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Absence of rain and severe frosts – main challenges for Dinara beekeepers

Climate change is the biggest obstacle to sustainable beekeeping – it is the conclusion reached at the round-table discussion “Challenges in beekeeping” held in Vrlika at the start of February. Specifically, disturbance in precipitation regime and more frequent droughts have a negative impact on vegetation, especially on wild honey plants; the absence of heavy rains in spring causes a delay in vegetation, making it difficult for honeybees to survive during increasingly dry summers; sporadic late-spring frosts have adverse effects on plants and yield. Beekeepers have also detected a new climate pattern – frequent occurrence of strong bura wind after rainfall which then very quickly dries out the soil.

The main activity of “Dinara back to LIFE” project is the restoration of Dinara grasslands due to their importance for nature and the biodiversity itself, which will benefit all the Dinara residents. Beekeepers, users of Dinara grasslands, are stakeholders in the project, which supports them with interconnecting and advocating solutions to their benefit. Round table discussions are also held to create space for dialogue and discussion, which can help bring out the issues, and ultimately enable beekeepers and decision-makers to create better conditions for beekeeping through stronger cooperation, and thus provide indirect environmental and economic benefits for this area.

Attendees of the second beekepers round table discussion in the project, held in Vrlika were beekeepers associations from the northern part of Dinara, BA „Dinara“ from Vrlika, BA „Vrisak“ from Kijevo and BA „Drača“ from Knin. The first round table discussion, held in Sinj in October, gathered representatives of beekeepers associations from the southern part of the project area, which includes the towns of Sinj and Trilj, and the municipalities of Otok and Hrvace.

Mirko Ljubičić, the president of the Split-Dalmatia county Beekeepers Association, mr. sc. Zora Kažimir on the behalf of the Public institution MORE I KRŠ, Ivica Mastelić on the behalf of the town of Sinj and Martin Ercegovac, Mayor of Kijevo, expressed support for beekeepers in Vrlika and Sinj with their participation in said events.

At the round table discussion in Vrlika, organized by the LAG „Cetinska Krajina“, which gathered around 20 beekeepers, it was emphasized that climate change in recent years has been making beekeeping in this area unprofitable, so more and more beekeepers are giving up, even those who have been doing it for years during which they obtained a lot of beehives. On the other hand, new beekeepers are starting to get involved in beekeeping. Seasonal pressure also occurs in this area – Dinara beekeepers claim that the recommended pressure is about 10 hives per square kilometer, yet during the season beekeepers start to come from other regions, so there can be up to 5000 hives in the region at that time.

Due to the lack of bee forage, beekeepers suggest planting trees and shrubs, such as winter savory, sage, lavender, rosemary, linden and chestnut, since they are the most suitable species for this area. Rosemary is particularly interesting as a plant that blooms twice a year. Given the climatic characteristics of this area, the most suitable trees are the ones resistant to high-temperature differences throughout the year. Beekeepers’ advice is to plant honey plants in public areas, which requires the consent of Croatian Forestry and Croatian Waters. Another proposition would be planting windbreaks consisting of honey trees, which had already been done last year in Sinjsko polje, where black alder, white willow and linden were planted.

Beekeepers are interested in purchasing a larger number of honey plant seedlings to plant next to their lots, an idea which received support from the mayor of Kijevo. Seedlings would be purchased through beekeepers associations for a lower purchase price. They also stated that other farmers disapprove if they try to plant honey plants on their initiative.

Maintaining the bees’ health is a key activity for hives preservation which is why it is required to treat hives twice a year, although a need for three treatments may occur as varroa becomes more resistant. Additional financial pressure regarding treatment comes from the regulation which states that the beekeeper must buy remedies in advance. The state later refunds the remedy purchase. However, it is sometimes difficult for retirees among beekeepers to set aside several thousand kunas at once for this purpose. A bigger problem even is the lack of sustainable incentive system. Incentives in agriculture are currently calculated per unit (e.g. hectare or head), with the exception of beekeeping. The state co-finances only the purchase of equipment for beekeepers, so they want to propose an idea of a system of incentives per hive.

