Our project flock has been increased by three new donkeys – Ivan Kaselj from Ježević acquired one female and two male donkeys, increasing his flock size to five. A sixth addition is expected in a few months!
The new males are two and nine years old, and the female is six and is currently pregnant with a foal – which will increase this flocks’ size to six this summer. Cattle-herder Kaselj’s plan is to eventually increase his flock size to 10 donkeys.
Kaselj takes his donkeys to Ježević dry field out to pasture, and new animals are taught the way by following a trail of corn from their stable to the pasture, with this training lasting several months. Afterwards, the donkeys can find their own way to the pasture and in the evening back to their stable.
Kaselj’s donkeys eat young juniper (Juniperus oxycedrus), as well as soft shoots of more mature juniper plants. In addition to his donkeys, this herder also has 40-ish goats which he keeps for dairy production, as well as two cows. His goats also graze on older parts of juniper plants, says Kaselj.
Thanks to this rich mixed flock the grassland at Ježević dry field will be improved as these animals graze on juniper bushes – the main cause of recession of fields on Dinara – but as the local flocks grow in both number and types of grazing animals, especially donkeys, the process of overgrowing by woody vegetation will be significantly slowed down. However, complete restoration and increase of grassland areas which are overgrown by bushes can only be achieved by controlled burning and manual removal of woody vegetation, which would then be followed by grazing. There, the donkeys would eat any new shoots thus preventing the woody plants from taking hold again.
Our project flock was formed in order to slow down and stop further overgrowing using targeted grazing and so far. So far, we have had 6 contracts with local cattle-herders signed. These herders have a lease on land within the project areas that also overlap with the habitats of stone-curlew (Burhinus oedicnemus) and short-toed Lark (Calandrella brachydactyla) – the bird species whose protection is the main goal behind this project. In order to reduce selective grazing, we encourage acquisition of animals with different grazing preferences as this allows us to target more intense grazing on woody plants, primarily juniper which is the main plant found in overgrown areas. As local herders mainly keep sheep, goats, or cows, we encouraged them to consider getting more hoofed animals such as donkeys to complete the flock and maximise grazing efficiency. With the support from the project the herders were able to add additional 22 horses and donkeys to their already existing flocks, thus raising the total project flock number to around 880 animals – 760 sheep, 90 goats, nine cows, and the aforementioned horses and donkeys. We’re hoping the herders will continue to keep mixed flocks even after the project finishes in summer 2023 and that the number of horses and donkeys will keep increasing due to natural growth. This will ensure grassland overgrowing will be slowed on a long-term scale. If we also manage to affect the practices and legal framework concerning manual woody vegetation removal combined with grazing, it could make a significant difference and shift on a local scale of the overgrowth trend we’re currently seeing, at least on the project area.
We’re developing our project flock in cooperation with local herders who own or lease the land in areas important as habitats for the project birds, these areas being Ježević dry field i Kijevo dry field.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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