Slovakia Nature Exchange 2016

As I am giving a talk next week to the local U3A group about Nature Exchanges to Eastern Europe, thought I’d share our group report from the Slovakia trip I was part of back in May.  The previous report from Bulgaria can also be found on this blog here, and if you’re interested in ranger travel musings, there is also a blog about environmental reflections in Brazil here.

Plenty of reading for the next rainy day!   Emily


Arch Network programme – Slovakia 2016

Our trip to Slovakia in May 2016 was part of the EU-funded programme, Erasmus+, and was organised by Arch Network, a Scottish NGO whose role is to promote learning and development in natural and cultural heritage between Scotland and other European countries. Our entertaining and knowledgeable guide, driver and companion throughout the trip was Miro Knežo, the director of Krajina, a small organisation working in eco-tourism and cultural exchange.


A vibrant landscape                                                                 Nicky Langridge-Smith

The lush Slovakian countryside, significantly further south than Scotland, was already well into spring when we arrived. The scale and diversity of the country’s immense forests, broken up by distinctly rural villages and rich meadows carpeted with wild flowers, stood out in vibrant contrast to the bare hillsides interspersed with uniform conifer plantations that dominate much of the uplands of Scotland.

Slovakia is a landlocked country, with a population of 5.5 million contained within a landmass two-thirds the size of Scotland. It is rich in biodiversity, with an estimated, 40,000 species of plants and animals (Scotland’s figure 60,000 species includes 40,000 marine species). Slovakian wildlife includes 36 per cent of the mammal species, 9 per cent of reptiles and 23 per cent of amphibians that occur in Europe.

Of those 40,000 species found in Slovakia, around 20 per cent appear on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. The major threats to these species include habitat loss, fragmentation and degradations as a result of agriculture and forestry as well as increased pressure from hunting and trapping. A full list of the species identified on our trip is included at the end of this report but some of the notable appearances included a golden oriole (Oriolus oriolus), red-backed shrike (Lanius collurio) as well as a marsh harrier (Circus aeruginosus) and a lesser spotted eagle (Aquila pomarina).

Slovakia is home to a sizeable population of large predators including brown bears (Ursus arctos), wolves (Canis lupis) and Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx). Our group was desperate to catch a glimpse of one of these impressive mammals but – to the relief of our hosts and guides ­– we were to be disappointed. We did, however, see evidence of their presence. On our day out with Robin Rigg in the Low Tatras National Park (Národný Park Nízke Tatry) we saw lots of prints and scat that we were delighted to identify as those of a brown bear.slovakia-bear-pawprint

Figure 1: Measuring up – female brown bear print

We also spotted a wild boar spa destination (a mud pool alongside a rub tree), tree bark with ring markings of a greater spotted woodpecker activity and the large rectangular cavities that reveal the presence of the black woodpecker.


Figure 2: Black woodpecker markings

In terms of plant life, the diversity of species – including many endemic species, is extensive. We were there at a good time to see many of the flowers, although we were too late to see the pulsatilla, their presence revealed by their feathery, nodding seed heads. Two biogeographic zones are represented in Slovakia, the Alpine and Pannonian – so we saw some steppe species, like yellow pheasant’s eye (Adonis vernalis) alongside the endemic alpine, Carpathian snowbell (Soldanella karpatska).

There are nine National Parks in Slovakia and we were lucky enough to visit six, each showing different characteristics of enlightened land management, from the tourist-focused Slovak Paradise with its vertical 100-metre ladders and stomach-churning via ferrata, to the vast primeval beech forests of Poloniny on the north eastern border, to the storm-damaged conifer forests of the High Tatras.

We were overwhelmed by the abundance of plants and flowers, not least in the National Park of Slovensky Kras where we guided by the wonderful Laszlo Gordon, a kind of Ray Mears. A ranger here for 50 years, he knows every square metre and showed us intriguing specimens such as the bird’s nest orchid, (Neottia nidus-avis) and the not-yet flowering lesser butterfly orchid (Platanthera bifolia). The bird’s nest orchid is a plant with no chlorophyll which gains its energy purely from a symbiotic relationship with a host mycorrhizal fungi present in the soil. We also spotted several endemic alpine plants such as alpine aster, (Aster alpinus). And as we returned from the viewing point high above a spectacular gorge, a peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) flew in to land above our heads almost as if Laszlo had pre-arranged its visit.


Figure 3: Bird’s nest orchid


Figure 4: Slovensky Kras

Apex predators                                                                              Nathan McLaughlan

Three of Europe’s remaining large predators – brown bear (Ursus arctos), wolf (Canis lupus) and lynx (Lynx lynx) retain strong populations in Slovakia, benefitting from high quality habitat and the ability to move freely across national borders.  In Scotland, each of these large carnivores has been brought to extinction through both persecution and habitat loss, a familiar tale across large areas of Europe.

