Fading glory of the Western Stara Planina’s grasslands
Facts & Figures
Coordinates: 22° 54’ 39’’ E, 43° 19’ 14’’ N
Altitude: 1.298 m
Zapadna Stara Planina site under the Habitats Directive: 219.715 ha
Zapadna Stara Planina site under the Birds Directive: 146.820 ha
The Western Stara Planina is a mountainous region in the North-West of Bulgaria. Kom Mountain on the border with Serbia is its highest peak (2.168 m). The region is occupied predominantly by montane and semi-montane forests, sub-alpine pastures and semi-natural grasslands.
The region is famous for its unique rock sculptures near Belogradchik and the ethnic cultures of the “Torlaks” and “Karakachans”, their traditional festivals and cuisine, vows and crafts, including the worldfamous Chiprovtsi hand-made carpets. A lot of these traditions are related to the farming systems practised in the past – sheep grazing in the mountainous pastures, wool used to produce the carpets and local herbs and flowers used to colour the wool.
The territory of the Western Stara Planina is of high ornithological and botanical importance and therefore is designated as a Natura 2000 site. There is also a proposal for designating part of the area as a Nature Park to support cross-border biodiversity with the Nature Park on the Serbian side.
The Western Stara Planina has an outstandingly rich biodiversity. This is the second most important region in Bulgaria for the conservation of natural beech forests, and there are ancient spruce forests too.
The flora counts more than 2.000 species of higher plants, among which are 12 Bulgarian and 79 Balkan endemics. The hill “Vrashka Chuka” is the only place in the world of the beautiful flowering plant Eranthis bulgaricus. Another remarkable plant in this region is the Serbian ramonda (Ramonda serbica) – a Balkan endemic and tertiary relict on rocky slopes.
The fauna of the Western Stara Planina is also very rich, with more than 180 bird species, more than 50 species of mammals (including 14 species of bats), 26 species of amphibians and reptiles and many butterfly species of conservation importance.
Among birds some of the most significant are corncrake (Crex crex), black stork (Ciconia nigra), rock partridge (Alectoris graeca), western capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus), hazel grouse (Bonasia bonasia). Of the 9 species of European woodpeckers, 8 are present in the region.
Among mammals the most interesting ones are European wolf (Canis lupus), pine marten (Martes martes) and otter (Lutra lutra). Populations of wild boar (Sus scrofus), red deer (Cervus elaphus), roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) are also present but overhunted.
Many of the habitats in the Western Stara Planina are of high nature conservation importance and as such are identified according the EU Habitats Directive. Some of the semi-natural habitats are depending on continuous and extensive agricultural management, often mowing or grazing at low stocking densities:
|EU Code||Habitat||Distribution||Relevance to HNV farmland|
|6210||Semi-natural dry grasslands and scrubland faciae on calcareous substrates (Festuco-Brometalia)||Low-mountain and mid-mountain zone EU Priority habitat on important orchid sites: e.g. Orchis morio, O. coriophora, O. ustulata, O. ustulata, O. tridentata and Anacamptis papilionacea||Used as pastures or as hay-making meadows. Main threat abandonment of farming and resulting scrub invasion such as wild briar, blackberry, hawthorn, wild pear etc., especially in places in proximity of forests.|
|6230||Species-rich Nardus grasslands, on siliceous substrates in mountains||Widespread above the tree line on dry to temperate-humid mountain soils||Nardus pastures have great species diversity though not known for their good nutrional qualities. They are used for grazing before the grass becomes coarse. Grazing at low stocking densities is necessary to maintain the habitat.|
|6510||Lowland hay meadows||Widespread along the river valleys up to about 700-800 m altitude||Grasslands dominated by cereal species of meadow and giant fescue (Festuca pratensis, F. gigantea), meadow foxtail (Alopecurus pratensis), false oat-grass (Arrhenatherum elatius), rough bluegrass (Poa trivialis), crested dog’s-tail (Cynosurus cristatus). The fodder quality of mesophile meadows increases with the presence of wild clovers (Trifolium spp.), lucernes (Medicago spp.) and vetches (Vicia spp.). Threats are abandonment of land as well as local overgrazing close to settlements.|
|6520||Mountain hay meadows||Develop on deep (comparatively) and well moisted soils in the catchments and lower sectors of slopes, near to the upper tree line||Appropriate for hay-making, but used as pastures as well; dominated by grass species: fescues (F. rubra, F. fallax, F. nigrescens), common bent (Agrostis capillaris), common quaking grass (Briza media) and crested dog’s-tail (Cynosurus cristatus). Also rich in legumes. Main threat is the abandonment of grazing practices.|
|4060||Alpine and Boreal heaths||Along ridges and slopes of shallow (up to 10 cm) and stony soils, often also as patches among mat-grass pastures||Vegetation with low qualities for grazing; dominated by European and bog bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus, V. uliginosum), low greenweed (Genista depressa) and broom (Genista sagittalis). Scrub encroachment with Siberian Juniper (Juniperus sibirica) after abandonment of grazing practices.|
|7140||Transition mires and quaking bogs||On damp terrains in depressions, around streams and spring sites||Lowest fodder qualities, due to domination of sedges (Carex sp.), cottongrass (Eriophorum sp.) and rushes (Juncus sp.); grasses present include tufted hair-grass (Deschampsia cespitosa) and purple moor grass (Molinia caerulea). Grazing is not needed to preserve habitat.|
Over 60 % of the Western Stara Planina is forested, with beech forest prevailing. Forests are a major source of medical plants, herbs and mushrooms collected by the local population for personal needs and commercial purposes.
