DANUBEparksCONNECTED Bridging the Danube Protected Areas towards a Danube Habitat Corridor

Cycling the Danube in Slovakia

 

Cycling the Danube in Slovakia

 
 
Photos and Text: Jovan Eraković
 

Devin - passing the forbidden gate

 
 

Our Donau-Auen National Park staff group was still together when we reached the border between Austria and  Slovakia. Right on the attractive pedestrian-cycling bridge over Morava river we met our Slovakian host Ms. Andrea Froncová, project manager from BROZ organization.

For a man from former Yugoslavia, “Broz” immediately blinks a very special lamp. But Andrea for some reason didn’t want to admit that the organization has anything to do with Josip Broz Tito: “We are Bratislava Regional association for nature conservation and sustainable development, in Slovakian ’Bratislavské Regionálne Ochranárske Združenie’ ”. 

Well, hm, then fine…why not, yes, right… ok.

And we cycled to Devin castle that sits on the cliff high above the river. The Danube, the deepest part of a depression between Carpathian mountains and the Alps, is divided into four distinct sections by three natural passages: Passau, Devín/Hainburger Gate, and the Iron Gates. Here in the Little Carpathians mountain range, the Devin gate was formerly known as “Porta (doors) Hungarica”  and always was an important strategic line & trading route connecting Northern Europe with the Mediterranean. It has been settled since the Neolithic Age and fortified even since the Bronze and Iron Age, then continually guarded since the Roman times, as it was a border of the Roman Empire. It was then a border of the Austrian Empire. Then, during the dark years of Cold War, it was part of the Iron Curtain between Eastern and Western bloc. It was then a border between Austria and Czechoslovakia (that part is today Slovakia).

In memory to those who died trying to escape through the Iron Curtain

So it was always a dividing gate, the locked one, the threatening one, a gate that prevents, stops, makes one think twice before even planning to cross it. Then on 1st May of 2004, Slovakia entered the Schengen Zone and free movement of persons through the gate was allowed for the first time in the last… couple thousands of years. Not bad at all.

The Maiden Tower. This tiny watchtower that sits on the top of a needle is of course the iconic part of the castle. Imprisoned princesses waiting for noble rescuers, lovelorn girls leaping to their deaths? You bet.

If there are any of them available at the moment, the modern rescue service arrives on two wheels.

The caste offers one of the best views along the whole Danube (and made me think that it would be actually great to make a list of the best Danube views). It is one of the oldest castles in Slovakia, first mentioned in written sources in 864, and also an important national symbol for the Slovaks.

It was though interesting for us to see a donkey and sheep on fortress – a result of BROZ cooperation with the National museum. Maybe a bit unexpected partnership, but unconventional relations often create such great ideas :) After more than 50 years, the association restored the grazing in the National Nature Reserve Devinska Kobyla.

“Devinska Kobyla, this high landscape that borders the castle, is actually southern end of Carpathian mountains”, says Andrea. “It is not that big as an area but it contains forty percent of all plant species in Slovakia, with over 1100 botanic species of vascular plants. Through the LIFE project we cut trees in some areas and introduced goats as a steady way to maintain the habitat – it reduces spreading of non-native shrubs and helps to preserve original forest-steppe character of the landscape. But grazing is one of the most time and energy consuming tasks, and with ended support of that project branch (the LIFE for Bratislava region started in 2012. and ended in 2018.) we are finding other ways to keep it sustainable.”

To prepare for this part of the trip I did some research by googling “BROZ” on the net: How close were your relations with Castro, Nehru, Nasser and Gandhi, and what were your main activities in that period?

„BROZ was established in 1997. We focus on practical nature conservation and sustainable development support in the region of Western Slovakia, with the focus on Bratislava surroundings.

There are three main types of our activities:

- restoration in Danube floodplains or Low Carpathians;

- restoration of traditional land management including grazing in protected areas;

- planting trees.

At this moment we have eight ongoing big LIFE projects, but I am also very happy to say that thanks to the DANUBEparksCONNECTED we managed to plant 40.000 native white poplar clones trees in Dobrohošť municipality.”

From the Devin cliff, we descended to the confluence of Morava and Danube river. In the past massive amounts of sediment (mostly gravel) were deposited in the areas downstream from Devin gate, creating a network of meanders and river islands. One of these, Sedlačkov Island, is today an important drinking water supply source water to Devin district, and due to its preserved native floodplain forests it is also a nature reserve with the highest, fifth level of ecological protection in Slovakia. The zone is part of European network of protected areas NATURA 2000 - Bratislavské luhy.

