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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
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Cattle breeders from Kijevo, Ježević and Civljane join Dinara back to LIFE project

Six cattle breeders from Kijevo, Ježević, and Civljane joined the Dinara back to LIFE project and will help us achieve the project goals through sustainable cattle breeding. Local farmers will contribute to the restoration of grasslands by regular grazing, and in order to get the best results, cattle breeders will do so with mixed herds. Dinara back to LIFE project will financially support livestock farmers in purchasing new livestock.

Dinara back to LIFE project aims to restore the grasslands on Dinara and to encourage sustainable use of grasslands. In the first two years of the project, the grasslands were restored by controlled burning and manual removal of overgrown vegetation. Since the beginning of this year, local cattle breeders with their livestock are participating in the restoration, introducing grazing as a restoration activity of the project.

Overgrowing of grasslands has long been a problem with many causes, the most significant of which are the departure of the population and the abandonment of activities such as cattle breeding. In addition, the complicated administrative process conserning the lease of grasslands make it even more difficult for those who want to work and lease grasslands in new areas. It often goes unnoticed, but cattle breeding is important not only because it feeds people, but also because those who still live on the Dinara and are engaged in animal husbandry, naturally contribute to the preservation of nature and biodiversity.

Through cooperation with livestock breeders, we at the project team want to promote not only livestock farming as a good business opportunity in the Dinara area, but also the way in which livestock farming can be made even better for pasture maintenance! Each animal grazes in its unique way, which means that certain animals eat some plants while bypassing the others. When there are herds on grasslands that consist of just one type of livestock, these grasslands are overgrown with plants this type of livestock avoids and does not eat. At the moment, grasslands lack animals such as donkeys and mules, present throughout history on Dinara, which also graze the types of plants that sheep and cows avoid.

Signing of contracts

Dinara back to LIFE project has earmarked €30,000 for cooperation with local farmers. The task of local cattle breeders will be to regularly conduct grazing of areas that are being restored by the project, using mixed herds that will include new Equidae. Funds provided by the project will financially help cattle breeders to purchase new livestock. The project team will monitor the impact grazing will have on keeping the grasslands from being overgrown as well as on the nesting of target bird species that depend on dry grasslands.

The cooperation of six cattle breeders from Kijevo, Civljane and Vrlika with Dinara back to LIFE project began last week with signing of contracts by which the project provides financial support to livestock breeders. For their part, the cattle breeders will conduct grazing in accordance to the idea of maintaining the habitat for project bird species. In addition to the project team and livestock signatories to the contract, the signing ceremony was attended by representatives of the Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development, the Mayor of Kijevo County and representatives of the City of Vrlika. Through-out the project, it is planed to sign five more contracts with cattle breeders and to assign electric shepherds. In order to comply with the recommended measures of the Civil Protection Headquarters, the event was closed for public, and the project team hopes that the circumstances will allow the next signing of the contract to be marked by a public event and joint celebration of new cooperation and opportunities.

This cooperation aims to motivate other cattle breeders to adapt their herds so that the impact of their grazing on the preservation of grasslands is as big as possible. The pre-condition for this cooperation is that the cattle breeders have their own grasslands or leased grasslands in the area that are important for the project to preserve the population of the target bird species.

Project name on a halter

This cooperation aims to motivate other cattle breeders to adapt their herds so that the impact of their grazing on the preservation of grasslands is as big as possible. The pre-condition for this cooperation is that the cattle breeders have their own grasslands or leased grasslands in the area that are important for the project to preserve the population of the target bird species.

All interested are invited to get information or get involved in the project at DinarabacktoLIFE@gmail.com.