About one third of the area is farmland, including sub-alpine pastures. Approximately 70 % of the farmland are meadows and pastures, and 30 % are arable land, vineyards and orchards.
The Western Stara Planina is one of the poorest and least prosperous regions of Bulgaria with poor soils, poorly developed agriculture, massive collapse in livestock numbers in the post-communist time and severe depopulation. Over 27 % of the agricultural land is officially abandoned, and in reality this figure is even higher. Abandonment of land takes place in the whole region on both grasslands and arable land, and is not restricted to the high mountainous parts.
Most of the arable land is on subsistence farms with the main products being potatoes, beans, tomatoes and peppers. Where commercial farming is developed it is mostly for strawberry and raspberry production on large irrigated fields. Cereals and fodder crops are in decline due to the poor soil conditions.
More that 50 % of the population in the region owns agricultural land. However, in a region of grassland-dominated farmland, only one fifth of land-owning farmers actually own meadows or pastures. Private farmland ownership is dominated by arable lands while grasslands are mostly owned by the state or municipality. The average size of private farms is 1.6 ha of owned land, usually divided into several plots. Market-oriented livestock farms have an average size of 26 ha, including the use of common grassland.
The state owns approximately 82 % of all forests. Private individuals own around 12.5 % of the forests with an average holding of 0.2 ha. Some of the land officially designated as forest is actually used for grazing.
There is an extremely high share of subsistence and semi-subsistence farmers. Typically they are old people, living in poor conditions, with little scope to set up a viable farm business. Their numbers can best be revealed by comparing the figures of agricultural land in use and the land registered in the Land Parcels Identification System (LPIS), which shows land eligible for CAP support. On average less than one fifth of all grasslands are in farms claiming support (more commercially oriented farms). Even worse, only 8 % of all arable land is registered in LPIS. Furthermore, this excludes long-term abandoned land which is statistically registered separately.
The abundance of low-mountain semi-natural meadows and alpine pastures traditionally supported animal husbandry in the region, especially sheep and goat keeping. Before World War II, Balkan nomadic tribes often crossed this harsh mountainous region, brought their knowledge and habits, and established communities in the region. The region grew famous for its good pastures, sheep products (cheese, meat and wool carpets) and pottery. Inhabitants depended on an intensive trade network that brought their products to the other Balkan regions and even to distant lands such as Egypt. Communism strongly discouraged traditional activities and lifestyles, and many peasants were turned into industrial workers. Nowadays there is little left of the old transhumance traditions, and few farmers take their flocks for summer-grazing on mountain pastures. The abundance of free, unused pastures is in some cases been used extensively (low stocking densities) by established and new market-oriented family farms.
Most sheep and goat farms are semi-subsistence with limited marketing opportunities for their products. The scope for livestock keeping, and especially dairy farming, is quite limited in the region due to the aging population, the harsh climate and the subsequent need for large amounts of expensive fodder, and the increasing legal requirements such as hygiene standards. Subsistence farms also raise pigs, poultry and rabbits. Honey production is another semi-subsistence activity with a number of farmers registered as bee-keepers and honey producers.
Bulgarian farmers managing HNV grasslands and/or situated in mountains areas can apply for the single area-based payments (63 EUR/ha) as well as for LFA payments (90 EUR/ha) and agri-environmental schemes for high nature value farmlands (131 to 155 EUR/ha). Logically, this support is only provided to registered farmers and land. However, in the Western Stara Planina region only 8 % of arable land and 18 % of the grasslands are officially registered. In practice this leaves huge areas of land without any support and thus threatens to lead to further abandonment and the resulting loss of biodiversity and habitats.
However, it is interesting that if the production would switch from dairy to beef systems, so that all the available forage is fully used, even with the current number of animals – a total of about 4.500 livestock units – the appropriate biodiversity-sensitive management of only one third of all grasslands will be ensured. This does not solve the problem entirely but is at least much better than the current 18% of the grasslands. Although, this entails a lot of additional costs for infrastructure of the new system, as well as on-farm and marketing investments and still does not solve the issue of land registration.
At the same time farmers willing to start using abandoned grasslands or arable fields will face serious difficulties as the clearing of unwanted scrub encroachment is not supported by any of the payment options. The Bulgarian Rural Development Plan 2007-2013 does not include the measure on non-productive investments either. Thus any restoration of overgrown and abandoned fields is the responsibility of the land manager.
The overly-strict hygiene requirements (as compared to other EU member states) do not allow small- and medium-scale enterprises to sell end products, which determines the reduced scope for direct sale in the region. So far the only option for small-scale producers is to sell milk to milk collection points, an unfair situation in which middlemen make most of the profits without providing any support or engagement with the farmers. Financial support, as well as tailored legislation for small and semi-subsistence farmers, is a precondition for the creation of markets and local brands for end products and for the revival of the livestock keeping sector.
In addition to the harsh natural conditions and the economical and policy obstacles, social factors further affect the overall situation:
- Out-migration and a high percentage of ageing population
- Lack of knowledge and skills: less than 5 % of the population has specialised farming education, while traditional ways of managing land were not supported for more than 50 years
- Unattractiveness of farm work and general lack of labour force in the region
- Preference to make profits quickly and/or develop tourism
All of these factors require adequate government and regional policy as well as targeted and specific financial support aiming at conservation and restoration of HNV grasslands which are threatened by extinction if the current rates of abandonment and land degradation are allowed to continue.