Beekeepers proposed cooperation with Croatian Forestry in regards to cleaning, restoration and expansion of existing forest tracks. Due to their poor condition, some of them pose an obstacle to utilizing Dinara higher areas for bee forage, especially during the summer. It would be important to form road widenings, e.g. building stops for beekeepers to enable them to park or turn their transport vehicles. Forestries now have the opportunity to incorporate these ideas into their management plans.

One of the topics discussed at the round table was the communal treatment against mosquitoes carried out by local self-government units. Harmful effects to bees occur when the insecticide is sprayed using vehicles that pass through inhabited areas. The beekeepers believe that the solution could be in aerial spraying or direct treatment of the wet habitats, the source of mosquito-spread.

The aim of this, as well as the other round table discussions, is to analyze the current situation, combine interests and define steps for the implementation of the agreed agenda. As a result of the round table discussion held in Vrlika, guidelines will be determined for planting honey plants, both in public and private areas.

News published in February could encourage Dinara beekeepers to continue and perhaps even expand their businesses. Namely, Oilseed company from Osijek is offering honey plants’ seeds, as well as several indigenous plants that are hard to obtain. Given the difficulties in obtaining seeds of honey plants, with the exception of phacelia and buckwheat, beekeepers have the opportunity to easily obtain various types of plants such as white melilot, sainfoin, red clover, white mustard, camelina and others.

In addition, the Ministry of Agriculture will be implementing „School Honey Day from Croatian apiaries“ again this year with the goal to educate children and their parents about the importance of consuming honey, while promoting honey from Croatian apiaries. This improves market positioning for Croatian beekeepers, which also makes an additional opportunity for Dinara beekeepers.

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Dragodid – keepers of dry stone walls

Studying and conservation of dry stone walls, organizing workshops, presentations, and educational activities, as well as popularising the method itself – these are the missions of 4 Grada Dragodid association which has been involved in this tradition for two decades, mostly in the coastal regions of Croatia. The collaboration between Dinara Back to LIFE and Dragodid began with our Collaborative Council meetings. It was followed by a lecture on stone wall building at the volunteer camp held for students. Restoration of Marunska bunarina, the first pond restored as a part of this project, followed last autumn, only to by continued this year with renovation of dry stone wall near the St. Jacob mountain hut on Vrdovo plateau. We have plans for future projects as well.

Members of Dragodid on field-work

The association was named after a small stone wall village Dragodid on island Vis where the first workshops were held and where the old master builder of dry stone walls Andrija Suić lived. He passed on his knowledge to Dragodid, and was one of the people who gets the most credit regarding the revitalisation of this tradition because he gave guidance and suggestions on this method, as Zvonimir Malbaša, Dragodid member from Sinj, puts it. In the village of Dragodid they used to say, ‘‘even water has 4 grad’’ (“grad” is an old unit used to measure the alcohol percentage in a drin, which equates to approximately 10%), hence the name of the association.

Zvonimir Malbaša

The first informal workshop was held in 2002 while 4 grada Dragodid Association was officially founded in 2007 when they started to expand and take their work more seriously. Today Dragodid has 50 members from all over Croatia, including Slavonija region where stone is not a common material. Majority of their members are ethnologists and architects as well as experts from other fields such as art historians, computer engineers, pharmacists, stonemasons, and other tradespeople etc. The headquarters of the society is in Šapjane near Rijeka.

Looking for a position for a stone

One of the bigger successes of the society is inscribing ‘Art of dry stone walling, knowledge and techniques’ into the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2018. This was initiated Dragodid, alongside by stone wall builders from France, Greece, Italy, Slovenia, Spain, Cyprus, and Switzerland. Being inscribed into the UNESCO list is a confirmation of the importance of preserving this building method which is important to the people as well as nature of the Mediterranean. For its work Dragodid has also received the notable European award Europa Nostra, was recognised as a Project of Influence by Best in Heritage and was awarded at the Zagreb Salon of Architecture.