Whilst numbers of these predators has gone up and down over the centuries, there has always been apex predators in the region and farming practices have adapted to cope with this pressure.

In eastern and central Slovakia grazing from sheep and cattle is fairly common, but flocks have shepherds in close attendance, with guard dogs.  The absence of fences or walls in grazing areas means shepherds have to keep a close eye on their flocks, and this, along with the practice of keeping animals indoors during winter, offers a degree of protection from predators.

As a result losses to lynx are very low, and considered to be insignificant.  Similarly, wolves were considered less of an issue, with the main conflict being from bears.  Compensation payments for livestock losses to each of these species have been available since 2003.   It should be noted that whilst we spoke to a range of individuals across different areas of the country and in varying roles, none of them were sheep farmers.  So whilst these opinions are valid they may not be entirely representative.

That bears provide the main source of conflict is unsurprising.  They are the largest and most conspicuous predator, they are omnivores that raid beehives and orchards, and, according to recent studies, the most numerous large carnivore in Slovakia.

The most recent estimates, based on work done by our guide Robin Rigg, show the bear population as between 1000 and 1500 individuals.  This has recovered from 20-60 individuals in 1932 due to a 30 year hunting moratorium. This is compared to the estimated 250 lynx and 400-500 wolves.  Wolves were heavily persecuted during the 19th and 20th centuries throughout central Europe, through organised hunting.  Wolves, lynx and bear are on Annex iv of the European Habitats Directive, so have been protected in Slovakia since 2003.

Bears and wolves can both polarise opinion in Slovakia, in much the same way that White-tailed eagles do in Scotland.  The arguments for and against their presence are well known.

Robin Rigg, co-founder of the Slovakian Wildlife Society that works to reduce conflict between people and wildlife, noted that people living in areas with large carnivores were more likely to have a negative view compared to those from urban areas.


Figure 5: The group with Robin Rigg

One issue that has become especially contentious is the legal hunting of bears and wolves. The Slovakian Government issues special licenses to allow hunters to shoot both species under restricted conditions. The aim of these licenses is partly to stabilise the population and partly to ensure public protection. For bears, a maximum quota of ten per cent is set, representing the estimated annual population. Previously this was based on crude estimates and it is only as a result of Robin Rigg’s population studies that more accurate estimates have been produced.  In recent years, hunters have failed to reach the quota set, blaming restrictions, such as the ban on shooting bears between December 15 and June 1, and the prohibition of shooting bears over 100 kg, which tend to be older and less likely to cause a public nuisance.

This failure to reach maximum quotas may have contributed to the growth in the bear population, now calculated at between 1,000 and 1,500. Mainstream conservationists insist that the restrictions should remain, while more radical conservationists believe that as protected species, all hunting of bears and wolves should cease. There is a ban on the hunting of lynx, which partly reflects the fact that there is widespread public tolerance of the species, as they cause little harm to livestock and are so elusive as to be almost invisible.  Bears, on the other hand, are a naturally inquisitive animal and regularly come down into settlements to forage for food (sometimes baited by tourist businesses), while wolves are perceived, especially by shepherds, as a menace to livestock.

Despite the presence of such an impressive array of species, ecotourism is still relatively underdeveloped in Slovakia. The recent crisis in the Eurozone has decimated the wider tourist industry, but as that recovers, and as ecotourism begins to bring tangible economic benefits, this conflict is likely to develop.

* See Appendix for a full list of species observed by the group.



Forestry management                                                                           Suzanne Dolby

Forty one per cent of Slovakia’s land area is forested. Around 40 per cent of forested land is owned by the state, with the remaining 60 per cent spread across various forms of ownership, including cooperatives (see next section), individuals, municipal communities and churches. Private ownership of forestry tends to be confined to extremely small areas, averaging less than three hectares. There is, however, a presumption against fragmentation of forestry, and it is prohibited to divide a forest into an area of less than 0.5 ha.

As well as being of high ecological value, forestry in Slovakia generates income, creates jobs, provides ecosystem services, and supports communities. Management of forests is subject to 10-year management plans, which are periodically updated and amended. The same policies, regulations and legislation supporting sustainable forest management are applicable to all categories of forest owners (state, private, communities etc.)

Across Slovakia as a whole, the most abundant tree species is beech (30 per cent of woodland cover), followed by Norway spruce (26 per cent). Around 60 per cent of the total cover is natural forest, which has undergone some intervention, and therefore in Scotland would be classed as ancient semi-natural woodland. The remainder is plantation woodland (approximately 35 per cent).

