changes in 1989.
The BFF is mostly dependent on state, EU and foreign funding, Norway and Switzerland in particular. Although the Foundation has public supporters, it does not offer membership so no funds are generated in this way. Their main supporters tend to be young people living in the bigger cities, who have an interest in nature conservation.
Our host highlighted the great biological diversity found in Bulgaria, with approximately 90 habitat types, 3,700 vascular plants and 400 bird species. 34.3% of the land area of Bulgaria is designated as Natura 2000. This is made up of 118 Special Protection Areas (SPAs) and 231 Special Areas of Conservation (SACs). However, the designation order is not yet complete for SACs.
Petko described a number of projects that the Foundation is involved with, aimed at promoting the conservation of certain habitats and species. He highlighted how key they and the Academy of Science had been to the implementation of Natura 2000 before they joined the EU. Of particular success was the 2007 project “the green belt in Osogovo Mountains”. Here the BBF worked in partnership with the Macedonian Ecological Society and funding was provided by the Frankfurt Zoological Society and Pro Natura, Switzerland. The project involved field investigations in Bulgaria and Macedonia to improve knowledge of the species and habitats found there. On the Bulgarian side, a large part of the project area is designated as Natura 2000. The data collected through the project is available to the responsible national institutions in both countries, to help inform management and encourage transboundary cooperation in the protection of the mountain.
Other projects included working with the Balkani Wildlife Society and a local hunting group to conserve Chamois in their natural habitat. Introductions of Spanish Griffon vultures to augment the Bulgarian population. Restoring Dragoman Marsh, a wetland that had been drained for agriculture approximately 70 years previous.
He outlined their involvement in the ‘The Green Belt Initiative’. This is an IUCN recognised scheme and the largest nature protection initiative in Europe. The European Green Belt initiative is trying to create an ecological network that runs from the Barents to the Black sea, spanning some of the most important habitats for biodiversity and almost all distinct biogeographical regions in Europe. Large sections of this belt are parts of the former east-western border, once No Man’s land, promoting cross border activities in nature conservation and sustainable development.
The group asked how biological data was managed in Bulgaria. Petko explained that a number of organisations collect data, including the Ministry of Water and the Environment, the Bulgarian Academy of Science and the Bird Society. However, there is no central records centre and the BBF hope that a recently proposed project to establish a monitoring system for biodiversity will improve the collection and collation of data in the country.
It was interesting to note that the BBF are campaigning strongly for an independent body to consider proposals affecting Natura 2000 sites. These proposals are currently assessed by the Regional Department of the Ministry for Water and the Environment.
And alas… it was time to go home!
On last evening the group enjoyed a very pleasant last meal together and saw a few sights in Sofia including several ancient churches and mosques. In the morning we packed up and were on our way back to Scotland after the experience of a lifetime in Bulgaria!
The group all found the trip extremely interesting, informative and educational and continue to use the valuable lessons learned in their day to day work. We would like to thank all involved for an excellent experience and would thoroughly recommend it to anyone!!!!