Every year Dragodid organises around 30 stone wall workshops with dozens of participants. These workshops are a great opportunity for those that are interested to get started with dry stone walls building, and especially useful are the multi-day workshops held at Petrebišća summer camp on Učka, where this year they will hold their 13th workshop in a row. Weekend workshops are held on islands, in Dalmatia, as well as Istria, and there one can learn the basics of dry stone wall building. From there everything else is a matter of practice – ‘’people get their hands on their inherited stone wall buildings, try to restore it and quickly they become very skilled in this method’’, encourages Malbaša any future stone wall builders. Malbaša points out the great feedback from their students, large workshop turnout, and overall satisfaction of volunteers – some of which have started their own restoration projects restoring walls therefore spreading the knowledge and increasing the overall number of restored stone walls. The society itself either organised or ran stone wall workshops on 20 islands, 10 protected areas, and 23 towns and municipalities within Croatia, while abroad they took part in stone wall restoration activities in Greece, France, Italy, Portugal, Montenegro, Romania, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Member of Dragodid in front of a finished segment of a wall

Last year in Konavle near Dubrovnik, Dragodid organised the International Congress on dry stone, held at European level and was an important event for international dry stone wall building and restoring collaborations. These international collaborations are very important for exchanging knowledge on stone wall building due to the specificity of this method. In the spirit of this exchange Croatian builders also attend workshops abroad, while the workshop held at Petrebišća is attended by foreign volunteers. Considering these countries have different kinds of stone, they also use different building methods, for example, in France where slab-like stone is present – the wall layers are horizontal thus making the wall straight. In general, where there is stone in the world there are stone walls – from those found in South America in the likes of Machu Picchu to the pyramids in Egypt which are also considered type of dry stone wall buildings, Malbaša says imaginatively.

In the middle lof a wall, in the middle of work

In Croatia, each region has its specific way of stone wall building, primarily due to the different types of stone present in Istria, Dalmatia, and more specifically in the Ravni Kotari region where platy limestone is found. Stone walls can also be found outside of Croatia’s coastal regions – in Zagorje they’re often used as retaining walls as their structure is perfect to restrain soil while letting it drain. Additionally, builders adjusted the size and type of stone according to appropriate building methods and wall uses, they knew the area and what to expect in it. For centuries this method was developed and perfected and there was no need to alter it, states Malbaša clarifying the association’s position on this topic.

In the 20 years of informal and 15 years of its formal existence Dragodid engaged with all types of constructions made with the dry stone wall technique, whether it was border-walls, houses, filed huts – ‘bunjas’, ponds, wells, and any other structure built in this technique. Naturally, in coastal Croatia stone is the primary building material and whenever something was built the main consideration was how to use what is available. The builders were also considering the economic implication of their work – when building walls and borders they were simultaneously clearing the land of stone thus creating agricultural land. In addition, fences made of dry stone provided protection from animals, wind, and snow, without having a negative impact on the local wildlife – wild animals could either squeeze through the wall or jump over it, and it can be used by various other species such as lizards, frogs, birds, hedgehogs, snakes, small rodents etc.

At work on Vrdovo plateau

In order to further popularise this method, Dragodid made ‘Gradimo u kamenu’ handbook which gathers the knowledge on this method and presents the framework for building and preserving dry stone walls. This handbook is excellent help for beginners who are only getting started with stone walls. Those wanting to get their own copy can contact the publisher Slobodna Dalmacija, and two chapters are available as a PDF here (Croatian only):  http://www.dragodid.org/gradimo-u-kamenu-ponovno-na-kioscima/

Dragodid also took part in launching of Suhozid.hr website (available in English), open public inventory of Croatian dry stone heritage where everyone is welcome to add photos and locations of any walls, buildings, settlements, structures, ponds, wells, ancient paths and similar constructions, in short every instance of dry stone wall construction one encounters in Croatia.

Last year Dragodid also restored many ponds such as the one in Gaćelezi, on Zlarin, in Konavle, Vučipolje… We’re glad this collaboration had started and that stone wall building has been repopularised in these parts, Malbaša reflects on their work with us on Dinara. „We’re very happy and look forward to future work together“ – he concludes!

