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First insight into the status of grasslands in the payments support system in the area of Dinara Nature park

During the 57th Croatian and 17th International Symposium on Agriculture, which took place in June in Vodice, the members of our team from the University of Zagreb Faculty of Agriculture presented interesting results of research done as a part of our project.

Doc. dr. sc. Hrvoje Kutnjak had a presentation on the status of grasslands in the payment support system in Dinara Nature Park. The data used in this study was taken from ARKOD – land parcel identification system managed by the Paying Agency for Agriculture, Fisheries and Rural Development (PAAFRD; Croatian: APPRRR).

Spatial analyses carried out in geographic information system (GIS) showed that ARKOD plots of karst pastures and meadows cover around 5000 ha of Dinara mountain (about 8% of the area of Dinara Nature Park). More than 55% of areas of ARKOD plots are situated lower than 500 meters above sea level. Most of the plots are located between 300 m.s.l. and 400 m.s.l. The situated plots are located between 1200 m.s.l. and 1300 m.s.l. where an average plot has an area of 12.5 ha. It was also determined that slope is a limiting factor for the use of plots as pastures.

These are the first spatial analyses of karst pastures and meadows in Dinara Nature Park and the results should contribute to the future management of the Park.

The whole article by prof. Kutnjak and associates, taken from the Proceeding of the Symposium, can be found on the following link –

https://dinarabacktolife.eu/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/Kutnjak-pasnjaci.pdf

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A new research has begun – exclusion cages set on Dinara

Professors Hrvoje Kutnjak and Josip Leto and assistant Lucija Rajčić from the Faculty of Agriculture, University of Zagreb have recently set up so-called “exclusion cages”, as part of research for our project.

Prof Kutnjak on the field

These roller cages are about a meter and a half in diameter and one meter high, constructed of wire mesh, and attached to the ground. Their purpose is to prevent livestock from accessing this excluded piece of lawn. In this way, the set of grassland is preserved locally as well as the growth of plants. This method ultimately provides experts with the possibility of better insight into the botanical composition and productivity of grasslands in the project area.

Cages prevent grazing on the excluded section of the grassland

A total of six cages have been set up, four of which are in Ježević dry grassland, while two are in the Podinarje area near Kijevo. The cages are marked with leaflets with a message asking random passers-by not to touch the cages and thus help the research conducted in the Dinara area.

This year we plan to set-up additional cages. The results obtained will give a better insight into the utilization of grassland’s natural resource as well as new knowledge useful for grassland management in protected areas.

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Restoration season has finished – 47,6 ha of grassland on Ježević suhopolje has been cleared

At the end of March our first restoration season finished, which started in September last year, in which 47,6 ha of Ježević suhopolje grassland has been cleared of woody vegetation. By doing this a large grassland area has been made available for the return of Stone-curlew (Burhinus oedicnemus) and Short-toed Lark (Calandrella brachydactyla) to an area which had no record of Stone-curlew last year.

Stone-curlew and short-toed lark

The manual removal of woody vegetation on Ježević suhopolje began in September alongside the educational-volunteer camp Dinara back to LIFE which lasted for two work-intense weeks where 18 students and 20 other volunteers and participants started manually removing woody vegetation and so improved 28,8 ha of grassland. During this first phase methodology was developed considering the tools used as well as a timeline for necessary work. In addition, the 18 students also attended a series of lectures and gained a theoretical understanding of habitat restoration, knowledge they will be able to use in their future activities.

Kamp attendees at the cleared part of Ježević suhopolje

Immediately after the camp finished, the restoration was continued by restoration workers Mario Grčić i Ivan Kekez who started a 6-month season of clearing the Ježević suhopolje from woody vegetation. The removal was carried out on the area next to the area previously cleared during the camp. Despite the work being very physical and monotonous the two workers are satisfied – ‘’I work in nature and heal myself’’, says Grčić. A mechanical technician by profession he was previously working in construction and baking, and now he says ‘’for the first time I go to work singing!’’. Kekez, a driver and firefighter started this work because he loves animals and nature, and he enjoys this type of work – ‘’This is both work and relaxation to me. I enjoy the work and it’s made me feel more youthful!’’. Fieldwork is calm and peaceful and wildlife encounters are rare, a shepherd will come through with his herd now and again. These workers were also a part of other activities during the season, including pond and stone dry wall restoration.

Manual removal of woody vegetation is a crucial part of grassland restoration efforts on Dinara. Large areas have become overgrown over the decades due to mass emigration and a gradual abandonment of cattle breeding in the area. As a grassland gets more overgrown it is less and less grazed accelerating the habitat degradation process. In order to stop and reverse this process woody vegetation has to be manually removed as grazing alone is not enough due to large bushes and small trees which cannot be eaten by grazing animals and therefore they continue to grow and spread unless manually removed.  This removal method guarantees a complete and thorough clearing of all types of woody vegetation, especially juniper (Juniperus oxycedrus) which unlike other vegetation, cannot be significantly managed with livestock and therefore must be manually removed. During the 7 month restoration season we did just that – we cleared a relatively large portion of the grassland, mostly from juniper, for the benefit of wildlife as well as domesticated animals, with a goal of perserving this grassland with the help of local shepherds and their herds, and eventually expanding the cleared area in continuing these restoration practices. The presence of grazing cattle will help keep the grassland in a good condition and prevent any future overgrowth by woody vegetation.

Parallel to the woody vegetation removal a ‘project flock was formed, made up from cattle from 6 local herds which already graze on target areas in Kijevo suhopolje and Ježević suhopolje. Grazing on the cleared area will prevent future overgrowth by juniper and other such vegetation, which will in the long run preserve and improve the grassland habitat for the above-mentioned bird species, which are themselves the aim of this project. Both the Stone-curlew and the Short-toed Lark are dependent on open areas with scattered low vegetation without any obstacles in the area. Usually residing in semi-desert areas which are sparse in Croatia, but are found in Kijevo suhopolje and Ježević suhopolje, and a few other locations. By improving the habitat conditions for these species, we are directly improving the habitat for numerous other species dependant on open areas and therefore also contributing to their conservation as well.

There will be no restoration work at the foothills of Dinara until the end of August as nesting season is underway and the birds require peace, this year we are especially hopeful we will see nesting Stone-curlews as they have not been seen in the area since 2020.

In order to increase overall grassland area, we are staring a new restoration season in September, increasing our ‘project herd’ and intensifying the grazing regime, we’re also hoping we will be permitted to use a third restoration method – controlled burning.

A map of cleared part of Ježević suhopolje