DANUBEparksCONNECTED Bridging the Danube Protected Areas towards a Danube Habitat Corridor

Cycling the Danube in Bulgaria

 

Persina Nature Park
- The most ecological jail in the world?

 

 

Persina NP was established at the end of 2000. It spreads on municipalities Nikopol, Belene and Svishtov, covering a bit less than 21,800 ha. This includes Persin Island (hence the name of the Park),  that is 15 km long and 6 km wide - the largest in Bulgaria and the fourth largest on the Danube. There is a group of four islands in Nikopol area and another one - the Danube Archipelago of Belene - with 19 islands (5 of them belong to Romania). There is some kind of Micronesia there :) 

The islands were proclaimed a Ramsar site in 2002. and with an area of 18,330 ha, it is the biggest Ramsar site in Bulgaria.

Within the Persina Nature Park, there are several protected areas, designed to protect significant ecosystems within it (mainly the flooded forests along the river and the inland marshes).
There is a visitor centre in Belene - and that's where I arrived one sunny morning on the last day of May. Mrs. Daniela Karakasheva, the PR of the Park, took me around the exhibition space.


With Daniela in the Visitors Center  for Persina Nature Park.


“The Visitors Center for our Park was built in 2006. as a part of a big water restoration project. The architecture of the building symbolically represents a ship ashore and includes a special balcony on the second floor that reveals magnificent views of some of the islands in the Belene Archipelago.”

“This facility hugely improved the quality of informational and promotional activities, providing opportunity to host events and thematic exhibitions on all levels, including international ones. It offers enough space to present the Protected Area and its biodiversity, hiking, cycling, and kayaking routes in the area, as well as general service tourist info.“


The 3D model of the Persin island in the Visitors Centre. It is possible to fill its channels with water by opening tiny valves and to observe an impact that flood makes on the island (below).

“More than thirty percent of Bulgaria is covered by the Natura 2000, and the entire Persina Nature Park is under that regime according to the Habitat Directive. And according to the Birds Directive, we have four different zones here. We try to present their values through our exhibition, especially because this is the only nature park on the Bulgarian part of the Danube.”

A diorama from the exhibition room

(When speaking of real birds, there are two white-tail eagle pairs in the Park.)

“Significant part of the content has dynamic character, and we regularly change it. At the moment we have children's drawings from the “Forestry week” competition. It is traditional and this year we got photos from all over Bulgaria.”

Mrs. Stela Bozhinova, the director at the Park: „Bird and Fish Exhibition is held in our Visitors Centre each year, and we always add new exhibits. Visitors can get acquainted with specimens from the zones of the Park that are otherwise accessible only by boat and/оr with appropriate equipment.

We hire specialized experts and designers to conceptualize exhibitions. Otherwise, it is typical that after we explain what we would like to present and after an architect makes a drawing according to how he understood us, the result looks like a hotel room”.

In the future, we want to add sounds to our exhibitions.”

           

Works from the “Forestry week” competition. Some pure art here

Daniela and two of her office colleagues (also ladies) then took me to a bicycle tour on Persin Island. The entrance to the island was not far – it is necessary just to cross the Danube arm at the outskirts of Belene. But things got quite wired when we approached the riverbank: we had to stop in front of a high wall with barb wire on the top, with watchtower and armed guards. Gate opened, they came to us, took my passport and gave me instead of it a piece of paper with my basic data that will serve as my “ausweiss” on the island. Behind the gate, there was the only connection with the island: a narrow pontoon bridge. No photos allowed at this part.
The reason for all this: at the western end of the island there is a prison with several hundred inmates. Some of them who behave well enough can go around doing errands or field works (there are a pig farm and gardens that belong to the prison). Basically, anyone whom you meet in the fields or on the only island road is a prisoner. Radoslava, Daniela’s colleague with the typical, sharp Balkan sense of humour, didn’t miss a chance to comment after a truck full of inmates overtook us on the dusty road:  “Our staff visits the island almost every day, but we usually use our vehicle. But today there is a great opportunity for these guys to enjoy seeing the three women on bikes."

Riding on the Persin island

There are three protected areas on Persin:

1. One Maintenance Reserve. Special activities that have certain impact on nature are allowed there, but all other human influence is forbidden. There are four marshes in this zone.