Taking rest at the end of dry stone wall restoration activity, done with the guidance of Dragodid members.
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“Service flock” began to gather – additional livestock for better grazing

Earlier this year, local livestock breeders joined the “Dinara back to LIFE” project to participate in the restoration of Mt. Dinara’s grasslands by leading their herds to graze in the project area. Thus, farmers from this area are getting directly involved in the project, as the project includes grazing as a project activity.

Through this cooperation, the project moves towards a mixed grazing system, the ideal model of pasture management, since donkeys and horses graze different plant species than sheep and goats.

So far, six livestock breeders have joined the project, and now we’ll present a few of them.

Totić family from Ježević are shepherds engaged in the livestock business for hundreds of years, not just because of the income. Dražen Totić recalled that his great-grandfather, born in 1895, said that the family had not sold a single sheep during his lifetime. During wartime, Totić family had to lead their flock over the mountain, which took them three days. They returned after the war ended. “We reared sheep even when no incentives were given,” says the enthusiastic breeder. This February, two aditional donkeys joined their large flock of 370 sheep, with the help of the “Dinara back to LIFE” project, making it more complete. Thus, young woody vegetation, which has been slowly and relentlessly taking over Mt. Dinara’s pastures for decades, will also be grazed. Totić plans to independently procure a number of donkeys as well, so his herd should grow to around 10 donkeys.

Ivan, Lucija and Dražen Totić

Totić family lives in the homonymous hamlet next to the Cetina river. The flow of the river is a little slower there, and when it overflows, it floods the surrounding field, which represents a natural process of field irrigation. Totić mows this field to feed livestock when there is not enough pasture available. His parents, his wife Lucija and their teenage sons assist him with keeping the largest herd in the area, in this idyllic location. As Totić says, “the children were raised to work”, so they know and can do all the work, from cleaning to baling and carrying hay, or even more demanding tasks.

Sheep in stable

“Peace, freedom and contentment” – Totić states the most beautiful thing in livestock breeding – “I have the freedom to work as I like.” His philosophy is that “one should be satisfied and modest in life.”

Livestock at grazing

Totić believes that for keeping livestock it is crucial to secure high quality conditions in order to maintain their health. When a disease does occur, there are “very good and helpful” veterinarians from Knin, who are ready to help “day and night.”

Experienced shepherd

In the Totić household, work starts at 4 am and ends at 10 pm, but when sheep lamb, it lasts day and night. A large herd grazes on the hill in the morning, and descends towards Cetina river, into a field in an idyllic location overlooking the peak called Kijevo’s Bat, in the afternoon.

According to Totić, the mountain’s higher parts aren’t welcoming for sheep, since there are no passable roads and safe water sources. But this year he will try to lead his flock towards Martinova košara, a plateau in the eastern part of Mt. Dinara at 1300 meters above sea level. And this time, along with the sheep, there will be a new flock of donkeys.

Alegić family from Ježević added two new donkeys to their existing livestock herd – a jack and a jennet from two different herds, in order to avoid kinship. In the process of expanding his herd, he faced the problem of procurement because there are very few donkeys on the market, as was also emphasized by other breeders.

Boris Alegić

Nowadays, as Boris Alegić explains, the donkeys’ age isn’t that important because they are no longer used as pack animals, so donkeys now live for over two decades and are fertile until the age of twenty. He currently owns a total of six donkeys, a flock of 150 sheep and seven cows. Alegić family wants to put more focus on donkeys because they see their importance and potential in the area, something that was recognised through the project, and they received our support for increasing the number of donkeys in their herd to up to 10.

These days, breeders are not only skilled shepherds but also entrepreneurs in the true sense of the word, who must think very clearly and be very thorough in their work in terms of costs and income. So, the prudent breeder Alegić calculated the annual costs and converted them into the number of lambs, where the average value of a lamb at the time of sale is one hundred euros. Therefore, every year, he needs 20 lambs for grain, another 20 to cover the costs of health and pension insurance, 10 lambs for the annual cost of hay, 5-6 lambs are needed for water, about 15 lambs also die each year, and he leaves 20 lambs every year so that herd’s number would not decrease due to the death of older sheep.

