After a long drive at the bottom of the endless fertile plain that used to be the bottom of the Pannonian Sea, one cannot but notice the long, green ridge on the right side of the Danube that is slowly rising in the direction of Novi Sad. That is Fruška gora, a 80 km long low mountain. (Today. But for 9 million years it used to be an island of the Pannonian Sea.)
Novi Sad is the second-largest city in Serbia (which doesn't mean it's big, having only 250,000 inhabitants), and while it is debatable that its main summer attractions - sunbathing on the city beach and sweating at the Exit festival – were as good 20 million years ago as they are today, one thing is sure: Sremska Kamenica, its suburban settlement on the right bank of the river, is the seat of the Fruška gora National Park Directorate.
„Gora“ is an old Serbian word for mountain, while „Fruška“ comes from an old Serbian word for Frankish people - „Frankish mountain“ indicates that the Franks (who would say that) inhabited or controlled this area while clashing with the Roman empire. Roman name for it was Alma Mons, the "fertile mount" where first grapevines were planted in the 3rd century of our era, during the reign of the emperor Marcus Aurelius Probus (born in the nearby Sirmium).
The mountain is a natural geological phenomenon: it is built from the rocks from almost all geological periods of the Earth. And the National Park is an administrative phenomenon: it might be the largest missing child of the Danubeparks brotherhood. But while it is not a member yet, due to its size and importance, as well as its inevitable future membership, it couldn’t be skipped.
So I headed to the main office in Sremska Kamenica, and they then quickly took me up the brutal mountain whose summit was at a deadly altitude of 538 meters above sea level. Ok, “brutal” and “deadly” is probably a bit exaggerated if you can set yourself a limit at how much you should drink while visiting many wine cellars there. A (psychologically) important thing to know is that Fruška Gora divides the wide region of Srem into two geographically distinct parts: Wine Srem (upper or mountainous) and, well, Pork Srem (lowland). But to imagine ascending to Fruška gora as an escape from a geologically newer but smelly Pannonian sea of pigs, would be totally wrong: locals say that there is just enough pork meat around to boost the pleasure of wine :)
The first person to meet and talk to was Mr. Konstantin Plužarević, an Assistant of the Director for Protection and Development:
In front of the Fruška gora Info Center,
with Konstantin Plužarević and Dragiša Savić
“The national park Fruška Gora was declared in 1960 and covers an area of 267 km2. This territory comprises 8 municipalities and 44 local communities and obviously is exposed to urban pressure. There are more than 14 paved entrances to the Park, plus there are many other field roads that also enter the Park. The traffic on some of these roads is heavy, especially on the road M21 that comes from the town of Sremska Mitrovica (the historical Sirmium) with over 20,000 vehicles a day. On other local roads there is an average of 2000 vehicles in 8 hours. There is a road that goes all along the 80 km long ridge of Fruska Gora ridge, It has been reconstructed (re-paved) at the first part and now Regional Development Agency Srem is preparing technical documentation project for next reconstruction phase. It is nice to have such a good basic infrastructure in the Park, but we must maintain control over its consequences.
Very important for us is a planned tunnel that will go under Fruška Gora, in the direction Novi Sad – Belgrade. Technical documentation is already done, and it will crucially reduce the traffic pressure on the whole mountain.”
The Park is not a member of the Danube parks. Why is that?
“For 60 years the Park was managing the part of the Danube from Bačka Palanka to Beška, in the length of 64 km. We were first in Serbia by the number of fishery staff and carried out a detailed control of fish and fishing in that section, managing to remove and confiscate up to 120 km of illegal fishing nets annually.
However, that section of the Danube was recently awarded to the state company “Vojvodinavode” for a 10-year period. Vojvodinavode manages most of the flora and fauna along the Danube in the Vojvodina province, but this was a serious blow to us - among other things, as the National Park was extending along the Danube, we planned to connect with the Danubeparks association on that basis. Now we are a bit isolated form the Danube and this plan will stay on hold for a while – we first have to get back our part of the river.”