2. The Protected area Persin

3. The Protected area Persin East.

In these two areas, no human activities are allowed except controlling the water level in channels.

The Persina PA swamps are bird hotels - some guests come, others leave all year along.

After 5-6 kilometres we arrived at the place that my hosts especially wanted to show me. It was near the shore of a large lake, and a high wooden observation tower in the large meadow was calling to explore the views from above.

In the past, the area around the tower was overgrown with aggressive (and inevitable) Amorpha fruticosa. But it was cleaned last year through as a pilot project and the results were good, so this activity will continue on other zones. The cleaning was done by five workers with a pair of tractors. But finding people for this job was not an easy task. There are only about 20 inmates who move freely around the island, and they will not work for free. Others don’t like to work here due to mosquitoes and snakes, plus a prison on an island is certainly not a strong work motivation.

Observation desk on the shore of the Pelicans lake

Persina Nature Park office staff, in the middle of the area
freed from the occupation of Amorpha fruticosa

The tower offered a beautiful discovery: at the far end of the lake, I could see a platform that was seemingly covered with a thick layer of snow. But that white thing was moving a bit, it was showing some wings here and there, and was obviously enjoying sunbathing far too much for an average snow entity. It was then reasonable to accept the fact that I am looking at the small colony of pelicans.

“Pelicans nowadays rest only in Srebarna lake, some 170 km further downstream. But one large colony also existed here until 70 years ago, when the embankment on Persin was built in order to develop agriculture on the island.

Ten years ago, as an effort to reintroduce them to the island, we started to build artificial platforms similar to ones we saw on Lake Kerkini in Greece. There are young pelicans on the lake now (these birds usually mate after they are two years old). Six years after the start of the project there was one pair and there are 15 nesting pairs at present, while the total number of these birds (young and breeding ones) is around 200”, explained Daniela.

View of the lake with one of the platforms that were built for pelicans. The platform and the birds are tiny on this photo, but It is sometimes more nice to look at the beauty from afar. This leaves more room for imagination. (OK, and can help if you do not carry a 1000 mm zoom lens on your bicycle.)

Another success was the return of water to the island. That was achieved in 2006 (one year before Bulgaria joined the EU), in the frame of one of the largest restoration projects - Wetland Restoration and Pollution Reduction.

The quality of the Danube water in Belene is very good and it belongs to class 2 - which means that the water is almost completely clean. One wouldn't say it by looking at its colour, but it's because of the muddy bottom of the river. (Which is quite an astonishing thing when having in mind the fecal pollution of the Danube water in Southeast Europe, mentioned in the previous story from Djerdap NP. This seems to be a manifestation of an amazing self-cleaning power that the Danube possesses, the power that is much stronger than we deserve.)

The Persin prisoners camp was active even until 1980s.

The story of the island as an isolation zone actually has a much darker history that dates from the communist past after WW II, when it was used as a concentration camp for political enemies (and those who just had the bad luck to be classified as such). Going further into the eastern part of the island, we reached a place that was still radiating strong atmosphere of suffering. A wooden arch at the entrance with the creepy inscription „Yes, ‘man’ sounds proudly“, a monument to all those who died from diseases or malnutrition or were simply executed, corridors and rooms of dilapidated buildings covered with countless posters showing the life of prisoners.

Back to Belene – one more chance to enjoy beautiful landscape of the marsh.

We had another cycling tour next morning, this time to Kaikusha Protected Site. The name derives from Turkish name for a sort of fish, and it is a marsh that remained after the draining of Svishtov-Belene lowlands. The marsh is very important space for herons, ducks and storks.

This biking route is included in the official tourist content for visitors and leads to the southern part of the Park. For those who come to Belene without their own two wheels, there is a bicycle rental station in the front of the Municipality building, with three electric bicycles and a charging station. This equipment was provided through the LENA project, two months ago.

Kaikusha agriculture is mainly focused on growing corn, which is not good because the soil is treated the same way every year. There is also a negative impact of fertilizers, but legal regulations unfortunately define other institutions to control it, not the Park.

In the autumn of 2011 under Green Borders Life+ project, the Park Directorate had started activities to restore the water regime of the Kaikusha marsh (the second wetland in the Park to be restored) and to build basic infrastructure for visitors. Kaikusha is also characterized by a lot of underground water, and wells are sometimes only 2-3 m deep. 