Dinara donkey bearing the distinctive “cross” on the back

A sheep can live for about 15 years, but some live only seven if they lamb more often. If a sheep starts lambing at the age of one, it will have a shorter life. On average, sheep lambs once a year, rarely twice a year, and has one, rarely two lambs. Alegić’s flock of 150 sheep can have up to 200 lambs a year. Although seemingly rich, as Alegić says, he wouldn’t be able to survive without state subsidies. The grateful breeder also emphasizes the help he receives from Split-Dalmatia County, which gives him a subsidy of 300kn per lamb.

Donkeys are interesting and useful as a part of the herd because they will eat the hay left over by sheep who are prone to scattering hay, leaving behind around 20% of it. These donkeys will improve grazing by eating plant species that sheep avoid, primarily juniper shoots, the dominant species taking over Mt. Dinara’s pastures. Alegić chose to get donkeys instead of cows to fill his herd mainly because the cow is a bigger feed consumer, as a stable cow needs much more hay.

Alegić’s herd starts going to the open pasture from March 1st, with the start of vegetation. In one day, the herd goes to a location called Kalinića ograda and back. As for the land, in addition to the grassland he has under lease and uses as pasture and for mowing, he needs another 20 hectares of pasture to meet the needs of the herd. Thus, he hopes for new tenders from Croatian Forestry for land lease. The price of renting pastures is 200 to 400 kuna per hectare per year + VAT.

Hamlet Validžići near Kijevo is located right at the foot of Mt. Dinara’s southeastern rock, where the mountain rises steeply towards Ošljak. Without running water, it has five inhabitants, including Petar Validžić.

Petar Validžić

In these conditions, Mr. Validžić keeps a flock of 130 sheep, 30 goats and 4 horses. With the project’s help, he also got a male horse, a mare and a foal, all Croatian Coldblood breed. He wanted horses because they can successfully defend themselves from wolves, due to their size and strength, while a donkey would be killed by wolves. Horses are thus the keepers of the herd, and they defend themselves better when there are more of them. The most successful keepers are the stallions because they defend themselves by kicking and biting. “I love horses, even though a horse is more expensive than a donkey,” says Validžić, whose plan is to have 15 mares.

Travnik pramenka breed, a part of his flock, is a large sheep with strong fleece that can’t reside at low altitudes and high temperatures in the summer because it becomes ill. Among other reasons, ticks appear there very early in the year. Thus, as Validžić emphasizes, Travnik pramenka is rarely ill when being higher in the mountains.

His diverse herd also includes goats and dogs, including Kangal Shepherds as large, strong and fighting guards, and Border Collies as herd gatherers. While the herd is in Validžići, it is guarded by dogs, especially female Kangal Shepherds who “chase the wolf while the male sleeps”. Since Validžić made a shed in the mountains, with the help of CMRS, all the animals are able to go with him. He emphasizes that there is no danger of beasts there because it is an open habitat, without a forest, so wolves and bears do not approach his herd there. Validžić built a shepherd’s hut on the mountain, near Martinova košara, a hiking shelter. He had had one worker to look after the livestock with him, but, as he says, the assistant had been injured first and then he lost the will to do the job. Now he spends his summers alone, occasionally accompanied by a few hikers or mountain rescue teams in passing.

Validžić spends summers near Martinova košara, from the beginning of July to the beginning of October, during which he does not descend at all, except in extraordinary circumstances. He is the only one from this area who goes “to the mountains”. One of the reasons for the small number of livestock breeders at these heights is the lack of water. The ideal solution, he believes, are the puddles that horses trample on, forming a waterproof layer, which successfully retains water that flows into them. In the area around Martinova košara, there are about 10 puddles waiting to be restored.

Sheep in stable

“Dinara is my third mother” – Validžić says about his attitude towards the mountain (as he was raised by his mother and sister in his youth). “I am just happy to be here. I am my own boss and I can live well since I have a pasture.” Even though he is satisfied with the job, he states that there are still not enough pastures. He also states that the herd size he has is enough for a good life, but only including subsidies, as is also emphasized by other livestock breeders.

A kid in a stable