Large swathes of Slovakian forestry are of international importance because of their rarity and high ecological value. This includes substantial areas of primeval or ‘pristine’ forest (in Scotland known as ‘ancient woodlands’) which account for approximately 5 per cent of total cover. These are almost free from human interference and have a profound impact on the ecosystem, suppressing strong winds, humidify the air, preventing erosion, locking in carbon, and providing habitats for an abundance of rare and threatened plant and animal species.

Carpathian Primeval Beech Forest  

On our first full day in the country we visited the Bukovské (Beech) Hills in the Poloniny National Park in north east Slovakia, where Slovakia meets Poland and Ukraine. We hiked up to the summit of Riaba Skala, a viewpoint 1100 metres above sea level that reveals an epic landscape of rolling hills covered with European beech (Fagus sylvatica) and European silver fir (Abies Alba) stretching out before us in all directions. This is the Carpathian Primeval Beech Forest, which together with German Beech Forests makes up a Unesco World Heritage Site, designated in 2007.slovakia-view-from-grouse-cliff


Figure 6&7: Taking in the view at the top of Grouse Cliff

Poloniny and other National Parks are divided into ‘zones’ which are subject to different management prescriptions, based on ecological value. Forest management is forbidden in the most highly protected areas; these are left to natural processes. The area of Poloniny we visited is the only part of the Carpathian Primeval Beech Forest where the public are allowed access.

In other zones within Poloniny and other national parks, logging is allowed. Companies tender for contracts on state-owned areas, but commercial forestry in the National Parks is rigorously regulated.

Other important forest biotopes, some in Natura 2000 conservation areas of European significance, include:

  • Maple-beech montane forest (Acer pseudoplatanus, Fagus sylvatica)
  • Lime-maple rubble forest (Acer pseudoplatanus, Acer platanoides, Tilia cordata, Tilia platyphyllos & Fraxinus excelsior).
  • Bottomland willow-poplar & alder forest (Alnus incana, Picea abies, Salix fragilis and Salix purpurea).
  • Relict calcicolous pine & larch forests (Pinus sylvestris & Larix decidua)
  • Spruce forests (Picea abies & Sorbus acuparia)
  • Fir-spruce (Abies alba & Picea abies)

Other broadleaves that are found in different parts of the forest include seven native species of oak, four elms and four ash species, as well as yew, hornbeam, hazel and birch.


Destruction in the High Tatras  

The High Tatras, where species composition is typically Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris), European larch (Larix decidua) and Norway spruce (Picea abies), seemed like a familiar landscape – a feeling reinforced by the drizzle and low-hanging clouds on the day we visited.


Figure 8: The High Tatras forest

Here, in the Tatra National Park, the state forest service manages around 40,000 ha for non-commercial objectives, instead focusing on conservation.

Zone ‘A’ – the most undisturbed area of the National Park – comprises approximately 25 per cent of the area, and is managed with minimum intervention. The remainder of the forest is actively managed primarily to promote stand stability and forest health. Selective thinning is permitted in order to create more open, windfirm stands. Some planting takes place to promote soil stabilisation and to prevent colonisation by plants such as grasses that aggravate allergies, although natural tree regeneration is preferred. While commercial timber production is not a management objective (see Section 3-Management of national parks), the felled timber is extracted and marketed, with profits fed back into the National Park to be used for conservation and footpath maintenance. Whilst this is a useful source of income it does not cover all the costs and also requires government funding.

Clear-felling, still practised widely in Scotland, is now the least favoured logging method in Slovakia. Instead, most areas are managed as continuous cover forestry (CCF), with selective thinning or strip felling, which has significantly less visual impact on the landscape. The extraction of timber is usually carried out by horse, skidder or skyline. It is rare for felling to take place in an area large enough and accessible enough to warrant a forwarder machine, as is commonly used to extract timber in Scottish forestry.

Creating species diversity for forest resilience is a challenge in National Parks, as permitted species are limited to those that naturally occur, similar to PAWS in Scotland (Planted ancient woodland sites). In these protected areas, seeds must be sourced from the same geographic area in which the trees are to be planted, with a strict maximum 200m tolerance. Experimental planting of sycamore, beech and fir species, which are not native to the national park zone, has been permitted for study purposes, and the success/effects monitored.

In many areas, natural regeneration has resulted in very evident two-storied stands. In order to promote structural diversity even further, forest management includes a combination of planting, natural regeneration, small areas of tree removal and brash bundling. This helps to create a mosaic effect, which contributes to the creation of a more diverse stand.

In spite of high levels of protection and sensitive forest management, Slovakian forests have not escaped affliction by pests, diseases and extreme weather events. In 2004, a storm caused unprecedented losses of 5.3 million cubic metres, (around 30 thousand ha of forest), with as much 2 million cubic metres (12 thousand ha) damaged within the Tatra National Park alone. Since 2004, other storms have caused significant damages, but none as devastating.