After WW II the land was property of a large agricultural combine and after that, the privatization produced many owners with small properties. In the end, the big money entered the game and today the land belongs to just several owners. Four of them are big businessmen, including the biggest landowner in Bulgaria. They use industrial irrigation systems and water from the Danube and don’t need water from old channels.

„That is why they didn’t care much when we were started to clean the canals,” says Daniela. “There is one canal water regulation station here and it is used several times a year, mainly in spring and autumn. We have a manual with instructions when to do it, depending on the water level that we are monitoring.”


At the end of the cycling route, we followed a short eco-trail that took us to the observation tower in the heart of the marsh.  Visitors can see here typical marsh vegetation and many waterfalls. There are also jackals here, who sometimes even enter and live in Belene (I could hear them in the night from my room in a riverside pension at the edge of the town). Last year, through several actions and with the help of locals and children, a lot of plastic bottles were removed from the bush along the trail.

In the Kaikusha Protected Area

“There were many vineyards around in the past but the vine is nowadays grown only in home yards. The reason is that the State does not help the growers - that is, it does not guarantee the safety of the crop. The winemakers would have to secure the property themselves against natural disasters”, explained Radoslava.

And while we were chit-chatting, she told me something I never heard before: “Did you know that church bells can prevent hail? In the past, whenever these dangerous black and white clouds were spotted, the bells would begin to ring and the sound would break the clouds. This system is less powerful now here, as the bells are not used any more in our Catholic church.”


Back in the Visitors Center, I talked with Stela Bozhinova about some interesting legal and administrative stuff:

“This is what makes us different: there are eleven nature parks in Bulgaria, but this is the only wetland park. 

In our country, the difference between national park and nature park is that the owner of a national park ground is exclusively the State, while nature park can contain mixed State and private property. 

National parks in Bulgaria exist only in mountains like Rila, Pirin and Stara planina. They were established in 1996 and many laws have changed since then (the only category that existed before that was the “National Park”), declaring that these parks were the property of the State. An example of a mixed property is the Nature Park on Vitosha mountain above Sofia.

Our protection system looks like this: 

1. Natural monument – has the lowest level, marked only with stickers and info tags.


2. Protected Area – some activities are prohibited, protects especially valuable plants and birds; the
    rules of behaviour are defined by scientists. 


3. Managed Reserve - biodiversity related activities are permitted.


6. Reserve – the highest level of protection, no human activities are allowed. Our “Persinski blata “ (“Persin marches”) are an example of that: the only thing we did there was to return water to the area and to build platforms for pelicans. That required a permit from the Ministry of Agriculture, and the Ministry of Ecology was responsible for declaring the special status of the area.

We are not registered for commercial activities and therefore can not arrange paid tours like a tourist organization. We also do have a boat, but only for research and nature conservation purposes. The point is that the Park is financed from the state budget… and it is getting smaller every year.”

Discreet, economical and efficient: this plastic grid at the base of the Eco-trail
shapes and stabilizes the path. (Although I would experiment a bit with some cheeky colours… for example light blue or yellow. Or not. :)
 

When it comes to benefits of the DANUBEparksCONNECTED project, Stela wanted to point out this: “We didn't know how to articulate our concept and abilities - and then we have found a family along the Danube. We adopted many ideas and solutions that for years have existed elsewhere.”

Then Daniela gave me probably the most beautiful and emotional definition of the project success that I heard on the whole trip: “Along the Danube, you come across different places, cultures, languages… and you can see the difference in the degree of material development and wealth. But through the DANUBEparksCONNECTED we in Persina were encouraged to see, to become truly aware, of a different kind of fortune that we have here: nature. We thought that we were a just a green zone in a poor country, but other partners told us – no! you are rich and you are beautiful!”

Stela is surely the one who knows the best about obstacles to be overcome during project work: “While I visited all partners except Passau, I can say that it is not simple for us to go on business trips. There are internal rules and if we want to go abroad we need a permit from a commissioner in our Forestry Agency. And the answer from that side is sometimes negative. 

The system is very specific in other ways too. When we engage in a project and perform related activities, the financial funds that are directed to us go first to the Ministry, which then forwards them to us. But these transfers are sometimes several months late.

