Between the Alps and the Adriatic - EuroNatur in Slowenia

At the end of September, most of the staff at EuroNatur set off on a study tour of Slovenia. Before the trip, the staff take a vote to see which of our project areas we would like to get a deeper understanding of. It soon becomes apparent that flying is not an option. So we set off from Lake Constance across the Alps in two hired minibuses...

Bear skull in display case

Cave display: brown bear skull for comparison with cave bear skull

© Katharina Grund
Staff in a rubber boat in a water cave

All in the same boat: EuroNatur staff in Križna Jama

© EuroNatur

Complete darkness and absolute silence. It's a very special moment here in the Križna cave in Slovenia's Karst limestone mountain range when the whole EuroNatur team turn off their torches and stop talking for a minute. Nowadays in a world full of noise and garish colour, we are hardly used to not being able to see or hear anything. A soothing absence of stimuli of a sort barely found anywhere other than in natural caves.

However, that doesn't mean there's no life underground. Križna Jama, as it is called in Slovenian, is one of the most species-rich caves in the world - and it was home to animals way back in ages past. There is hardly another place, where more bones from extinct cave bears have been found than here. A skull of this enormous bear can be seen in a display case, but on our tour the only other creatures we meet are significantly smaller members of the animal world – cave butterflies, a pipistrelle bat and glowing centipedes.

With more than 20 subterranean lakes, this water-filled cave extends over nine kilometers. We climb in a neon yellow dinghy for a short boat tour on the first of these lakes. The emerald-coloured water is cool and very clear; this is where most of the total of the 45 known species of Križna Jama live. In complete darkness, constant cold and with few nutrients; this is a highly adapted life. And that is exactly what makes it so fascinating and worth conserving.

When visiting the cave, you can choose the short tour (a good hour) or book the long tour (3.5—4 hours), which takes you to another lake. There are even more extensive tours available but only after prior agreement – and dates are already fully booked for years ahead as access to these cave areas is strictly controlled. You can find more information about a planned visit to the cave here.

  • EuroNatur's journey of discovery

    Journey of discovery 2017

    EuroNatur staff at Lake Ohrid during the journey of discovery to Albania in 2017

    © Christian Stielow

    Every two or three years, the staff at EuroNatur go on a study tour. This gives us the opportunity to explore the project areas where we are involved at first hand and meet our partners face to face. Our understanding of the work in these campaigns and projects is very different after these trips. In addition to which, exchanging ideas with colleagues outside the office is incredibly valuable, particularly with those who have been mainly on home office since the covid pandemic. These trips take place over long weekends and the cost of accommodation and board is met by the staff themselves.

A disappearing lake

The first stop on our programme, even before we ventured many metres underground, took us way back to the early days of EuroNatur. Lake Cerknica is Slovenia's largest lake – when it's actually there. Cerniško jezero, to give it its Slovenian name, is a Karst lake. In dry spells, the plateau can be used for agriculture, by late summer most of the lake has completely dried up. It's hard to imagine it will come back to life when the rains set in. Water flows up to the surface from the countless swallow holes and sink holes of the karst underground, flooding the landscape on the surface. In spring particularly, the shallow water and adjacent wet meadows attract countless birds, insects and amphibians. 300 species of birds have already been observed on Lake Cerknica over the year.

Slovenia’s largest Karst lake

Idyll at Lake Cerknica, Slovenia’s largest Karst lake. At the end of September, it gradually refills with water.

© Katharina Grund

EuroNatur was quick to join its Slovenian partners at DOPPS in campaigning for the protection of Lake Cerknica. For some years, the lake has been a Natura 2000 reserve and one of 3 Ramsar sites in Slovenia. It's peaceful here on the water; motorboats are banned. Instead, the communities round the lake are committed to sustainable tourism, offering canoe tours and kayaks for hire to explore the lake and streams yourself. The nature conservation measures taken at Lake Cerknica over past years have seen an improvement in ecological quality. In 2009, action was taken to rewild the River Strzn (which flows through Lake Cerknica in the same way the Rhine flows through Lake Constance), and since then it can meander freely. In addition to this, the neophytes and invasive plants along its banks were removed. A modern visitor centre close to the northern edge of the lake provides clear information about the flora and fauna, geology and history of Slovenia's largest lake.

