Velebit Mountains

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Staffan Widstrand / Rewilding Europe

Velebit Mountains

More info

The Wild West of the Adriatic coast

This limestone mountain chain is 145 km long from north to south, and lies parallel to the coast. Following a cross section from the crystal turquoise waters of the Adriatic in the west, it rapidly rises to 1 757 metres, and then phases out into a higher level plateau towards the east. The area hosts an extraordinary diversity of different habitats, from barren Mediterranean landscapes at sea level, via vast beech forest of central European type, to almost boreal systems at higher altitudes. This has led to the establishment of the Paklenica National Park & Northern Velebit National Park, as well as the Velebit Nature Park – all three very well set up and managed. Together they cover more than 220,000 ha. The area has also been declared a ”UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve” and included in the UNESCO Tentative List of World Heritage Sites. Outside the protected areas in the south and east, there are several other very interesting areas also with great rewilding potential, mainly consisting of abandoned farm and grazing lands.

Velebit is a climber’s paradise, home to spectacular caves and breathtaking sceneries, and it receives an increasing number of visitors each year. Most popular is the coastal Paklenica National Park with more than 100,000 visitors annually, whilst the more remote inlands receive less attention. The tourism infrastructure along the coast is very well developed with hiking trails, smaller overnight cabins, larger dormitories, professional visitor centres and different levels of quality lodging. The dramatic coastal landscapes with their steep, barren cliffs, deep canyons, waterfalls, and open, uninhabited plains also have an interesting link to contemporary European film history. In the 1960s, the famous German “Winnetou” Cowboy and Indian-movies were produced in and around Velebit, which provided ideal landscapes to represent the Wild West.

Rewilding setting

Human land use in Velebit has undergone dramatic changes over the last 50 years and the level of land abandonment is now very high. Rewilding is already happening here since decades back.

After that the E65 road was built in the 1960s, people in the coastal villages were no longer isolated and they gradually abandoned their traditional lifestyle – like bringing livestock to the mountains in the summer time – and instead started to focus their attention on the new economic opportunities generated along the coast, especially associated with tourism development. The Balkan conflict 1991-95 also brought a lot of change. The eastern slope of the Velebit Mountains was the frontline between the Croatian and Serbian troops. During and after the war, many homes were vacated and many inhabitants felt forced to leave their land. Still today, large areas of minefields remain north-east and east of the Paklenica National Park as well as further inland towards the eastern border of the Velebit Nature Park and in the open grasslands east of the mountains, along the main highway to Zagreb. Today most villages here are home to a rapidly ageing population, many houses stand empty or are in ruins, and livestock numbers are dwindling.

Forestry is carried out in most of the areas outside the two National parks. This is mainly done by more discrete methods than in northern Europe, with the logging happening inside the forest. So from any elevated vantage point, an uninterrupted forest landscape integrity can still be seen relatively intact. The recent changes in land use here have brought both challenges and opportunities for nature conservation. The expanding shrub lands and young forests could be seen as a blessing for some of the barren coastal areas, which previously suffered from heavy overgrazing by sheep and goats. But in many areas, the landscape diversity – and therefore the biodiversity – is now suffering. To maintain and even enhance the conservation values in the region, the parks now consider to promote the re-establishment of natural grazing systems, with wild mammals doing the job. The local hunters are seen as natural allies in these efforts. In the past, hunters here have been responsible for the re-introduction of previously lost species such as the chamois and the fallow deer.


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