There is also a restriction on hiring staff. And even if we have spaced to do that, it is often not easy to find a specialist who would be ready to come to Belene. For example, if we have a public procurement, under Bulgarian law we are obliged to have an attorney. But attorneys do not want to permanently live here, they want to visit us only when necessary.
Earnings in this branch of government jobs are low and financial motivation is appropriate to that fact. When participating in a project, we do not automatically get extra earnings for the additional work. Such an allowance must be approved by the Ministry, but they somehow do it mainly for their employees and not for us “outsiders. Until 2012, we could have a 13th salary, but this is no longer the case.

The director of the Park can allocate money in the project. Before we start, we send a plan to the Ministry, and they decide whether to go into that project, should we cut down some activities, and the like. But when a contract is signed and the project starts, they usually don't interfere much.”

Do you have volunteers?

„Yes - I am one of them“, enters the conversation Vasil, the park ranger and a member of the office staff. „And all my colleagues here are volunteers too. How is that? My salary is 350 EUR per month - that is why I am practically a volunteer.“

But while the financial motivation is not great, there are other reasons to be satisfied and proud. Daniela says: “To me, we have two nice achievements here. First one is the maintenance of the wetland. We register a constant increase in the number of birds, year by year. Second: the successful education of young people is our big inspiration. We started when kids from this region were really little, and we see that now, when they are older, they understand things well. They used to ask, 'why do we have to protect nature?' but now they say ' the nature protection is good for human health, and if we protect the nature we also live in harmony with our human nature '. “

Stela wants to stress this good results: 

“First: the experience we have gained. We have milestones and I have a clear picture in my mind of where we should go, what we want to achieve in 20-30 years from now.  Thus, we can plan our activities better.

Second: for many years the Danube was boundary and people were not used to see it as more than a source of fish. (*) But today it is a bond, people are aware of it and people are more open to this chance.”

(*) As a traveller along the Danube, I can add from my side that the urbanism of cities along this part of the river is also a proof of this: in the communist past, the banks of these cities were in most cases used to build industrial zones instead of promenades.


The last question to Stela was about cooperation with local people:

“There are many different administrations that overlap with ours: forestry and environmental institutions, the prison on the island, etc. Contact between the local people and the Park is not satisfactory: they do not feel that we have enough power to sanction their violations of the Park rules. They come to us only when they need help, and have no awareness of what they should respect. 

Problems are sometimes created by fishermen or farmers. Some fishermen do not like our restrictions, but professional fishing is not profitable today, and they do it only in their spare time anyway. Some hunters do not like when we open sluices and increase water level in the canals. They understand that wetland is good for fish and therefore for them, they understand that more water means more wild boars too - but they would like the ground to be dry just when they like it to be, in the autumn for example.”

 

 

Kalimok–Brashlen Protected Area
-  Including a Danube under the Danube…

 

 

The Protected Area Kalimok-Braslen is the largest protected area in Bulgaria, covering 5,770 hectares between Babovo and Tutrakan and including eight islands. It might be as well the most valuable natural treasure in Bulgaria, but surely sits on top 10 list of the country’s most representative areas.
It was declared in 2001, under the supervision of the Regional Inspectorate for Environment and Water in Ruse and the Forest Inspection in Ruse. Main reasons for protection were to preserve the diversity of ecosystems and landscapes (natural, wetland, coastal and riparian forests) and to conserve habitats of rare and protected birds, plants and animals. There are 109 species of aquatic plants in the PA, 10 species of mosses, 16 species of mushrooms, 300 species of higher plants…

The most valuable assets of the Kalimok-Braslen PA are birds, specially pelicans, cormorants and herons. There are 240 bird species (130 nesting here).

Towards Braslen… Riding the dam in the Protected Area.

I passed a nice part of the PA while riding the lonely Danube dam from Ryahovo to Barshlen. And I was told to look for the Tourist Info Center in Braslen, but it was far from what I expected:  instead of an office somewhere in the village there was a nice tiny forest at the end of it, bordering the main road Ruse – Silistra. And in the middle of it I stopped in front of a large building whose architecture unmistakably pointed to the construction style of the 1970s or 1980s. But it was nicely  blended with the ambiance, obviously recently renovated, and there was even a swimming pool in the pleasant garden in front of it. I was greeted there by Mr. Dimcho Petrov, the Mayor of Braslen:


“Our Tourist Info Center was opened in 2015, in the building of a former kindergarten which was renovated and adapted through the project ‘Local Initiative Fishery Groups’. The project was executed through a joint partnership of three neighbouring municipalities - Tutrakan, Slivo Polje and Glavninica – with over 500,000 Euro of investments from EU funds.”