Information and directions to Lake Cerknica

On the lynx trail

Slovenia is home to all three of Europe’s large carnivores: the bear, the wolf and the lynx. And the latter is particularly secretive. What is more, the lynx had nearly died out in the second half of the 20th century. In addition to hunting and habitat loss, a crucial factor in this was the genetic poverty of an isolated population prone to illness caused by inbreeding. The LIFE Lynx project, funded by the EU and supported by EuroNatur, is designed to help refresh the gene pool of the Dinaric Alps lynx population. To achieve this, several lynx from Romania and Slovakia have been captured over the past six years and then released in Slovenia and Croatia.

Lynx conservationist gives lecture

Rok Černe gives an entertaining talk about the highly successful Life Lynx project.

© Anika Konsek
Mountain in Slowenia

Following the lynx trail, a fantastic view of the Snežnik (meaning snow peak) opens up at one point. However, for the past few years, this mountain peak has no longer been snow-covered all year round.

© Mira Bell

Rok Černe from the Slovenian LIFE Lynx team gave a clear account of this successful repopulation project. A key factor had been getting the hunters on board from the very beginning. Without their goodwill, returning these animals to the wild would have been doomed to failure and without the detailed local knowledge of both hunters and foresters, it would have been very difficult to find evidence of lynx in this rough terrain.

Anton Smrekar from the Slovenian Forest Authority took us on the forest nature trail in Masun, answering all our questions about large predators and forestry management in Slovenia. On the way there, we had already all noticed how well forested this small country between the Alps and the Adriatic is. Responding to this observation, Anton says: “We do not do any clear cutting in Slovenia. Sustainability is key in our forests.” There are also large, protected areas around the caves where the brown bear hibertinates. Having said that, a high number of bears are shot. Each year 220 brown bears can be shot in Slovenia. The rationale behind this is that, if there were too many dangerous encounters with bears, their acceptance by the public would gradually disappear, which could then lead to poaching.

As you  hike along the educational Mašun forest trail, you will find more detailed information.
In the forester’s lodge in Mašun, there is a small exhibition about the bear, the wolf and the lynx as well as woodland ecology and forest management.

A man-made bird paradise

Connecting mankind to nature: EuroNatur’s guiding principle is nowhere more evident than in salt pans that are managed in a nature-friendly way. We have been fighting for the protection of the Ulcinj Salina in Montenegro for many years. For this reason alone, a visit to the salt pans at Sečovlje on the Slovenian-Croatian border was a must. First of all, we went to the northern part of the salt pans, where traditional methods have been used to produce salt for over a thousand years. Since 1998 this 6.5 square meter salt pan has been placed under conservation measures. However soon after that, our Slovenian partners at DOPPS realised that being proclaimed a national park was not enough to protect the sensitive ecology of this area over the long term and that it needed management, which has now been in place since 2003. There are clear parallels with the work done by EuroNatur and its partner organisations at Saline Ulcinj. There too it was not until conservation management was put into practice that long overdue measures to maintain the salt pans were taken.

In Sečovlje, painstaking work is done by hand to produce the different types of salt, ranging from table salt to bath salts and the famous Fleur de Sel that can only be produced after a succession of many hot and windless days. We watch some of the workers in their specially made footwear working the salt pans. We can only guess how exhausting this work must be under a blazing sun on hot summer afternoons. This is a profession with a long tradition, but nowadays not many people want to take it up.

Impressions from the Salina of Sečovlje

Tip: By clicking on the pictures, they appear in full size.

In the southern part of the Sečovlje salt pans, salt production had already ceased in 1968 as there were too few workers for such a large area. Today the houses of those earlier salt workers stand in ruins, inhabited by herons and cormorants. Salt-loving plant species grow in the former salt pans; at the time of our visit the samphire was just blooming – bathing the landscape in dark red hues – and along the edges of the basin, reeds were growing. This southern part of the salt pans is a paradise for birds. Over the past year, the ornithologists from DOPPS and the staff managing the national park have recorded more than 300 species in their regular bird counts.

At noon on this unusually warm October day, we see just a small fraction of them. A few shoveler and wigeon are swimming along, while herons and little egrets wade through the calm waters searching for fish. Suddenly there is a feeling of excitement in the team as a kingfisher is spotted. This shimmering bird is on the move, but for brief moments at least, there are good views of it through the scope.

Further information about the Sečovlje Salina Nature Park can be found here.

