At the beginning of February, we conducted controlled burning of overgrown grassland on Dinara and thus successfully continued the activity we started two years ago.
Controlled burning is one of the grassland restoration methods that has been used in livestock farming since ancient times and is used primarily to keep grassland areas free of unwanted wooden vegetation and to improve the quality of pastures.
Our first step was to inform the local public and stakeholders with the implementation plan and present the benefits of controlled burning for biodiversity.
We hope that our guidelines will be used by other institutions in the future to facilitate the preparation and implementation of controlled burning.
In 2021 our team implemented controlled burning as a pilot activity to test logistic and administrative requirements, which made implementation in 2023 much easier. Controlled burning activities were also supported by local fire fighting authorities, project partners and volunteers.
Favorable weather conditions – dry weather without rainfall and wind – showed up already in the first week of February, which enabled us to start with controlled burning.
Also, it is important to emphasize that this activity is carried out based on the Forest management program with the management plan for the area of Vrdovo (it is called Forest management program but also includes state owned grasslands within the area), where activities for the purpose of preserving biodiversity are prescribed. Controlled burning was introduced into the Management program based on the Ordinance on conservation objectives and conservation measures for target species and habitat types in the Natura 2000 areas, which prescribes controlled burning as a conservation measure for some habitat types and species, including ortolan bunting (Emberiza hortulana) and Eastern Sub-Mediterranean dry grasslands (Scorzoneretalia villosae) (Natura 62A0) on which we are working as part of the Dinara back to LIFE project.
We carried out controlled burning at the area of Vrdovo with the aim of improving habitat conditions for various animal species dependent on open habitats, with a special emphasis on the ortolan bunting. Ortolan bunting (Emberiza hortulana) is a strictly protected bird species that loses its habitat due to the encroachment of grasslands, and its presence has been recorded mainly in areas that were recently burned(either controlled or in many cases in summer wildfires).
We restored 50 ha of overgrown grasslands and we hope that they will be sustainably managed by grazing in the future. Hopefully the number of nesting pairs of the ortolan bunting will increase, as well as the number of grazing animals.
Controlled burning is recognized by the nature protection sector around the world and the method is used to restore areas that are overgrown or that are in different stages of succession, which need to be slowed down or stopped in order to preserve or maintain the desired habitat features.
Controlled burning is not a wildfire
Restoration sites are chosen in a way that habitat types and surrounding vegetation are not damaged or endangered by burning. A great deal of attention is paid to minimizing the impact on the organisms, primarily animals.
Implementing controlled burning is the same as the risk posed by any wildfire: primarily, the spread of fire to plots that were not the target of controlled burning and deep burning of soil. Both of these risks are avoided by good preparation, careful selection of the plots, selection of favorable weather conditions during the controlled burning activity, and the presence of a sufficient number of prepared participants in coordination with the competent firefighting department. Controlled burning is carried out in the winter period when there is a significantly smaller amount of dry biomass and when the fire spreads more slowly which gives firefighters the opportunity to easily control the fire.
Unlike controlled burning, wildfires have numerous negative impacts on various organisms and their habitats. They usually occur in the warmer period of the year in drought conditions. In case of windy weather, the situation gets even worse. Fire often burns large areas, including those that we want to preserve, such as forests, olive groves, vineyards, but also houses and other infrastructure. Animals that are not fast enough or cannot fly are also burned in that case. Burnt areas are later exposed to much stronger soil erosion by wind and water, especially on sloping terrain. It should also be emphasized that wildfires leave a much larger carbon footprint, they release much larger amounts of stored carbon dioxide than in the case of controlled burning, because the amount of organic matter burned in wildfires is much bigger than with controlled burning. Even though the burnt areas sooner or later turn green again and vegetation begins to develop and animals arrive, this process takes much longer than after the controlled burning. In case of controlled burning, with the arrival of first rains, the regrowth of the vegetation begins, as the underground parts of the plants are mostly undamaged.
Controlled burning in other countries
Controlled burning is a widespread method that is implemented in a large number of countries, from the Mediterranean and Baltic countries and the United Kingdom to the USA and Australia. In the United Kingdom, encroached grasslands are burned for the grassland management purpose while Norwegians use controlled burning on large areas for the purpose of maintaining pastures for sheep, preventing overgrowth of juniper and heather. In Spain controlled burning is widespread in different habitats for the purpose of maintaining them in a desired condition, and in the USA, burning prevents the overgrowth of prairies by shrubby vegetation enabling large herbivores to graze and maintain mosaic habitats like oak forests with glades. Controlled burning is also applied in pine forests to maintain the grass cover in the forest and enable the restoration of pine trees. In many of these examples, the initial argument was not habitat maintenance, but the controlled burning of biomass (dry branches, leaves, dry grass, flammable plant species), because burning in the colder period of the year proved to be a successful and spatial limitation of catastrophic summer wildfires. For example, after catastrophic fires in Portugal, as a measure to prevent them in the future, they revived the tradition of controlled burning.
In Croatia, controlled burning has recently only been carried out on relatively small and protected areas such as the Krka National Park or the Significant Landscape Kamenjak in Istria. However, primarily shepherds, but also farmers, still use burning in the winter months to maintain private grasslands and agricultural land that is temporarily or permanently not used for production, which means that such a tradition is still present. Unfortunately, nowadays large parts of these practices are carried out without control. Recent wildfires on large areas on Dinara have destroyed habitats that will take decades or centuries to restore and bring back the species that lived there. Such a “tradition” of uncontrolled burning shouldn’t have a place in modern spatial management, but also in the general approach of man to. Controlled burning, on the other hand, as a method of grassland management, is a way where using fire respects all users of the space, habitats and species that live on it. In that case, those who carry out this activity are obliged to make sure that the fire does not spread to forest or other habitats.
Have a look on how implementation of controlled burning of overgrown grasslands on Dinara looked like from our perspective.
Dinara is part of the Natura 2000 network and species and habitats which are priorities for conservation are clearly defined. In order to ensure favorable conditions for priority species we need various types of grasslands, forests and transitional habitats. Maintenance of those habitats require different techniques and controlled burning is one of them. In addition, natural resources should be treated with great respect, because they need to be kept for future generations.