But this is much more than just a plain info-center: it offers accommodation in 40 beds and is designed as a green school for primary school children.

“Braslen was chosen because it is located in the Protected Area, which was proclaimed in the 1980s.”


We entered the meeting room and joined a large group of media representatives, stakeholders and local enthusiasts and I met my other hosts in the PA: Mrs. Emilia Petkova (an external expert to the project) and Mr. Milko Berberov (forestry engineer, Chairperson of the Managing Board of the Club of Friends of Russenski Lom). 

Emilia Petkova gives details about the DANUBEparksCONNECTED

„The Directorate of Nature Park Russenski Lom was established twenty years ago”, said Emilia. “As employees of the Directorate at that time we came up with the idea of founding the Club of Friends of the Park. It allowed us to bring together enthusiasts and stakeholders of the region and to focus their efforts in order to help the Park to achieve its goals.” 

The Club later widened its activities to the Kalimok-Braslen PA and immediately responded to possibilities offered by the DANUBEparksCONNECTED project by joining its international team. The key reason was an effort to reintroduce black poplars in the PA.

“The terrain that we work on was first a forest and then an agricultural area. We are trying now to restore the forest again there but it doesn’t go without problems and delays. Last spring there was a problem with pumping station that draws water from the fields and there was a flood there. Local farmers lost their harvest and breached their contract with the EU without their fault, while we missed spring and have a delay in our reforestation plan, as the best time to do it again will be only next year.

A view of the zone for black poplar reintroduction

The story of broken pumps is characteristic of the state bureaucracy: the state-owned company sent  an info about the problem to the Ministry of Environment, but received a response saying that the repair works in the pumping station were not possible because it was located in the protected area. The protests of farmers and their visits to the Ruse did not help – the time was lost, and then it was simply too late…

We anyway want to further continue with the reforestation project, but will EU assistance for that.

Another activity that we are devoted to is to provide protectors (insulators) for electric poles in the area, in order to protect birds from getting killed by electric shock when hitting them. Our experience with that problem was actually our original contribution to the DANUBEparksCONNECTED project: the partners were at first unaware of this dimension and were not totally convinced that our measures were needed. But it changed after German experts were consulted and statistical data confirmed the occurrence.

We have invited all experts with experience in electricity protection to a national meeting, in order to expand national awareness and knowledge of the problem.  The first set of protectors, manufactured in Finland, was applied in 2014, in neighboring villages Ivanovo and Koshov. We mounted 300 pieces on 100 electric poles (three protectors per pole). And we are just about to mount next set in Kalimok. Use of protectors brings clear benefit to electricity supply operators as well, as they prevent network incidents caused when birds come in contact with conductors on the poles.”

The Protected Area is also Natura 2000 zone and that dictates certain behavior: no development is allowed, everything must remain as it was. It is not possible to apply even things that would seemingly only slightly distort the local nature - a rock climbing routes for example. Well, theoretically… Do the rules of Natura 2000 specifically mention monster trucks and off-road racing machines? No? So let’s make a 30 km long racing course on the very edge of the Natura 2000 zone, in the vicinity of the village Sredna Kula and near the Danube and Ruse. And let’s have there at least one big event each  year. It happened only once that the guys who had that idea (mistakenly) notified the Club and even sent a map of the event. Emilia and Milko at that time were still working in the Park’s Directorate and could rely on its authority to stop the race.

 

Nature conservation activities in the Natura 2000 area near the Danube and Ruse
(photos: Baja Bulgaria.com)

If we speak of problems, one thing to mention is groundwater. There was a World Bank project that sought to bring more water into the area by cutting the Danube embankment. It was achieved through 2-3 sub projects (which also led to the creation of the Belene-Persina Protected Area), but local farmers and hunters were not delighted to see that water levels were since then regulated by the Nature Park (like on Persina island).