The dense forest that covers Fruška gora is really impressive
“Next year we will celebrate 60 years of the Park. We started from 2.5 million cubic meters of timber and now we have more than 6 million - mostly lime trees and oak. But the Park forest estate is generally too old. Many think that it is economically viable, but nursing measures are in some areas more expensive than the economic benefits of those measures.
We actually consider lime trees an aggressive species because they occupy oak habitats. Not every type of land can provide the quality that oak requires – a deep soil and plenty of food. (While pine, for example, thrives on shallow soils with little food.)
And one has to be careful when trying to improve the situation as system errors are only visible after a long time, e.g. after 120 years. An example with pine trees: they were planted all over the former Yugoslavia during popular and massive public volunteer work actions – but it wasn’t the sort suitable for all parts of the country. And being “not suitable” can mean a disaster: a few years ago, storm in the High Tatras brought down 75,000 ha of spruce in just one night because its root system was too shallow.
The tree sorts of Fruška gora
There are quite a lot of deer here?
“Ten years ago we reintroduced the European deer (Cervus elaphus) with specimens that we got from Hungary. This species has vanished in the region but now we have more than 300 individuals. We even gave some of our deer to other parks and protected areas in Serbia, while the rest have been released into the area around the Ravne Eco-Center.
The Eco-Center is housed in a villa built in the late 19th century by Count Arturo Odeskalski. After World War II it became state property. The roof was damaged during the 1999 NATO bombing and collapsed after that. We are negotiating with the Government of the Province of Vojvodina on the transfer of the villa to our property, and want also to return the rest of its original inventory (which is presently also stored in Government warehouses).
Our mouflons and Fallow deer are allochthonous species here, they have never lived on Fruška gora. Despite the fact that we have had mouflons in the Park for many years, no genetic refreshment of their population has been done. However, some time ago we received 30 new specimens from Slovakia.
We are currently in the final phase of bringing a family of the European Bison (Zubr or Visent / Bison bonasus) from Poland. Bisons will be an attraction and will live in a separately fenced area.
A problem that I would like to point out is that our wildlife sometimes manages to get out of the Park and then easily falls victim to local poachers. (We don't have poaching in the park.)
Fruška gora is not only wildlife and forest, there also are man-made attractions here?
There are 17 monasteries here, that is why the mountain is called Mount Athos of Serbia. All the monasteries are formally outside the Park borders, but a total of 6000 ha of their forests are located in the Park, and we manage them. (Despite the fact that these forests, which were nationalized after World War II, were formally returned to the monasteries three years ago.)
There are 14 lakes in Fruška Gora and three more are located along the wider mountain zone. All of them are artificial, formed in the 1970s and 1980s with the aim of preventing the flooding of arable land while ensuring its irrigation. Three lakes (Sot, Bruja and Moharac) are within the boundaries of the park. The rights to manage these lakes are granted through public competitions announced by the state.
We have a mountain marathon that has been held in Fruska Gora for 42 years now, and there is a cycling marathon for the last couple of decades. (Trails for both of these sports also partially run across the monasteries lands.)”
Some more planned development in the near future?
“The Park has a buffer zone along its real border, and we try to take care of that part too. The State Institute for Nature Conservation is currently working on a study that would put the Beočin Road – one of the roads that climb to Fruška gora from Novi Sad’s side - under protection.”
My next conversationalist was Mr. Dragiša Savić - a biologist, nature protection and flora & fauna improvement officer in the Park
Dragiša with a typical info-board for hikers
“Fruška Gora does not look like a protected area that provides great biodiversity - it is only 500 meters high, barely qualifying to be a mountain. But this mountain refutes the theory, for several reasons.
At the first place, the location is crucial for biodiversity because the mountain is located on the edge of the vast plain where four geographical areas touch: Pannonian, Moesian, Illyrian and Dacian. Each of them has their own set of living things, but here we have each of those sets.
Secondly, while due to its small height Fruška Gora could be mistaken as a geological “teenager”, it is actually over 300 million years old. The composition of the soil is dominated by limestone, with some siliceous soil.
Due to the above mentioned low altitude, there are only deciduous forests in Fruska Gora, but they are dominant and semi-dominant forests. In most parts of northern Europe, there are spruce forests (taiga), but coniferous forests are much poorer than deciduous forests when it comes to the diversity of the living world.
