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A visit to a good practice example in Drniš – how to deal with juniper?

Dinara back to LIFE project team in April visited an example of good practice, Drniš branch of Croatian Forestry, which boasts with large pastures they lease out where stone-curlew and short-toed lark can still be found. The team also visited a master of beautiful susak cups, made from juniper.

Recently we visited a good practice example, the Drniš branch of Croatian Forestry, which is very successful in leasing land, and a craftsman who makes juniper cups.
A finished “susak”

This visit was attended by representatives of our project partners – University of Zagreb Faculty of Agriculture, Croatian Forestry, Local Action Group (LAG) Cetinska Krajina, and Biom Association, as well as representatives from the Croatian Forestry Drniš branch, Public Institution (JU) “Priroda” from Šibenik-Knin County, and National Park Krka.

First part of the visit took place in Pokrovnik area near Drniš, one of the last remaining habitats of stone-curlew (Burhinus oedicnemus) and short-toed lark (Calandrella brachydactyla) in Croatia. However, this area is under risk of becoming overgrown like the pastures on Dinara have been, mostly with juniper (Juniperus oxycedrus), and should therefore be restored to prevent the loss of this habitat. This idea was well accepted by representatives of Croatian Forestry.

Project team, representatives of Drniš branch of Croatian Forestry, JU Priroda and NP Krka near Pokrovnik.

Drniš area is traditionally a cattle herding area, an activity that is supported by the Croatian Forestry Drniš branch – they currently have 350 lease contracts which cover 9000 Ha, as Ante Slamić, manager from the Forestry tells us. The Pokrovnik area is also under lease and is expected to have nesting stone-curlew and short-toed lark. Slamić points out that when leasing out land it’s important that the governing bodies – Ministry of Agriculture and Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development – better coordinate their work. Representatives of NP Krka also added that when leasing land it’s important to let the local governing bodies know in a timely manner whether the land in question is protected under Natura 2000. The boundaries of NP Krka touch stone-curlew and short-toed lark habitat areas.

Grassland near Pokrovnik which is being overgrown by juniper.

The grassland near Pokrovnik is one of the last habitat for short-toed lark and stone-curlew in Croatia, and is currently being overgrown by juniper, or “šmrika” as it is locally called. The very same process endangered their habitat in Ježević dry-grassland, so the question arose of the possibility of removing unwanted woody vegetation. Drniš Forestry branch expressed understanding of the need to preserve the grassland as a habitat, and they took into account the possibility of starting the process of manual removal of juniper on the grassland near Pokrovnik, which would be carried out exclusively by Croatian Forestry. The possibility has been presented to make this terrain a pilot area in the near future, since with each season this grassland is being overgrown more and more. Given that the Forest Management Program for this area is under revision, it is an ideal time for new measures. A proposal came from Biom to combine both quick and long-term solutions in the area of Pokrovnik, before stone-curler and short-toed lark completely disappear from the area.

Ante Slamić sees great potential in juniper utilization

Slamić believes that in time, everything that can burn, including juniper, will be highly valued, and he sees confirmation of this in the rise in energy prices in the shadow of unrests in Eastern Europe. Demand already exists – bio-power plant will soon open in this area. The managers of the power-plant expressed the need for 50 tons of juniper to test the potential of juniper for energy production. This plant species is of very high quality, above the level of oak and beech, Slamić emphasizes, so it can be used to make various useful items. Juniper is adundant in this area, and beyond, so it can be managed over a longer period of time. Juniper is also specific in the sense that other plant species can be directly and strongly affected by livestock, while the impact of animals on juniper is much smaller and must be removed manually. An economically sustainable model that everyone would be satisfied with – the managers, the cattle-herders and the organizations that work on nature conservation – is the best solution, Slamić emphasized, and one such thing is in sight for Pokrovnik. The plots will be more interesting to lessees when they are not overgrown, Croatian Forestry has their own interest in their lease, while the bird species need such an open habitat. The problem of overgrowing by juniper in large areas of Croatia, all present agreed, should be brought forward to the ministries’ levels, and solutions that all the interested stakeholders agree on should be presented.

One of the problems in the leased areas is the electric shepherds that cattle breeders set up to make it easier to keep their flocks, while hunters see this infrastructure as restricting the movement of wildlife. Electric shepherds are common on the pastures of Drniš, where cows come to graze, which are popular among cattle breeders since they are simple to take care of, and have greater incentives. Hunters, however, are concerned about wildlife migration. The needs of cattle breeders and the concerns of hunters can be reconciled by the method of segmented grazing – the system of placing electric shepherds on a maximum of 20% of the leased area, and after that fenced part of the pasture is grazed, the electric shepherd would move to the next area of similar size.

The biggest problem in this area, Slamić pointed out, are wildires, 95% of which, as he believes, happen due to human negligence, and only about 5% are caused by other factors such as lightning, train sparks, etc. Education is important in this case, which would therefore save many areas from fire. An additional tool in limiting the spread of wildfires are open grasslands that, when caught by the fire, burn with weaker flames than forest or bush wildfires. The fire also spreads slowly in grassland areas – so the grassland helps put out the fire. In addition, juniper affected by wildfire often does not burn completely, as thicker branches remain in the habitat, which does not suit stone-curlew and short-toed lark, so this unburned wood material must be removed manually.

Working on a piece of juniper

The visit to the example of good practice continued in Siverić with Ivan Mlađa Tomić, a master who makes susak cups from šmrika, a characteristic Drniš cup similar to bukara His susak cups are beautiful vessels, handmade from this hard material and an expression of local tradition, as well as a way of sustainable use of naturally available resource.

Pieces of juniper being dried for two years in master Mlađo warehouse

The process of producing just one susak is very time consuming. It begins by collecting bits of wood from a plant that can be cut only through November, December, January and February. The handle for the future susak is prepared by cooking or heating thin branches which are then bent and dried. The drying process takes as long as a year and a half to two on the shelves of the master’s workshop. The pieces of juniper that the master collected, prepared and marked this winter will, therefore, be ready for processing – in 2024!

Bent branches will serve as susak handles

Of the collected wooden material, 70% will remain, while the remaining 30% will be unusable because it will rot or be eaten by worms or perish in some other way. After drying in the warehouse, the wood pieces go for additional drying for another month or two. After cutting the pieces of juniper into the tiles that will make up the susak, 70 to 80 percent of the unusable wooden pieces are discarded again.

Each susak is made by 14+1 wooden pieces

One susak requires 14+1 wooden tiles, regardless of the size of the susak. Smaller wooden tiles are used to make smaller volumes, while larger pieces are used to make higher volumes, but always fifteen (one with a handle). Each susak is special and unique, but they are all made to measure. Wooden pieces for susak are joined exclusively without gluing, with a tin ring. In the final phase of work, one work day is needed for the final production of one susak. What is interesting about susak, from which the drink is traditionally drunk “in a circle”, one man after another, is that this vessel does not transmit herpes. No such regularity has been established for other disease.

Susak models from which everything has begun

Master Mlađo started making susak cups 25 years ago, as he used this activity as a kind of occupational therapy. The first susak cups he had found and observed trying to understand how they were created, he keeps on the shelf in his workshop to this day. The machines that this electrician works on were made by himself. The one for removing grooves on wooden pieces he worked on for two years, and this machine has been listed in the book of innovations.

The innovative machine

The master of juniper processing passes on his knowledge to younger generations – at fairs he holds creative workshops for children, leaving it them to make wooden objects on their own. He passes his work and expertise to them, thus opening the door to preserving this skill.

A stylized susak made from hedge in front of master Mlađo’s house in Siverić