Other problems include initiative and lobbying to build renewable energy sources in the Danube waters, and sometimes people who seem unwilling to accept a simple fact that building houses in a Nature Park is not allowed. Others erect fences around their properties to protect them from deer, which is also strictly prohibited in Nature Parks.

„In the past, the Nature Parks in Bulgaria were connected into a strong "family" with good internal cooperation. But some five years ago, big investors set out on all types of eco-organizations who were a hindrance to their ambitions, labeling their network as „Green Octopus“. By The campaign in the media was strong and promoted the image of NGOs as hotbeds of corruption.

It is therefore quite difficult now to work in the environmental field as we are seen as the "bed guys". But we trust in the EU, which recognizes causes and consequences and constantly pressures our Government to do their job. It is like ‘you said you would do this, and you promised that you will do that -  what's going on with this, and what is going on with… that?’ :)"

Back to the DANUBEparksCONNECTED: Emilia says that the project activities gave her chance to visit Hainburg and Haus am Strom. She would like to see Visitors Center of the National Park Donau-Auen, as there is an ambition to have here something like that here.

I then spend more time with Dimcho Petrov, an interesting person itself. He left his carrier in Ruse as a TV personality and an author of documentary films (I would recommend “Rock monasteries of Bulgaria”) in order to become Mayor of Braslen, just like his great-grandfather Lazar who was on the same duty in 1911. 

Mr. Dimcho Petrov, Mayor of Braslen

“The main problem we have here is that the wetlands along the river are owned by a state-owned irrigation company. The municipality of Slivo Polje has 11 populated places and 27 km of Danube coast, and we want to develop river and fishing tourism in order to attract guests. But we do not have any influence to the state, appearance and contents on the Danube bank. The infrastructure is a major problem: a good quality road along the embankment is the basis for the development of these two types of tourism.

Another example of an unbelievable state of affairs is this: a protected area means (among other things) that forestry works, drainage and disturbance of the water regime, conversion of meadows and pastures into arable land - are all prohibited. But there is heavy machinery of a private firm that is working right now in the floodplain, destroying the paved embankment road and leaving behind in the floodplain tracks that are sometimes deep up to the waist. This happens because it is possible for private companies to lease the area from the state and then to exploit the timber there.”

Aggressive forestry in the Kalimok–Braslen Protected Area
(Photo: Facebook / Prista Scouting Ruse)

But while waiting for changes in the bureaucratic labyrinth Dimcho doesn’t loose enthusiasm for 

Tourism development, especially the organized type of tourism:

“Since 2016 we regularly have scouts from the cities of Ruse, Varna, Pleven and Schumen. Last year we even had a group from Belgium, in a camp organized in front of the Center (only their doctors stayed in the accommodation). They came here on invitation of our domestic guests - scouts who were satisfied with their previous experience here.

Barshlen camp activities
(Photo: Facebook / Prista Scouting Ruse)

Camping in the front of Tourist info Centre
(Photo: Facebook / Prista Scouting Ruse)

Our typical camp lasts 10 days and during that time the participants go to the Danube on kayak tours, learn survival skills in nature and get acquainted with the nature of the region, its birds, plants and fish.

Groups have 40-100 people and come in June and July.

We have another a tourist event in August: a one-day (it happens on Saturdays) Fish Festival that attracts as much as 1000 visitors from Bulgaria, Romania, Czech Republic, Croatia. There are competitions for the best fish stew, baked fish and home-made brandy, as well as for the fastest cleaning of fish (last year's winner was Vendo Milde – a Czech from Ruse, descendant of an old brewery that came from the Czech Republic and founded the brewing industry in Bulgaria.)

As of 2018 we also have art colonies and one of them deals specifically with graphics - the authors were from Bulgaria and Romania. Theme is appropriate: nature, and works remain in our village gallery at the Center.

Off course, cyclo tourists can also camp here or use the accommodation in the Center. We also plan to offer ten rental bikes in the village.”

As Dimcho explained to me, to the east of the village (in the direction of Nova Černa) there are abandoned fish-ponds. But after opening the embankment in three places during before mentioned projects in 2007-2009, the ponds are again in use as they fill up when the water in the Danube is high. (When the Danube level is low, the sluices get closed.) The fish are breed and then released into the Danube.

