Grassland Habitats in the Carpathians

Landscapes Carpathian country side

It is not just the forests which support valuable biodiversity, but just under one third of the Carpathians are covered by open and semi-natural habitats, predominantly grassland. Grasslands of the Carpathians are an important element of the small structured mosaic landscapes that are so characteristic to the Carpathians. Though these grasslands cover a smaller area than the forests, these habitats involve massive biodiversity. Of the 133 habitat types identified by the Carpathian EcoRegion Initiative , no less than 76% are open habitats.

After the end of the last ice age, the forests started to spread throughout the Carpathians. Opinions differ widely as to whether or not the whole mountain belt was covered by forests in that period. But it is quite likely that small unforested patches existed in the mountains and later were expanded by man (farmers). The extended grassland served as the source of food for livestock. Because their use was very extensive, a higher production rate was possible only if the grassland area was extended. As the human population grew, so did the grassland area. Significant changes took place during the twentieth century. The intensification enabled higher production within a smaller area. Some grasslands were altered to facilitate more intensive use; others, mostly in remote localities, became useless and were abandoned, thus gradually becoming transformed into shrub and forest lands.

Grassland habitats may be divided into three categories according to the way they were created:

Natural grasslands cover the most extreme locations, mostly the alpine belt above the tree-line or extremely dry habitats on steep rocky slopes. They are relatively stable and do not depend on regular human activities, such as mowing or grazing.

Semi-natural grasslands have been created as a result of human activities, but those activities were not so strong as to change their species composition significantly. Their existence is closely connected with regular human activities (mowing, grazing).

Improved (cultivated) grasslands have also been created by human activities, but the human influence was so intensive that their species composition was almost completely transformed into a very poor plant community, dominated by several grasses with high biomass production.

 

Importance and functions

The primary function of the grasslands used to be the production of the biomass for livestock. Since the number of livestock has decreased dramatically in the Carpathian region during recent years, we are faced with the difficult question: "Why do we need grasslands, especially the semi-natural type?"
There may be several answers which explain the non-productive functions of semi-natural grasslands:

  • The first is the unique biodiversity of grasslands. As mentioned above, small-scale species diversity is quite extensive. But species diversity of grasslands at landscape level is also very high. For example, grasslands such as the calcareous mountain grasslands in Slovensky Raj National Park in the Slovak Republic are also incredibly rich in species. In this instance, the small-scale species diversity is one of the highest in the world, reaching a maximum of 75 species per meter squared. It is not only the high diversity of species of the grassland areas which are worth considering, however, but also the high genetic diversity. Isolated mountain areas are like islands with special conditions which have facilitated the evolution of new plant species. The Carpathians are rich in endemic species, therefore, which mostly grow in grassland areas.

  • The Carpathian grasslands are also a unique source of medicinal plants. Local communities have always been aware of these plants and have used them to treat a variety of diseases. This might also be of considerable interest to pharmaceutical companies.

  • Another consideration is the aesthetic value of grasslands. The mosaic open areas and the forests are typical for many Carpathian regions. Grasslands full of colourful flowers form part of a marvellous scenery not in evidence anywhere else in the world. The Carpathian landscape without its grasslands would not be very attractive, neither for visitors nor for the local people.

  • Functional grasslands play an important role also in the prevention of floods and soil erosion. Especially in flysch areas, they are able to slow down the surface runoff. Due to a massive system of underground roots, they contribute strongly to anti-erosion. The conversion of grasslands into arable land had a very negative impact in some mountain regions. Large floods and massive erosions were the price which had to be paid for the poor decisions of previous generations.

  • A serious environmental problem which also has to be solved in the Carpathian region is water pollution. One of the possible options is to use the natural ability of wet grasslands to fix nutrients into biomass and to clear the water of pollutants. This is also enhanced by the soil under semi-natural grasslands, which is rich in all important decomposing elements. However, regular removal of the biomass by cutting or grazing is an essential condition for the functioning of such natural systems.

Source: Heranová S., Hodge C., Královičová, A. eds (2009): World of the Carpathians – Handbook for Environmental Education, Daphne – Institute of Applied Ecology, Bratislava, Slovakia

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Updated last: June 2014

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The development of this website is financially supported by ETC Programme South East Europe
within the BioREGIO Carpathians project (January 2012 – June 2014) and the MAVA Foundation
within the Protected Areas for a Living Planet Project (January 2007 – March 2012).