What is there to confirm that diversity more specifically?
There are 1000 species of plants within the boundaries of the Park and 1400 species throughout the whole Fruška gora. When compared to other mountains, one can see how strong this is. (Another comparison to get a better picture: the whole of the United Kingdom has about 2500 species and the whole of Serbia about 3500 species.)
There are no endemic plant species in Fruska Gora but about 70 of them are listed strictly in Serbia. There are as many as 30 species of orchids, who like stable habitats.
Oh, and mushrooms… in this sense, Fruška Gora is definitely the most explored mountain in Serbia. “ There are 1800 species of fungi confirmed at present here, but certainly even more than that.”
What I can add is that Dragiša, who earned his doctorate in after a decade of mushroom and fungi research, actually was the one who upgraded the status of the Fruška gora mushrooms population to the level of “most explored in Serbia” :) And it is definitely worth visiting his website “Nature of FG”, where he has exhibited an incredible collection: 10,000 photographs of 4500 species of plants, animals and fungi of Fruška gora.
”A lot of fungi are actually so small that you need magnifying-glass to see them”
“As about animals: we have 60 mammal species, 220 bird species and a minimum of 10,000 invertebrate species, which have not been sufficiently investigated. Butterflies alone have 1000 species and there are 350 species of spiders.”
These numbers seem to indicate that an above average (for Serbia) research work was done in the past?
“Serbia is generally under-explored in this regard, but as Fruška Gora is close to Novi Sad it is above average. Most research has been done since WW II and while the mountain was proclaimed a national park in 1960 mostly to protect forests, only after that was the true extent of biodiversity discovered, which gave the Park its full meaning.
And there is also a rich geological and fossil heritage?
Numerous, millions of years old, fossils of plants - palm, laurel and cinnamon - have been found in Fruska Gora.
There are 14 specially protected geological-paleontological sites that witness to the time when Fruška gora was an island in the Pannonian Sea. These are underground locations that very rarely can be found simply by walking around. The most interesting one is at the monastery Grgeteg and was explored 100 years ago by the Austrians. It is special and rare a sense that all layers from the stages of Earth's formation can be seen there. On this basis even some aspects of Darwin's theory have been proved, while some of the fossils found there can be seen now in the Vienna Museum
What can we say about the birds in the Park?
For the past 20 years the Imperial eagle has been the symbol of the NP. We also had the last two couples of the Golden eagle (Aquila heliaca) in Serbia and they were put under the first level of protection, but three years ago they disappeared. Squirrels (Spermophilus citellus) are their main food and they are protected as well, but as former swamp-and-steppe Vojvodina was drained and turned into arable land (similar to what’s happened in Hungary), there are no many squirrels left there (most of them now still remain on Fruška gora). However, two pairs of these eagles appeared in the nearby Bačka region – and they could be the same birds.
There are more white-tailed eagles: over 100 couples in Serbia. There are about 20 of them in our area and they nest along the Danube, not on Fruška gora. But they come here to a feeding spot which offers pigs from the surrounding farms. That way they do not have to wander far away for food, which reduces the risks for them.”
You mentioned that there have been some small but important additions to the Park area in the recent past?
“The vegetation if Fruška gora is a forest-steppe type, that is a mosaic of forests and (on the perimeter) of meadow-steppe. Until a few years ago, meadows were outside the NP boundaries, but because of their high value (mostly due to orchids - there are 9 sorts of them on just one meadow above Beočin village), they were added to the Park. (Some meadow-steppes are on the edge of the Park and some are "enclaves".)
By the way, the protection here is not based on the type of property, be it private or state. The state prescribes what has to be obeyed regarding nature protection and then it must be respected even on the private property.”
So, which levels of protection are there?
The first level (strongest - any activities are forbidden and entry is only possible with an escort), then the second and third one. The first level is applied to about 3% of the NP area. The second level is applied to most of the territory. The third protection zone covers sections along roads and quarries.”
Do you cooperate with the general public to perform some tasks in the Park?