In order to assess forest recovery from storm damage, different interventions have been applied to experimental sub-divisions of the windblown area – one managed, another left to natural processes, a further section that was destroyed by fire, and an area that was left undisturbed by the storm. The effects of these treatments are being monitored and the results will inform future interventions.


Figure 9: Damage from the 2004 windstorm

Tree pests are a fundamental cause of tree mortality. As in Scotland, the large pine weevil (Hylobius abietis) can decimate young crops, particularly young plantation trees, with an 80 per cent mortality rate. Because the national park is part of an important water catchment, no chemical treatments for weeds, pests and diseases are permitted within its boundaries. Whilst measures to protect water quality exist in Scotland, chemical treatments would still be allowed within drinking water catchment areas under regulation.

The greatest threat to mature stands is the eight-toothed European spruce bark beetle (Ips typographus) which feeds on the cambium of living trees, and depends on fallen timber for breeding material. In the Tatra National Park, the bark beetle outbreaks have heavily increased since the 2004 storm, and have caused massive losses ever since.  The volume of fallen timber, combined with increasing temperatures, has led to an explosion in the bark beetle population.


Figure 10: Bark beetle damage

Perhaps ironically, the implementation of control measures for the bark beetle is obstructed by legislation that prohibits the processing of deadwood to protect nature and landscape. State and private forest owners are trying to bring about change which would allow some management – such as de-barking fallen trees – but this is currently being met by opposition from the government department responsible and from conservationists.


Hunting and grazing                                                                            Alan McCombes

Slovakia’s extensively forested uplands, where trees grow high on the mountain slopes, are at least partly the product of historically lower grazing pressures on the land.

Cattle densities in Scotland and Slovakia are broadly similar but there is a startling disparity in sheep and deer densities. In Slovakia there are 23.2 sheep and goats per square kilometre; in Scotland, there are 83.5 (overwhelmingly sheep). And while combined red and roe deer density in Slovakia is 3 per sq. km, the figure in Scotland is 10. Although deer numbers are lower than either sheep or cattle, they cause far more damage on woodland because of their nutritional preferences and their wide range.

The familiar sight in Scotland of red deer roaming in vast herds across bare hillsides is unknown in Slovakia. During our visit we saw only two red deer, in the forests of the Low Tatras, and were struck by the sheer size of the animals. They are more elusive and substantially larger in Slovakia because they live, and thrive, in their natural woodland habitat – in contrast to Scotland where red deer have been forced to adapt to the open hillside.


Figure 11: Tree covered hillside in the Low Tatras                

Hunting has a different traditional basis in Slovakia because landowners do not have the exclusive shooting rights on their property. Instead the land is divided into around 1800 hunting grounds covering 90 per cent of the land mass (only urban land, waterways and protected areas are exempt), each administered by a local hunting club  affiliated to the national Slovak Hunters’ Chambers.

Hunting is strictly regulated. All prospective hunters are required to undergo a rigorous year-long programme of practical training run by village hunting clubs. This is followed by a further year of theory, culminating in examinations in animal biology, first aid, hunting rules and ethics, and psychometric testing. In Scotland, the only requirement for hunting is a firearms certificate. Hunting data is rigorously recorded in Slovakia and held by the local hunting clubs. The information includes date, times, locations, and the numbers and species of animals shot. Failure to produce records can result in severe penalties and criminal liability.

Hunting is less elitist in Slovakia. Village clubs pay landowners 50 cents (half a euro) per hectare for each hunting expedition, they and members of the clubs participate free of charge (although they will pay around 35 euros for each animal compared to around 750 euros for a stag in Scotland). There is also a smaller VIP/tourist hunting sector in Slovakia which is expensive and has more in common with the model of deer stalking prevalent in Scotland. This appears to be on the margins rather than at the heart of hunting culture. The larger numbers of hunters help keep herbivore numbers in check. In Slovakia around a quarter of the deer population is shot each year, while in Scotland the figure is less than one tenth. This in turn flows from the desire of many sporting landowners in Scotland to retain high stag numbers for the benefit of guests and clients.

Hunting is not run primarily as a commercial business. Under 2009 legislation, hunting is legally defined  as “a set of activities focused on sustainable, rational, systematic hunting management and the use of wildlife and the natural resources as a natural wealth and a part of natural ecosystems; it is a part of the cultural heritage, and the environmental protection.”



Communities and land ownership                                                           Emily Wilkins

North Eastern Slovakia has some common geographical and economic features with the West Highlands of Scotland. A remote, mountainous region covering upwards of 10,000 km2, it lies on the eastern edge of the European Union and in parts is over 300 miles distant from the capital Bratislava. Like the West Highlands, it has an ageing population, with many of the younger generation forced to leave home to find work.

