Located at the crossroads of the European and Asian continent, influenced by the Central European and Mediterranean climate and harbouring diverse and pristine natural habitats, the Eastern Rhodopes are home for many animal species. No less than 4,329 species belonging to 410 fauna families, typical for continental Europe, the Mediterranean and Anatolia, occur in the region, including many rare, endemic and relict species. The actual number is probably higher due to low intensity monitoring of various fauna families. Most numerous and abundant are various insect groups of which the colourful butterflies and dragonflies perhaps are most adored and biting, stinging and poisonous spiders, scorpions, scolopendras, bees and wasps probably are most feared.
It is not possible to describe the East Rhodopian fauna in full length in this paragraph. Only some striking fauna groups are highlighted here.
The Eastern Rhodopes really are reptile paradise. No place in Europe has a better variety of lizards (12), snakes (14) and turtles&tortoises (4). The mosaic landscape with a large variety of habitats and hot summers have favored thirty species.
Lizards can be met almost everywhere in the countryside. Most numerous are green lizards and wall lizards which even can be seen in village gardens. Ecologically most interesting are those species restricted to specific natural habitat types.
26 fish species have been identified in the water habitats of the Eastern Rhodopes. Four small species of the carp family are endemic in the Balkan Peninsula: Chondrostoma vardarense, Vimba melanops , Barbus cyclolepis and Sabanejewia balcanica (Balkan Spined Loach).
Eastern Rhodopes are one of the richest, in terms of ornithological highlights in Europe. Because of its location on the edge of the European and Asian continent, the pristine landscape and the variety of habitats, the impact of the Mediterranean and the relatively weak human disturbance, the Eastern Rhodopes has become a favorite place for many bird species.
Flora in the Eastern Rhodopes
The geographical position on the European continent (near the Mediterranean and near the Asian continent), its geology and its climate determine the region of Eastern Rhodopes as one with the richest biodiversity in Europe. In the Eastern Rhodopes are found species typical of the flora of both Europe and the Mediterranean and of Caucasus and Anatolia.
So far there have been found nearly 2,000 species of vascular plants, of which 37 are Balkan endemics – found only on the Balkan Peninsula, 22 are Bulgarian endemic species and are spread only in Bulgaria, whereas Yurushka mullein (Verbascum juruk) occurs only in the Eastern Rhodopes. Over 20 plants are relicts that have survived and reached us from ancient times. Among them are the Rhodope haberlea (Haberlea rhodopensis) and “Rhodope mountain mother” (Lathraea rodopaea)
Once the Eastern Rhodopes were covered with thick forests. Today only one third of the Eastern Rhodopes is forested, mainly with deciduous trees with sub-Mediterranean characteristics. The forested area mainly consists of oak forest. Beech forests are found at higher altitudes in the southern parts. The forest species include downy oak (Quercus pubescens), flowering ash (Fraxinus ornus), red juniper (Juniperus oxycedrus) and two types of beech (Fagus sylvatica and Fagus orientalis). An eastern beech (F. Orientalis) is a unique type for the Eastern Rhodopes and Strandzha. Characteristic for the Eastern Rhodopes are riparian forests of the oriental plane (Platanus orientalis), at places in the valleys of the Arda river and Byala reka.
Only small patches of natural forests of black pine (Pinus nigra) remained, which once covered the whole mountain range. Those echoes of the past, like “Chamlaka”, “Boraka”, “Borovets” and “Zhenda” are protected sites now.
In the past, many forests were cleared to develop pasture and arable land. At other places the historical forests are replaced by shrubs, mainly hornbeam (Carpinus orientalis), thorny bush (Paliurus spina-christi), red juniper (Juniperus oxycedrus).
The rest of the Eastern Rhodope mountain range is covered with extensive pastures and arable lands, illustrating the agricultural history of the area. Millennia of human interference formed the typical mosaic landscape – open areas alternating with shrubs and forests, which provide diverse habitats and determines the unique biodiversity of the area.
Natural grazing and large herbivores
Natural grazing by large herbivores is a key process for suitable development and natural maintenance of ecosystems.
In wild nature the animals graze all year round. This practice was well understood and practiced for thousands of years by the ancient Balkan livestock farmers, who followed with their herds the natural rhythm. But with intensification and regulation of farming these old traditions were lost.
Natural grazing is based on the principal that an area can feed as many animals as can survive in winter months, when food is limited. This ensures that in spring and summer, when the food is plentiful there will be no overgrazing and this allows vegetation to grow, bloom and disperse its seeds. In winter the herbivores additionally eat twigs and bark of shrubs and trees and so they have strong impact on vegetation. Thereby they create a natural mosaic of alternating grasslands, formations of shrubs and forests and this mosaic landscape is home for many animal and plant species that directly or indirectly depend on the large herbivores’ role.
In the Eastern Rhodopes various species of large herbivores occur(ed). Each has its specific food preferences, intensity of grazing, territory size and land use. Each has its specific influence on the vegetation. All those grazing animals combined create and manipulate the structure of vegetation. For example, cattle opens spaces between shrubs and help making the area available for horses. Horses for their part prepare suitable habitats for other grazing animals.
The pastures host a great number of insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, small mammals – an important ring of food chain for other species. On the other hand large herbivores themselves are an essential food resource for predators and vultures. This way large herbivores play a key role in restoring and improving biodiversity.
It is one of the main goals of Rewilding Rhodopes to restore and protect the typical mosaic landscape and unique biodiversity of the Eastern Rhodopes. The best way of doing so is by restoring the key process of natural grazing. Reintroduction of extinct large herbivores and semi wild cattle and horses is an essential tool to achieve this aim.
Karakachan horse is a local primitive breed of horse, extremely durable and adapted to the hard ways of living. For centuries it has served the Karakachans in their long mountain hikes during their seasonal migrations from summer pastures to winter and vice versa.