”Each meadow biologically tends to turn into a forest (the process is called succession) and this is prevented or slowed down by grazing. But Serbia does not have very rich livestock anymore - that is why we cooperate with students (funds are provided by the state) to clear the most important meadows. It is enough to do this once in a few years.”
What is generally the state of the forests here? Did you have problems to reach a certain level of quality, do you have problems to maintain it now?
“The NP is not funded from the state budget but uses commercial forestry in the level 2 protection zones to generate revenue. This type of forestry is conducted in accordance with specific principles – the point is not to just cut down a tree, but to improve the forest.
At the time when the NP was established its forests were pretty bad. More than 1000 years ago this was a rainforest of 170,000 ha but it has been shrinking over the centuries, turning the former rainforest to 23,000 ha of plain forest. The Counts of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy used to mercilessly cut down good quality trees and to leave the cut areas to renew themselves. The consequence was that the lime trees spread rapidly. The oak does not easily grow from the stump but the lime tree does - that is why the lime tree easily wins the race and conquers the terrain. Fruška Gora was practically three times completely "trimmed down" and left to rebuild itself, so at the moment of the Park founding 90% of its area was under forest grown from stumps (so-called stump or sprout forests).
But what we want is the so-called "tall" forests, created by growing from seed. Turning the stump forest into a tall forest is a slow and expensive business. It takes about twenty years to implement the necessary measures - and only then forest can be left to further develop by itself. It is rarely the case that all the trees are cut down in one zone (the so-called "bare cut"). Instead, it is done gradually.
Luckily, diseases (forest drying, etc.) have not been observed in Fruška gora. Our forestry is based on ten-year plans. These plans are prepared by the Faculty of Forestry and approved by the state.”
Tourism is something that is always in the plans of green areas along the Danube. Is it the same here?
Tourism on Fruška gora is of the excursion type. We have 250 km of marked hiking trails. But it is nice to mention that the number of bicycles has increased 10 times (which is not a problem because cyclists ride on existing trails - the problem is to some extent motorcyclists who ride off the asphalt, and that is not allowed). But it looks that there is not much room to make money from tourism: because of the urban environment in which the mountain is located and the openness of the area, it is difficult to charge tickets. Also, the roads in the Park are public ones. Therefore, the revenue from this type of economic activity in our case will always be much less than revenue from the forestry. “
The mountain is surrounded by urban areas…
“Well, there are no truly wild zones in Fruška gora at all. And there are as much as 54 settlements around it.”
Which problems does that fact bring?
“The key problem of Fruška gora is its openness to the environment and large population on the mountain as well as in its surroundings. It has been attacked in various, but mostly discrete ways, and that is difficult to prevent. When we report offenders, the trial is typically dragged on for several years, and eventually the majority of offenders are released.
Our guard service has about 16 employees assigned by the zones and these are our rangers (the official name is "nature guards"). They are not paid by the NP but by the state.”
How does it look to be the sole biologist among forestry engineers? Dragiša will not say that he is completely relaxed among the colleagues who are in some sense "opponents" to a biologist. Forests must be (sometimes a bit strenuously) "defended" from them - but at the end of a day, he enjoys his workplace. And that is in nature, watching the living world of the Park.
The Info Center of the Fruška Gora National Park was opened two years ago. It is located in a former restaurant located exactly on the pass that divides the southern and northern side of the mountain. The center has an exhibition area as well as a central hall for presentations and receptions. A lot of work is being done to educate children - tours, excursions, lectures...
Among the before mentioned 250 km of hiking trails, there are four special hiking trails - each about 10 km in length. Near the Center there is start of an educational trail which is 800 m long and can be walked in one hour. There are ten panels along the course, covering ten different topics in the nature of Fruška gora.
For the last five years, the Park has also been offering mountain bike rentals - 10 in the Center and 10 in the head office in Sremska Kamenica.
The friendly marking on Fruška gora hiking trails Cycling friendly space near the Center entrance
The eco-camp at Straižlovo (a popular picnic area of Sremski Karlovci and Novi Sad) belongs to the Park, but was unfortunately rented to a private user two weeks ago - it didn’t look interesting enough to the current Province authorities.
Below: ”The monument to the human negligence” – an artwork near the entrance of the Info Center.