Yet the population density is more than 15 times higher: the Presov administrative region, which covers most of north eastern Slovakia, has a density of 91 per km2, while areas like Lochaber, Wester Ross, and Skye and Lochalsh have around 5 per km2. Nationally, the rural population of Slovakia comprises 46 per cent of the total, compared to 17 per cent in Scotland.

The Carpathians were always a peripheral and underdeveloped part of every state that ruled the area. The comparatively undeveloped economy meant people were left to conduct their own lives, retaining specific cultural and linguistic characteristics and a more ‘peasant-based’, rural economy. A strong connection with the landscape is evident with shepherds keeping a watchful eye on sheep flocks. Many are registered hunters, and most households appear to tend their own vegetable gardens. The country gives the impression of being much closer to nature than Scotland.

The pattern of land ownership is vastly different. For a large part of Slovakia’s recent history, roughly 1948 to 1989, it was part of Communist Czechoslovakia, where large areas of land were nationalised. In agricultural areas, these were converted into large collective farms, while in some of the mountain areas, national parks were declared.

In 1991, after the separation of Slovakia from the Czech Republic, the Restitution Law allowed original owners to claim back land that had been taken over by the state, or alternatively to be awarded compensation for the loss of their property. The process was complicated due to lack of records and competing claims. This tangle of confusion means that the legal ownership of around 15 per cent of woodland remains “unidentified”.

In some areas land was subdivided when passed onto each successive generation, leading to a distinctive landscape pattern of small strips across the hillside. As a result, land sales, or even the establishment of infrastructure such as cycle tracks can become a complicated business due to the multiplicity of small landowners. Due to a falling rural population many of these strips are now abandoned and left uncultivated with forest beginning to recolonize.

New legislation tries to help with consolidation of small land parcels, and unions of farmers have been established for the purpose of applying for grants and organising grazing on abandoned land. Scottish crofting communities can face similar challenges, although often the land here suffers more from overgrazing than undergrazing.

The state owns half of all land in Slovakia’s national parks, and retains mineral and game rights over private land in these protected areas. There is also a history of community ownership which can be traced back to the eighteenth century when Austro-Hungarian Empress Maria Theresa issued a special decree on land ownership. The legislation, further developed in the late nineteenth century, enshrines a system of indivisible village ownership of forests and pasture land, which survives to this day under the management of almost 3,000 local ‘urbariats’ – the Slovak equivalent of community land trusts.

Under the urbar system, villages own and manage woodlands, in line with a national 10-year plan to ensure the protection, rational use and continual improvement of the forests. Each urbar is required to employ at least one professional forester to ensure woodlands are properly managed in line with public objectives. Profits generated are distributed among local shareholders. From the Scottish standpoint, it was interesting to discover that the exciting new idea of community land ownership has functioned in Slovakia for 250 years!


Management of national parks          Christian Christodoulou-Davies & Jane Filshill

The history of national parks in Slovakia stretches back to 1949 with the creation of the Tatra National Park. This was followed by a continual expansion of protected areas, with at least one new national park designated every decade (apart from the 1950s). In Scotland, the first national park was not established until 2002.

Table 1: A brief comparison of the size and history of national parks across our home and host countries. For context it is worth noting that Slovakia is significantly smaller than Scotland accordingly NP’s as a percentage of total area covered in each country does not differ greatly (6.5% and 8.2% respectively).

National Parks of Slovakia


National Parks of Scotland



Area (km2)




Area (km2)


Tatra NP




Loch Lomond and The Trossachs NP



Pieniny NP




Cairngorms NP



Low Tatras NP







Mala Fatra NP







Slovak Paradise NP







Poloniny NP







Muranska planina NP







Vel’ka Fatra NP







Slovak Karst NP














Figure 12: Rafting on the Dunajec river in Pieniny National Park, High Tatras in the background

Within these national parks, a zoning and buffer system offers varying levels of protection to special places, wildlife and forests. Under Slovakian law, a designated nature reserve must contain at least 1000ha of important habitat that has not been generally affected by human activities.

Having designated an area the state nature regulatory body can then either totally or partially restrict public access if it is necessary to protect the area. This strict management regime follows guidelines used by the UNESCO biosphere reserves, which specifies three zones: the core area, the buffer zone and, the transition zone (though some national parks, such as the Tatra National Park, have five zones).

Core areas within Slovakian national parks adhere to the IUCN guidelines for protected area categories 1a (strict nature reserves) and 1b (wilderness areas). That means restrictions on public access in some areas, such as exclusion zones or rules obliging visitors stick to marked trails. In some areas, no human interference is allowed.