“Tutrakan is a tiny but famous fishing town. But before and after WW II they obtained most of the fish from wetland - this was just raised to an industrial level after WW II. Production, however, stopped in the late 1980s and early 1990s. (Bulgaria previously also had large vessels for sea fishing - they are all gone because somehow the need for fish has decreased.)


In the 1950s and 1960s, Russians built the largest pumping station in Bulgaria (perhaps all over the Balkans - and named it "Stalin") between Ryahovo and Barshlen, to provide agricultural irrigation to the area. But its electric motors consumed a lot of electricity and it would be too expensive today to irrigate fields with the Danube water - the solution nowadays is to use groundwater for that purpose. A fascinating thing is that at a depth of 100-120 m there is an underground river that has no connection with the Danube.”

 

A sunset in the Kalimok-Braslen style

 

 

 

Srebarna Nature Reserve

-The silver oasis on a long way

 

A nice early morning saw me pedalling uphill to the highest roofs of village Srebarna („Silver“). That point was taken by an inconspicuous concrete building – the Administration of Srebarna Nature Reserve. I was met there by Mr. Momchil Petrov, biodiversity expert at the Administration.

The reserve covers an area of ​​895 hectares and includes the lake and the area to the north, up to the Danube, plus the forested Devnya island on the Danube which belongs to Bulgaria. On the Romanian side is Ciocăneşti Protected Area with another island, so the whole area is one big green zone.


On the top of the Reserve’s administration building:  the best viewpoint in Srebarna village

The lake and the close zone around it (i.e the Reserve) is under the highest degree of protection and even scientists can enter it only with the permission of the Ministry of Environment and Water (Ministry of Ecology).  But entry to the outer ring, i.e. surrounding terrain, is not restricted. And there is an eco-trail that goes around the lake.

The reed and islands on the lake are actually not fixed – they are afloat. When the water level is low they run around, but when there is enough water wind pushes them around.

“In Bulgaria, Natura 2000 occupies a large part of the country - the aim is to maintain the existing status quo: if there was agriculture to keep that agriculture and if there were forests to keep these forests”, says Momchil.

“This is also Natura 2000 zone, plus we have a buffer zone on the east and west side of the lake. The main reason for the protection is birds. But even the lake, located along the Danube, is unique of this type in Bulgaria. Its depth is 2 to 2.5 m, with maximal depth of 4 m.”

There is an eco-trail that goes around the lake.
These overgrown steps lead from the trail up to a view point (below).

 

“A total of 220 bird species (both nesting and migrating birds) are registered in the Reserve. We have a Dalmatian pelican colony with 60-70 nests, and it is easy to spot these birds that can live up to ten years and are the largest sort of pelicans. Then there is the Little Cormorant, the Greylag Goose, the Marsh Harrier, the Bluethroat, many species of herons. The Great White Pelican is visiting us during the summer - last year we even had a few nests but there is one left now.

During the winter we have migratory birds. Thousands of white-fronted geese - ,maybe close to 10,000 of them - are wintering here. The Mute swan winters here too, but we also have more than 100 permanent nests of this bird. About 90% of the lake freezes during the winter and there are no insects and bugs, so it is harder for birds to find food.

As about fish, we have Crucian carp (C. carassius), and a lot of pikes. Fishing is only allowed with a hook, and out of the Reserve. But there are poachers: they cast nets at night in the central part of the lake (these are mostly people from the village and couple of them and already well known to us) or in its eastern part (these are usually "visiting" poachers). We inform the border police about all such events so that they can investigate and arrest the perpetrators (we do not have that legal option).”

Floating islands of Lake Srebarna

I asked about platforms for birds and Momchil confirmed that there were four of them: 

“Three of our platforms are used by pelicans, but the fourth not that much – for some reason it doesn’t attracts the birds.

The problem with implementing platforms in our conditions is that the bottom of the lake is muddy and not stable enough to retain pillars of the platforms. And if we install the platforms on floating islands, they would get damaged when islands collide.

Platforms are safe zones (especially birds’ eggs), protecting from jackals and wild boars. At the moment there are even three racoon dogs here (a raccoon-like animals that came from Asia). They are dangerous when the water is low and they don’t have to swim far to reach pelicans’ nests, but generally they do not pose too much of a problem: we see them more often this year, but we had similar situation last time in 2011. Hunting (with permission) for all these predators in order to limit their numbers is only possible in winter, when the lake is frozen.”