From the Devin cliff, we descended to the confluence of Morava and Danube river. In the past massive amounts of sediment (mostly gravel) were deposited in the areas downstream from Devin gate, creating a network of meanders and river islands. One of these, Sedlačkov Island, is today an important drinking water supply source water to Devin district, and due to its preserved native floodplain forests it is also a nature reserve with the highest, fifth level of ecological protection in Slovakia. The zone is part of European network of protected areas NATURA 2000 - Bratislavské luhy.

In 2015 BROZ started revitalization works in cooperation with state water management authorities. After one month of cleaning and removing embankments the result was 1-1.5 m deep channel, 1.8 km long. That started a process that will continue in the future: the constant water flow now can remove sediment from the channel. Situation is now better from the point of flood protection and even for the drinking water supply company: before the revitalization the deposited sediment was increasing levels of magnesium in the water, which required more chemical processing to make it ready for consuming.

At the mouth of the revitalized branch

 

Veľký Lél - A paradise (re)conquered

 

Couple of days later I meet Andrea again on the biggest island of Slovakia. It has an area if 300 ha and got its name after Hungarian commander from 10th century, Lehel or Lél.

Veľký Lél belongs to the village Zlatná na Ostrove (something like “Golden on Island”) and the earliest reference (1094.) mentions village under the name Locus Aureus. There is reason that gold is part of both names - Andrea tells me that it was common to wash it here. And even today, if you are lucky enough, you could spot that unique glitter somewhere in the sand… Gold in the Danube, gold washers on the Danube? Now that was a surprise: after two international cycling trips along the river and countless trips along its Serbian part, that aspect somehow never came to my mind. As I mentioned (and will probably mention it again), this trip is something completely different...

Approaching Veľký Lél

For its wildwood forest preserved in rarely seen condition, the island was declared as nature reserve in 1974. But when BROZ came to the Veľký Lél 13 years ago, the main problem was the dying local side arm.

There was one native cause for this: the Gabčikovo Sub-basin is the deepest part of the Danube Basin and the river has been forming an inner delta from Vienna to Budapest for centuries now – it is going wider and makes more branches or offshoots, while some disappear. But the main reason was that this area was under the influence of the huge Gabčikovo dam. When it was built, the dam came in a package with large dams along the riverbanks and with highly increased water management activities. The power plant as an enormous consumer that needs all water directed into the main channel and that turned former flooded areas into a more or less dry land.

An invitation to cyclists riding gravel road on the dam while following the EuroVelo 6 route. (Except green fields and forest on the flooded side, there is nothing else for kilometers
before and after this little oasis.)

I'm guarding the household here!

My accommodation on Veľký Lél:  mobile rustic romantics.
Or a rustic romantic mobility. Or a mobile rusticness that was romantic too :)

Above all that, some 20 years ago a concrete dam with road was constructed to allow for an easy access to the island. That was part of planned construction of water power plant Nagymaros -which then was never built - but it slowed down the water flow through the branch, which gradually got clogged by sediment and trees. Similarly to the Sedlačkov Island, Veľký Lél was also almost completely connected with the mainland.

The island’s future started to look better when in 2004–2005 it became a part of Special Protected Area “Dunajské luhy” (“luhy” - flat plains) and was included in the European network of protected areas Natura 2000.

Then in 2014-2015. BROZ cleaned the side arm through another LIFE program, removed embankments and concrete barriers. The last to remove was the concrete dam with road and it was replaced by a bridge. In addition to cleaning the side arm, this was the second most expensive thing in the project.

All this measures restored proper water flow, enabled fish to reach its spawning zones on the island and improved feeding and nesting conditions for water birds. Successful cooperation with the State water management company made it possible to determine exact minimal amount of water flow that is needed for an unobstructed navigation of ships in the main flow of the river - that was the most important input in the whole process.

But the island itself has its own life-giving artery that was also in bad condition. There is a narrow channel that takes the water from the side arm and brings it into the middle of Veľký Lél. It was built by the locals in the last centuries, but interestingly with an opposite purpose than it has today:  it was draining water from the pastures after regular Danube floods that occurred 2–3 times a year. Nowadays floods occur once a year or even once in three years, and in summers with little rainfall this is not enough to ensure grazing, existence of habitats and survival of animals depending of them.

That’s why BROZ started reconstruction in 2018 and the channel has been restored in the length of 690 m. Its sluice gate now enables migration of fish and other aquatic animals.

And the island finally came into full life. Today it represents a unique mosaic of forest, wetland and grass habitats. Riparian forests with ash, elm oak, willows and poplars cover almost half of it. Its meadows are maintained by horses (20), sheep (50), cows (60-70) and goats (50) from BROZ eco-farm. Since 2009, with the help of these animals they managed to remove non-autochthone herb and tree species.