This more strict approach has obvious advantages for species and habitat conservation. But as the percentage private ownership of land increases, it looks likely that the Slovakian model will come under greater pressure.

Scotland with its more manged landscape has little to compare with the deep, heavily protected primeval forests of Slovakia, but could still benefit from prohibited zones. It also has popular access laws, and a traditional culture which is hostile to restrictions on where people are allowed to venture.

These differences are reflected in the philosophy of Scotland’s national parks, whose statutory aims of national parks are:

  • To conserve and enhance the natural and cultural heritage of the area;
  • To promote sustainable use of the natural resources of the area;
  • To promote understanding and enjoyment (including enjoyment in the form of recreation) of the special qualities of the area by the public;
  • To promote sustainable economic and social development of the area’s communities.

From the outset national parks in Scotland were founded on the basis of the cultural as well as the natural heritage. Accordingly the closest IUCN category for Scotland’s national parks would be category 2, with its more lenient attitude to human presence, tourist infrastructure and economic activity.

However, the impending introduction of ‘Your Park’ byelaws into a further four zones of Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park (following the bye-laws introduced in East Loch Lomond) may indicate at least a small step in the direction of the more controlled environment seen in Slovakia.

Slovakia appears to have a greater reverence for nature, and a preparedness to accept rules legislated by the state. Across the six national parks we visited, there was a striking absence of litter, even in areas with high visitor numbers. This suggests a higher level of nature education. We found a strong and well-established sense of local community within each of the places we visited, something that Scotland is making progress towards.

Slovakian rules are simple and straightforward. “It is strictly prohibited to destroy the environment of national parks by polluting it with garbage, unnecessary noise, to damage, destroy or pick protected plants, hunt or disturb protected animals or make campfires.”

Whatever the merits of the zoning policy, it is clear that Slovakia has an impressive range of beautiful national parks. The idea of creating new national parks is currently a hot topic in Scotland, driven by organisations such as the ‘Scottish Campaign for National Parks.’ However at a time when budgets are already being reduced for the two existing national parks, it looks an unlikely prospect, certainly for the foreseeable future. If and when the funding situation improves in the future, it may be that any new national parks proposed will be on a smaller, Slovakian scale.

Yet that can pose its own challenges. In Slovakia, there appears to be a lower level of cooperation than exists between Scotland’s two national parks. Due partly to their different locations – one situated adjacent to the heavily populated central belt , the other in a more remote setting – Scotland’s two national parks face their own distinctive management challenges. However, they both serve the same purpose and work together in partnership – a model has that has worked well in Scotland with the support of the Scottish Government.

The Slovakian national park system in contrast feels a bit more disjointed. There is also a feeling from people on the ground that they need greater funding to survive and thrive into the future. In the meantime, conservation bodies such as the Slovakian Wildlife Trust rely upon the European Union rather than the Slovakian state to fund specific projects.


Cross-border challenges                                             Krysia Campbell & Jane Filshill

The Carpathian Mountains form a great 1,500km arc across Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe, crossing state boundaries and reaching into seven separate countries. Of the six national parks we visited, all lie in the Carpathians. Four of Slovakia’s national parks adjoin national parks in three neighbouring countries.


Figure 13: Slovakian Gorali raft guide on the Dunajec River which at points separates Slovakia and Poland. The Three Crowns in the background

The first pioneering attempt to plan for transboundary national parks by Czechoslovakia and Poland in the 1920s was eventually realised in 1932, when Poland’s Pieniny national park was co-planned alongside the Slovak Pieniny natural reserve. Today, both the Polish and Slovakian Pieniny national parks straddle the Dunajec River, which for 27 kilometres forms the Slovakian-Polish border. We travelled along a stretch of this on rafts operated by ‘Gorali’ boatmen. The Goralis are a trans-boundary population, a Carpathian-Slavic highlander group spread across the Slovakian and Polish Carpathians

Although shared responsibility for national parks is a laudable principle, divided management can create difficulties. Access laws, for example, are inconsistent across national borders; the High Tatra mountain-tops are out of bounds to all except mountaineering clubs for several months of the year in Slovakia, but not in Poland.

IUCN guidelines for Trans Boundary Conservation Areas (TBCA) sets out the following benefits of cross-border cooperation:

  • Enable greater ecological integrity and contribute to the long-term survival of species;
  • Contribute to securing the survival of migratory species;
  • Have the potential to generate substantial socio-cultural and economic benefits; and
  • Can result in multiple benefits through establishment of enhanced cooperation in management.

