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Grasslands – habitats of Velebit

Although grasslands are a common feature of a mountain landscape, the climate in Velebit, much like that of other Croatian mountains, is not suitable for the development of natural pastures. In high mountains, grasslands occur in areas above the “upper forest line”, at about 2100 meters above sea level in the Alps region. Croatian mountains are too low for the development of grasslands due to the impact of climate in the peak regions. Natural grasslands which are called rudine, can sometimes be formed at lower altitudes as a result of specific local conditions such as the bora wind, which is what happens as well in the Northern Velebit National Park.

The majority of Velebit grasslands were created through the efforts of many people who needed space for grazing livestock and for growing food. The grazing and trampling by livestock prevented the growth of woody species, and those that still managed to grow were removed manually. This prevented the forest from encroaching on the pastureland.

Grassland on Velebit

Unlike most modern human interventions in nature, creation of grasslands has improved the natural environment with a completely new habitat, that is inhabited by new grassland-specific species. Many plant species that are limited to very small areas of natural grasslands have thus obtained a much larger living space. Some of them arrived in the distant past with cattle herds from other areas, primarily the east Mediterranean region, and for some the grasslands have become the center of their evolution. Apart from increasing the total number of species, grasslands have become a feeding ground for the existing animals. For example, many birds of prey hunt on grasslands. As a result, the biodiversity of the entire area has increased, making the ecosystem more stable. Grasslands also speak of the past of the entire area, of how the people lived, worked and migrated, and form an integral and extremely important part of both the natural and cultural heritage.

Today we witness empty pastures, overgrown gardens and destroyed shepherd’s dwellings. Cattleraising has now disappeared from North Velebit, and people no longer live in and from the mountain. Consequently, grasslands too are slowly degrading. Colonized by scrub and forest, they are gradually diminishing and closing in, changing the overall appearance of the landscape, with many species deprived of their habitat.

Coastal slopes

The lowest, hop-hornbeam belt, has developed rocky grasslands of dwarf sedge and rock knapweed, abounding in sub-Mediterranean species – species that mainly inhabit the Mediterranean area, but can also be found in warmer regions of the southern part of the continent. Situated in protected locations and often surrounded by forest, to be found here on a relatively small area of land are also upright brome grasslands. They develop on deeper soils that are never rocky, and are probably of different origin. Upright brome grasslands were probably predominantly used as grazing land and, being located on level ground without protruding stones, they possibly also served as hay meadows. A small portion of these grasslands may have been created by overgrowth of agricultural land.
With increasing altitude, sub-Mediterranean species are receding and are replaced by mountain species which create a new community of rocky grasslands of mountain savoy and dwarf sedge. This community is located within the beech belt and sporadically also within the European mountain pine belt.
High elevations of the coastal slopes, which are exposed to the bora winds, are home to narrow-leaved moor grass and dwarf sedge grasslands, formerly used as pastures, and more rarely as hay meadows. They are the most prevalent type of high mountain grasslands on the coastal slopes of Velebit, and the major factor in their formation is the strong bora wind.

In protected areas of the peak region, especially those that are sheltered from strong gusts of bora winds, and often in places with deeper soils bosnian fescue grasslands can be found. The dominant grass, Bosnian Fescue, is a high-altitude endemic species of the Dinaric karst. In deeper, wetter soils east Alpine violet fescue grasslands occur in a mosaic pattern. They stand out very clearly being composed of dense stands of East Alpine violet fescue, often exceeding 1.5 meters in height. They are among the rarest types of mountain grassland in Croatia, and so far have only been found in the mountain plateaus of Šegotski padež, Bilenski padež and Tudorevo in the Northern Velebit National Park.

Growing on very shallow karst soils or on top of moraine materials are again upright brome grasslands, being a type of mountain peak grassland that likes the warmth the most.
At the bottoms of flat, protected dolines, where a thicker layer of soil has formed allowing the limestone layer to be isolated and the bases to be washed away resulting in acidic soils low in nutrients matgrass grasslands have developed. They are the only type of grassland to grow on acidic soils in the Park. Matgrass grasslands are easily recognizable by their dense stands of matgrass, normally a dominant species. Other characteristic species of the region are usually absent from such grasslands, and their floristic composition primarily reflects the extreme environmental conditions in which they develop.
When the bottoms of dolines are funnel-shaped so that water collects in them, especially from the melted snow Hairgrass mountain grasslands can develop, generally occupying a very small surface area with very few species.


Grassy peak zone

Former arable land on which predominantly potatoes and cabbage were grown, has now become completely abandoned and has eventually acquired the appearance of grassland. At first glance, they may appear as small exclaves of lowland pastures, because their composition is dominated by species typical of warmer areas with more nutritious soil. If grass is not a dominant species, such places may appear as tall herbs. Interestingly no foreign (invasive) species, have been found here, despite the fact that they usually occur, and are often dominant, in abandoned arable fields in lowland areas.

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