The landscape of the island is perfectly rounded by mighty, solitary oaks
in the middle of two huge meadows.There are five levels of nature protection in Slovakia, the first being weakest and fifth the strongest. All levels allow visitors to enter freely but levels 3-5 reduce moving around to designated paths only. Veľký Lél is under 2nd level of protection, meaning that
construction works are not allowed here. And there are zones with stronger protection
 - for example the trees on the edge of this meadow are under 5th level of protection.

“So you can see here in one place all the main activities of BROZ that we mentioned the other day”, says Andrea,. “Water measures/restauration, grazing and planting.”

And as an interesting twist to planting, we can add - pruning. When so-called „pollard willows“ are left unpruned their branches become too heavy and the trees break up (above). After being neglected that way for many years, they are now restored and cared again: regular pruning of their branches in several-year intervals creates characteristic “hollow willows“. Below their stylish haircut, their bark and decaying hollows are home for beetles and birds (below).

This box is a gift for this beauty below - Commoon Hoppoe (Upupa epops Hoppoe, Eurasian Hoppoe). The bird is nesting on the ground because it feeds on larvae from the feces of livestock.
The box is there for a while, but still no signs of a possible new tenant. He might prefer other wall colors? Or more central place? We expect Andrea to keep us informed.

(Photo: Wikipedia)

Local people who didn’t pay much attention to the island in the past are now attracted by its new makeup. They come to participate in “horse days” and to socialize. (It is also worth mentioning that new working places were opened on the farm and in the new, modern camping, both situated on the mainland close to the entrance of the island.)

Equestrian clubs have their summer camps here. There are camps for children too: this year there were six of them during summer holidays. They were full booked already in May – a proof of a high interest.

Slovakian branch of computer technology company DELL hold their team building activities here. They also have “DELL planet” program and as a part of that program send here employees who spend a lot of time sitting in front of monitors. They help in farm and in other activities while getting chance to be released from the sedentary lifestyle at least for a short time.

The island even has a beautiful little beach

Entrance to the eko-farm

Sounds like a real idyll. But I checked “BROZ” on the net again, and…

Did you or did you not nationalize the land here, while giving original land owners only a symbolic compensation? There are also some assertions that ruling system on the island is a dictatorship?

“In 2006 we actually leased and purchased most of the island, and we also own the farm. This was done for the purpose of nature conservation and allows us to efficiently apply measures for the improvement of different habitats on the island. We can control things and be sure that in the future, with the rise of the island popularity, there will be no weekend houses or that some other weird infrastructure won’t pop-up here.”

Hm… ok. And what we can say about your activities in the frame of the project DANUBEparksCONNECTED?

“The main activity for us is WP 5, the dry habitats. And within a successful cooperation with the NP  Donau-Auen we send our flocks to graze their dyke. We have our own transport vehicle to facilitate that.

Then we are active in the WP 6, forest work. As already mentioned, through that package we planted 43,000 seedlings of native tree species.

During the project I visited so far Ingolstadt, Wachau, Donau-Auen National Park, Fertö-Hansag, Duna-Ipoly, Kopački rit, Persina and Rusenski lom. And I will visit ”Serbia forests” soon .

As an organization, through the DANUBEparksCONNECTED we learned that there is a lot of difference between countries in approach, paperwork, position of NGO’s in state. Colleagues in Germany and Austria are straight mainstream while we… we kind of meandering here.”

What would be main reasons to be satisfied with your work as an organization? For example you have - let me google „BROZ“ again… you have 119 awards and decorations from 60 countries around the world, including French Legion of Honour and National Order of Merit, the British Order of the Bath, the Soviet Order of Lenin, the Japanese Order of the Chrysanthemum, the Cross of Merit of Federal Republic of Germany, Decoration of Honour for Services to the Republic of Austria, the Order of Merit of Italy, etc?

“We restored 70 km of side arms at different places and planted 200.000 trees so far. State authorities have respect of us. (Ok. their image of us as a successful organization is sometimes counterproductive - they don’t understand why we need another LIFE project.)"

Тhe ground squirrel breeding zone on the farm :)

And to all these important things I would add something small that made me smile when I took a look at - finally founded – BROZ web site: they promote an action called “Adopt a goat guard”. And they explain: “By symbolically adopting a goat, you will help us to restore the precious habitats of pastures and meadows as well as to restore the cultural phenomenon of grazing to our ambience”.

Well dear Andrea, is there anything else you would like to add at the end?

„Read the book ’Secret life of trees’ by Peter Woehleben. It tells about forests as social networks and how trees feel, communicate, help each other, live like human families. A true gem and sort of mind changing material.

 
 

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