The national parks do have regular liaison meetings with their counterparts in neighbouring countries, but cooperation appears limited. There is, however, an interesting transboundary project now underway, exploring the close ties between the towns of Nowy Targ (‘New Market’, Poland) and Kežmarok ( the ’Cheese market’, Slovakia). It recognises long-standing social, economic and cultural patterns across the mountain range, and emphasises that mountains do not act solely as a barrier. Among other aims, the project will prepare audio-visual guides (in three languages) outlining the strong historic and economic connections between the interlinked towns and communities in the Pieniny region.


Culture, nature and tourism                                                                Krysia Campbell

As in Scotland, there is a strong understanding that landscapes and places are shaped by a combination of culture and nature. Overall, however, management of the cultural and natural heritage, including research, monitoring and pubic engagement, are undertaken separately and cultural attributes are seen as ‘subservient’ to natural heritage objectives.

In some areas – for example, the poloniny grasslands (alpine and sub-alpine pastures) – it is clearly recognised that traditional land management has directly led to the creation of what appears to be a ‘natural’ habitat. But, perhaps because of the legacy of past political structures and the more recent flux in land ownership, there does not seem to be any serious emphasis on encouraging communities to engage with their environment and local landscape. National Park designations have always tended to be ‘top-down’ and strongly identified with state land management that traditionally focuses on forestry.

The exhibition viewed in the visitor centre of the Vysoke Tatry (High Tatras) National Park did include information on the region’s cultural heritage, although natural heritage content predominated. The cultural heritage element of the exhibition outlines how the Tatras grew in popularity during the nineteenth century because of its healthy alpine mountain air, opportunities for outdoor activity and scenic value. Little context, however, is given to the more recent population increase. The accompanying tourist facilities and changes in land management are all putting pressure on the montane environment.

These pressures were further elaborated by Peter Fleischer of the Slovakian Forestry Service. Commercial and private interests in the High Tatras have intensified since 1989. Consequently, hotel complexes, ski resorts and other tourist infrastructure have spread into previously unsettled areas. This development pressure, alongside rural depopulation, is changing traditional land management. As settlements expand and the local economy rests more on tourism, agricultural holdings have become vacant and areas of pasture abandoned.

Conflicting land management objectives inevitably lead to tension. On the one side, an ‘open’ letter from 55 scientists warns that the development of tourist facilities in the national parks is leading to substantial loss of biological diversity and disruption of natural processes, especially threatening the High Tatras’ natural forests. From the other side, private commercial landowners and investors, whose main interests are to generate profit from their land, complain at the absence of any formal system to compensate them for reduced commercial opportunities.

Scotland must also be aware of the pressures that our natural environment and landscapes may face if tourism and economic gains are set too firmly at the forefront of our planning aims. The gradual erosion of landscape and habitat quality will also occur where local economic drivers lead to changes in land management, unless landscape objectives are clearly understood, set out and agreed.

Yet tourism is a lifeblood industry for Slovakia. As a landlocked country, it lacks beaches and seaside resorts, but thanks to its natural beauty and amazing wildlife, tourism supports, directly and indirectly, 136,000 jobs – almost 6 per cent of the total. Ecotourism in particular may well become a major growth sector in the future.

One intriguing difference in visitor management, especially where nature protection is strongly regulated, is the more laissez faire attitude to health and safety, with the emphasis firmly placed on allowing people to assume personal responsibility for their own actions. In Slovensky Raj (Slovak Paradise) National park, much of the infrastructure that has been built to allow people access into a labyrinth of precipitous gorges and canyons would be forbidden in the UK on health and safety grounds. The park charges an entry fee to fund mountain rescue services for those who get themselves in difficulty.


Figures 14 & 15: Slovensky Raj via ferrata

The UK’s ‘Visitor Safety in the Countryside’ guidance does suggest zoning areas to allow for different levels of responsibility expected from landowners or visitors, but even so it is unlikely that our culture would allow the adventurous via ferrata type trails found in the Slovensky Raj, without insisting upon many more safety features. For the record, despite some jangling nerves, the entire group completed the expedition to the summit!


Conclusion                                                                                     Nathan McLaughlan

Slovakia is facing both great opportunities and challenges. The natural wealth was clear to see during our trip, but there is clearly a drive for development, especially in the High Tatras.  Managing this conflict between modern economic development and preserving the traditional culture and environment will be increasingly difficult.  Climate change is already starting to impact the forests of the High Tatras national park and will present a different set of challenges.

There is certainly a lot that we can learn from Slovakia. The ‘progressive’ land ownership and game management evident in the country is something Scotland could look to for ideas.  The woodlands are highly valued as a national resource and great emphasis is placed on managing them appropriately.  With reduced persecution and increased conservation efforts, farming methods can adapt to deal with conflicts from increased predator populations without losing their traditions.

There is a willingness to learn and try new approaches to address new problems, for example experimenting with deadwood management in order to avoid the need for chemicals when treating bark beetle is forward thinking. Slovakia has also led the way in cross border working, having a number of well-established national parks and projects that cross various international boundaries.