Very important thing for living world of the Reserve is that Lake Srebarna (which is of natural origin) is very stable: two years ago, many lakes in the country with similar size dried up, but this one was holding well. In the more distant past, the lake began to critically dry up in 1947-1948. Fortunately, the construction of an embankment for flood protection that led all the way to Silistra, began at the same time - that embankment also saved Lake Srebarna.

In 1977, a 500m long part of the embankment was lowered, thus forming a "step" over which the water from the river could enter the lake when the Danube is high. When the Danube is low, the step is high enough to prevent water from the lake to return to the river.

A canal with two sluices was constructed on the east side of the lake in 1994. (The building of the Reserve’s administration was also built that year.) It is lower then the „step“ in the embankment and is used for an active regulation of water level in the lake. Sluices are generally opened when the Danube is high (in spring) and closed when the Danube level drops (in late spring or summer). The current information about the river level is obtained from the Danube Research Agency. In practice, opening and closing is done not only twice, but several times during the year.

Momchil Petrov with his monitoring software.

Monitoring water level in the lake

Another critical period was from 1992 to 2003, because the water level of the Danube was often low. But since 2006 (when we even recorded the highest level of the lake), there is always enough water and the lake is healthy and fine.

There are no hydroelectric power plants (i.e. barrages) from the Iron Gates to the Delta. The Danube is very wide here and has only a slight drop, so it flows slowly. The sediment is mostly sludge, but the river water is clean. Sand is extracted a lot for use in construction, which of course isn't good from the ecological side. But the need for construction is stronger than the awareness about the need for nature conservation.

At the southern end of the lake the floating islands stick
one to another and form a "continent" :)

The riverbed is rocky and the erosion is not significant, but the phenomenon of the Danube burying into its own riverbed is present here too: since the time when the Iron Gates power plants have been built, it accumulated to one meter. The river is also slightly moving towards the Bulgarian side.

Аtivities of the Reserve also include conservation and revitalization of local flora: “Our strategy regarding the forest fund is to remove new, non-domestic species and to replace them with indigenous ones: white and black poplar, field elm and field ash. A few years ago, we removed the hybrid poplar from the zone along the Danube embankment and planted some of the mentioned species, adding some oaks as well.”

“Non-domestic species, such as Acer negundo and of course the inevitable Amorpha fruticosa, are invasive and difficult to eradicate by field machinery alone, so we strive to exploit any natural weakness of them. Amorpha fruticosa, for example, does not grow well in a shade and can be suppressed by planting taller trees in the zone that it attacks. So, in spaces occupied by Amorpha fruticosa, we first clear an area of 4-5 square meters and then plant there willows or poplars. And if we speak of slower and more laborious methods, manual extraction is better than cutting because the aggressive plant will not return as quickly.”

There is a museum with an Info Center nearby but it is a separate institution: “We are ‘protection’ guys, subordinate to the Regional Inspectorate of Environment and Water from Ruse (which in turn belongs to the Ministry of Ecology). Our staff consists of one expert (me) and three guards, equipped with four off-road vehicles.  (Well, three are functional and two of them are Russian “Lada Nivas” :)

Momchil’s life pace is determined by his job: “I live in Ruse and work here four days a week, Tuesday through Friday. My duty is, first of all, to organize and supervise visits and work of scientists and other guests. But you need to be versatile here, and I also work on management plans implementation.

Our other important activity is the daily monitoring of Dalmatian pelicans. And in accordance with the annual monitoring plan, we do the same for some other species. There are always additional teams from other institutions - Academy of Science and the like - who also monitor water aspects, plants… 2-3 times a year. We monitor level of the lake on a daily basis, using an automated system. Plus: we are engaged in increasing the forest fund and in general water management."

Srebarna Museum and Info Centre

This is not a working place that will take you around the world ("I visited the Delta, but we basically do not have a practice of visiting other protected areas”) but this is not the point after all - there are other reasons to be satisfied with your job: “For me, the most important result that we achieved here is the fact that you can see the Pelicans so easily - that means there are many of them.”

Programme co-funded by European Union funds (ERDF, IPA, ENI)