Rhodope Mountains

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One of Europe’s biodiversity hotspots

Among the dozens of other raptor species can be mentioned Eastern imperial eagle, saker falcon, Levant sparrowhawk, peregrine falcon and several other eagles. The whole region is also a stronghold within Bulgaria for wolf, jackal, souslik and otter. The brown bear has begun to recolonise the Rhodopes in recent years and bear watching is already becoming a bookable tourism offer in the Western Rhodopes.

A total of 4329 animal species have been found in the Eastern Rhodopes. Because of its location in the crossroads between the European and Asian continent, the impact of the Mediterranean, its pristine landscapes and the variety of habitats here in combination with the relatively small human disturbance, the Eastern Rhodopes have become a favourite place for the bird life, with 278 bird species noted, making the area into one of the bird watching hotspots in Europe.

The area is also a reptile paradise and the mosaic landscape here, with its large variety of habitats and hot summers, have produced no less than thirty species. No place in Europe has a better variety of lizards (12), snakes (14) and turtles & tortoises (4). Most numerous are the large green lizards and the wall lizards, which both can be found also in the village gardens. Ecologically most interesting are those species that are restricted to specific natural habitats.

26 fish species have so far been identified in the waters here, and among them four small members of the carp family that are endemic to the Balkan Peninsula: Chondrostoma vardarense, Vimba melanops, Barbus cyclolepis and Sabanejewia balcanica (Balkan Spined Loach).

So far there have been found around 2,000 species of vascular plants here, of which 37 are Balkan endemics – found only on the Balkan Peninsula, 22 of these are found only in Bulgaria, whereas Yurushka mullein (Verbascum juruk) occurs only in the Eastern Rhodopes. Over 20 plant species are relicts that have survived several glaciations and reached us from ancient times. Among them are the Rhodope haberlea (Haberlea rhodopensis) and “Rhodope mountain mother” (Lathraea rodopaea).

Much of the Bulgarian part of the Eastern Rhodopes are covered by eight sites within Europe’s “Natura 2000” protected area network. Seven are “Specially Protected Areas” according to the EU Birds Directive.

The area is already getting more and more known and popular among bird watchers and wildlife lovers.

Rewilding setting

This greater rewilding area covers the Rhodope Mountains in Bulgaria, which are geographically connected also to the extensive wild lands on the southern slopes of the Rodopi and Orvilos Mountains, in Greece. Towards the west, the Rhodopes also reach the Northern Pirin and Rila mountains, with their famous Pirin and Rila National Parks.

The entire region forms the core of the Rila-Rhodopean Mountain Massif – the largest compact mountain formation in the Balkans, extending for more than 40,000 km2 (or 4 million hectares).

The landscape ranges from the Aegean Sea near Porto Lagos in Greece, to an altitude of 2,212m a.s.l. at the highest peak of the Slavyanka Mountains. The region also contains some of the oldest land mass in the Balkan Peninsula – the Western Rhodopes. Only the highest peaks here were covered by ice during the last Ice age. The region’s very diverse physical geography is a main reason for its rich and quite unique biodiversity. Another reason is its situation, right at the crossroads between Asia and Europe, and between the Mediterranean and the Continental Europe. The plant diversity is especially high, with several local endemic species that grow here but nowhere else, and the area holds over 50% of Bulgaria’s plant species. Birdlife is very rich and this is one of the areas in Europe with the highest number of raptor species, in all giving the Rila-Rhodopean massif status as one of the most biologically important areas in Eastern Europe.

For the first phase of Rewilding Rhodope Mountains, we have decided to focus on its eastern parts, in an area of about 100,000 ha, with four priority areas:

Madzharovo

This area is part of the deep, narrow valley of the Arda River, surrounded by rocky slopes up to 150 m high. The area is rich in rare and threatened plants and insects and it is very rich in bird species, especially when it comes to raptors, with species like the Eastern imperial eagle, booted eagle, short-toed eagle, black vulture, Egyptian vulture and griffon vulture. Birdwatchers already come here from all over Europe, also for the high number of southeastern European bird specialities like masked shrike, Eastern orphean warbler, olive warbler and Levant sparrowhawk.

Rock complexes, single cliffs and stony screes dominate the areas along the river, partly covered by a mosaic of woods, shrub and grassland. Flatter areas are covered by mixed broadleaf (mainly oak) forest interspersed with grassy areas, whilst the riverbed itself is sandy-stony and its banks often covered with willows and shrubs. In the upper parts of the valley there is also some farmland. Several vulture-watching hides have been developed here.

Byala Reka

This area covers the wild Byala Reka (”The White River”) watershed in the South-Easternmost part of the Eastern Rhodopes, all the way up to the national border with Greece. It includes the Byala Reka river valley and the surrounding mountain hills from the village of Chernichevo in the west, to the spot where the river crosses the national border to the east. The vegetation here is very diverse and heavily influenced by the more Mediterranean climate. Because of the very few people living here, in combination with the previously very strict border regime, the whole place is still quite wild, with widespread old forests of mixed oak species, and the river’s waters are very clear and unpolluted. There is very little farmland in this region, mainly around the very few, small settlements.

Studen Kladenets

This very interesting area, which has been a hunting reserve for many decades, lies on the southern banks of a large water reservoir with the same name. It holds one of the most dense populations of wild herbivores in all the Balkans, mainly fallow deer, that are native here and whose grazing pressure keeps the landscape vegetation open, almost as if it was grazed by sheep and goats. Red deer is being reintroduced and a grazing experiment with European bison is being carried out here. Wolf and jackal are regular inhabitants. About 2/3 of the mountain slopes here are covered by mixed broadleaf forests, woodlands and shrubs, while the rest consists of different grasslands. Some privately owned open areas are still used as farmland and others are abandoned grazing meadows. There are also several rock complexes, steep cliffs and stony screes. There is an expanding griffon vulture colony on a cliffside nearby and vulture watching is being developed from hides.

Chernoochene

The site is located north-west of the town of Kardzhali. Thousands of years of extensive grazing, mainly by sheep, have shaped the landscape here and the open pastures, still used or not, cover a significant part of the area. Land abandonment over the last decades has lead to widespread bush encroachment, followed by trees. Pine plantations were unfortunately established in many places here during the last fifty years, but parts of them are now being replaced with more natural broadleaf forest trees, while the mountain slopes are still mainly covered by the original mix of oak and other broadleaf tree species. There are also rock complexes, single cliffs and stony screes, some of which have recently begun to attract Balkan chamois, moving in from the nearby Western Rhodopes. Small areas are still used as farmland.

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