Each of us has learned a great deal during this course. We would like to express our sincere thanks to each of the guides, who each gave us a different insight into Slovakia and lessons that can be adopted and adapted to our own situations.  We would especially like to thank Libby at Archnetwork for arranging the course and Miro at Krajina for looking after us so well during our stay.



APPENDIX – Vertebrate species List

Vertebrate Species List:

  • Fire Salamander                       Salamandra salamandra
  • Common Frog                           Rana temporaria
  • Pool Frog                                  Pelophylax lessonae
  • European Green Toad               Bufo viridis 
  • Adder                                       Vipera berus
  • Viviparous (Common) Lizard     Lacerta vivipara
  • Red squirrel                              Scirus vulgaris
  • Common Shrew                        Sorex araneus
  • Roe deer                                   Capreolus capreolus
  • Red deer                                  Cervus elaphus 
  • White stork                               Ciconia ciconia     
  • Black Stork                               Ciconia nigra
  • Mallard                                     Anas platyrhynchos
  • Buzzard                                    Buteo buteo
  • Marsh Harrier                            Circus aeruginosus
  • Kestrel                                      Falco tinniculus
  • Peregrine falcon                       Falco peregrinus
  • Lesser spotted eagle                 Aquila pomarina
  • Corncrake                                 Crex crex
  • Lapwing                                    Vanellus vanellus
  • Black-headed gull                     Larus ridibundus
  • Wood pigeon                                      Columba palumbus
  • Golden Oriole                           Oriolus oriolus
  • Cuckoo                                     Cuculus canorus
  • Green woodpecker                    Picus viridis
  • Greater spotted woodpecker     Dendrocopos major
  • Swift                                        Apus apus
  • Swallow                                    Hirundo rustica
  • House marten                           Delichon urbica
  • Pied wagtail                              Motacilla alba
  • Grey Wagtail                                      Motacilla cinerea
  • Dipper                                      Cinclus cinclus
  • Wren                                        Troglodytes troglodytes
  • Dunnock                                  Prunella modularis
  • Robin                                        Erithacus rubecula
  • Black Redstart                          Phoenicurus ochruros
  • Redstart                                   Phoenicurus phoenicurus
  • Blackbird                                  Turdus merula
  • Mistle thrush                                      Turdus viscivorus
  • Fieldfare                                   Turdus pilaris
  • Blackcap                                   Sylvia atricapilla
  • Wood warbler                           Phylloscopus sibilatrix
  • Chiff chaff                                Phylloscopus collybita
  • Willow warbler                          Phylloscopus trochilus
  • Great tit                                   Parus major
  • Coal tit                                     Parus ater
  • Jay                                           Garrulus glandarius
  • Red-backed shrike                    Lanius collurio
  • Magpie                                     Pica pica
  • Jackdaw                                   Corvus monedula
  • Raven                                                Corvus corax
  • Starling                                    Sturnus vulgaris
  • House sparrow                          Passer domesticus
  • Chaffinch                                 Fringilla coelebs
  • Goldfinch                                 Carduelis carduelis
  • Rosefinch                                 Carpodacus erythrinus
  • Serin                                        Serinus serinus
  • Crossbill                                    Loxia curvirostra
  • Yellowhammer                          Emberiza citronella 


Notable Invertebrates



Carpathian blue slug                          Bielzia coerulans


Tau emperor moth                              Aglia tau


Field cricket                                        Gryllus campestris

Hemiptera: Heteroptera

Forest shield bug                                Pentatoma rufipes




Bulgarian Nature Exchange 2012

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.

Day 1:

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.

Day 2

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.

Bulgaria - junk back in rucksack
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.

Bulgaria - orchid on upper slopes

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.

Bulgaria - beech forest with little regeneration
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.

Bulgaria - fire salamander

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.

Bulgaria - Tau emperor moth
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.

Day 3

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.

Bulgaria - Teteven forestry school

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.

Bulgaria - Street+potatoes

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.

Bulgaria - Danube model at Persina

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.

Bulgaria - Veliko Tarnovo
Picture 9: The town of Veliko Tarnovo

Day 4

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.Bulgaria - Craftsman at Etara museumBulgaria - water powered washing machine
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.
Day 5

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.

Bulgaria - fire bellied toad

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.

Bulgaria - caves

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.

Bulgaria - group with mayor in town hall
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.

Bulgaria - beetle

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 .

Day 6

Bulgaria - pan parks logo
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!

Bulgaria - climbing wall

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.

Bulgaria - stuffed animals

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.

Bulgaria - meat trident

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.
Day 7:

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.

Bulgaria - university collection

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!!!!