Here in the Sečovlje nature park, the three fundamental ways in which we can make the best use of a salt pan today are working together: nature conservation, tourism and salt production go hand in hand here. Seeing the success of this interaction was an inspiration for our continued work at the Ulcinj salt pans.

Gabriel Schwaderer with a scope Gabriel Schwaderer, Executive Director of EuroNatur

On our way through the eagle owl’s territory

Tomaž Mihelič shows the wigspan of an eagle owl

Really big: Tomaž Mihelič from our Slovenian partner organisation DOPPS, demonstrates the wingspan of a fully grown eagle owl, which can be up to 1.7 meters. This brings the danger of fatal collisions.

© Katharina Grund

To finish our EuroNatur study tour, we left the coast to return inland. In the Karst mountains above the famous Škocjanske Cave, we meet up with Pia Höfferle and Tomaž Mihelič from DOPPS. They talk about how, together with local electricity suppliers, they have succeeded in making numerous electric cables safe for birds. The DOPPS campaign is responsible for the insulation of 1,226 telegraph poles and pylons across the country.

This benefits numerous large birds such as storks, buzzards and eagle owls. The effect of these safe cables is easy to see: the number of eagle owl territories in the project area has risen by a third over the past five years. Furthermore, for the first time in a quarter of a century, Europe’s largest owl has returned to breed above the cliffs of the Škocjanske Cave.

  • Dangerous power lines

    electricity pylon safe-made for birds
    © Katharina Grund

    You will all be familiar with the late summer image of hundreds of swallows collecting on overhead cables before their departure to fly south; you may even have spotted a bird of prey’s nest on a pylon or telegraph pole. Electricity infrastructure is not actually deadly for birds, but it becomes deadly if their body becomes an earth for the current, that is to say if the cable becomes connected to the ground. This can happen when large birds flying off touch a different cable from the one they are taking off from. It is also possible for a bird’s jet of urine to connect it to a live component and produce a fatal electric shock. By insulating medium voltage lines, this risk can be averted.

Cattles on a pasture in Slovenia

Near-natural grazing in the Kras bird reserve

© Katharina Grund
DOPPS-employee Pia Höfferle

Together with her DOPPS colleague Tomaž Mihelič, Pia Höfferle led us through the eagle owl territory in southwest Slovenia.

© Katharina Grund
Rock face with eagle owl territory

Thanks to the work done by DOPPS, the eagle owl has returned to this cliff face to breed.

© Katharina Grund

Pia and Tomaž from DOPPS guide us through the Karst landscape. First of all, we walk across richly structured pasture full of grasshoppers. This open landscape is the eagle owl’s hunting ground of. Then it’s steep uphill to where our colleagues from DOPPS want to show us the crevice where the eagle owls breed. On the hike there, we learn a lot about the biology of this nocturnal hunter and find out from Tomaž what remnants of bones and feathers he has found while examining the nest. These include some from barn owls, mallards and a cuckoo; the eagle owl’s prey spectrum is broad. Finally, we reach the cliff where you can not only get a fantastic view over the gorge but, with the aid of a scope, can also get a look at the eagle owl’s nursery. It’s autumn now and they have long since left the nest, but Pia and Tomaž are optimistic that it will be in use again next year.

We ask whether it was difficult to convince the people in this region of the need for conservation measures for this large eagle. “Our relations with the mountain climbers are very good these days. They just hadn’t realized their hobby caused massive disturbance for these sensitive birds,” says Pia Höfferle. Since Pia and Tomaž began their educational work, disturbance of eagle owl nests by the climbers has become a rare occurrence. Making the electricity cables safe for birds has also met with the broad approval of the locals. “The most important work in bringing people round wasn’t done by us but by the eagle owls themselves,” says Tomaž Mihelič chuckling. “The eagle owl is just a very charismatic species.”

The EuroNatur team would have loved to spend longer in this impressive landscape, at least until dusk set in and we had the chance to hear the characteristic call of Europe’s largest owl for ourselves. However, we need to be up with the lark the next morning and back to Lake Constance – laden with memories of this small but very varied country, where EuroNatur’s work will be continuing.

Christian Stielow in Slovenian nature
© Katharina Grund

The author of this article has already been to several other EuroNatur project areas but was in Slovenia for the first time. He was very taken by the country, which forms a bridge between central Europe and the Balkans, not only for its natural spaces but also for its history and culture. His personal tour highlight was swimming in the Mediterranean on his 37th birthday.


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