Thursday March 10 - Mark in Radovish, Macedonia
We awoke to a clear sunny day (me, an hour early yet again - forgot about the time change) and enjoyed a morning coffee before packing up and saying goodbye to our host. Today I anticipated the routine, so I felt much more prepared when we reached the Forest Enterprise Branch office for the Radovish district to meet with the regional director. The branch office here was considerably more modest than that of Strumitca - the director only had 3 phones strewn about his desk.
We made small talk while someone fixed us coffee and the director took a few minutes to personalize leather-bound notebooks as a gift for each of us to remind us of our visit. He was a very eager man, lots of energy and enthusiasm - and for some strange reason, he seemed to take a liking to me. Though he spoke no English, I learned a fair bit about the context of the forests in this part of Macedonia. Covering a total of 40,000 ha (36,000 state owned, 4000 private), their regional forests are divided into 7 units. About 11,000 of these hectares are high forest, 22,000 coppice and 8000 shrubland. In addition to their development and administration of management plans for state forests, they assist private owners to manage planning, marketing, and felling operations. If private landowner has more than 100 ha, they must develop a management plan. This is relatively rare though as most private forests average about four hectares in size.
Here most of their forests are beech. They cut about 30,000 m3 annually, 20,000 in firewood which is about 50/50 oak and beech, and 10,000 m3 worth of beech logs for lumber. In this region they afforest (plant) about 30 hectares each year, again typically in gaps within forested lands. Since 2008, they’ve planted out 250 hectares in primarily Robinia, Quercus, Fraxinus, Aesculus (horse chestnut), Pinus nigra, and Acer pseudoplatanus, all of which will be managed as high forest. They focus their plantings within headwater zones for erosion control in response to flash flood events in previous years.
Like most of the country, the region was under the rule of the Turkish empire for 500 years, during which huge areas were cut and used. Historical accounts from the15th,16th, and 17th centuries state that most of Macedonia was then covered in coniferous forest. Today, there's less pressure on the forest from people and animals, so much so that since 1945, forest area in Macedonia has about doubled thanks to forestry, urban migration and reduced human impact
Our field trip in Radovich took us up into the mountains to explore the beech stands there. At the mid-elevation slopes we found forests with a similar stand structure as those of the previous day - oak/juniper on overgrazed lands and primarily oak on the non-grazed lands. We stopped briefly to observe an oak stand that was clearcut 15 years ago. They said that before the cut, the trees were relatively low quality and stunted. A few individuals were left near the road demonstrating their size and quality or relative lack thereof. Today, the 15 year old coppice regrowth is about 30’ tall, virtually the same size as the uncut stems near the road. A testament to the invigorating effects of vegetative reproduction.
At our second stop, we looked at a beech-dominated stand cut 25 years ago. This stand also included some scattered birch (Betula alba) as well as some pine and Doug fir which were planted in an attempt to diversify stand structure and species. The forest managers are somewhat concerned that the shade-tolerant Doug fir may cause a problem in the future if it is able to effectively establish itself from seed, as it will likely outcompete the pine, beech and birch. Time will tell.
Next we took a look at another coppiced stand of sessile oak (Quercus petraea) which they plan to continue to manage as coppice. Apparently, they thin the stand after about 30 years of regrowth, reducing the number of poles on each stool by half, from about 7 stems to 2,3 or 4. This thinning works because the material harvested is useful as fuel and thus provides payback for the operation.
Finally, we looked at some relatively mature beech coppice of which there are about 8000 ha total. At the higher elevations, between about 1000-1300 m, we reached a 3000 ha uneven-aged beech high forest. This hasn’t been coppiced and will likely continue to remain as such. These high elevation forests feature relatively deep snowpacks and compromised access. Because they aren’t managing them as coppice, they do most of their felling and extraction from May-August. They usually have some snow cover by September. These beech stands are quite productive, yielding around 200 m3/ha.
Our field trip culminated at a house/hall built by the local Forest Enterprise Branch amidst the beech high forest around 1300 meters. Here we enjoyed the long views and then retreated indoors for a celebratory meal where we were joined by 10-15 forest workers who seemed to live and work in these upland forests. It was quite a cultural event that spanned several hours. It was almost as if the platters of salad, meat, cheese and bread responded just like coppiced broadleaf trees - every time they were cleared, they came back full as ever. Our hosts finished the afternoon with loud, joyful celebratory song, none of which I understood, but they seemed to be well known local tunes dear to their hearts. What a full and wonderful cultural experience.
We eventually found a way to politely slip away from what appeared like it might be an all day affair and descended the mountain. From here, Pande, Ljupcho and I were to head to Macedonia’s capital Skopje and Tzvetan and Georgi back to Bulgaria. We bid each other appreciative adieu’s and went our separate ways. I truly look forward to continuing our friendships and feel amazingly fortunate to have been able to connect with such wonderful, brilliant people.
The landscape changed dramatically as we headed northwest, soon enough giving way to lower rolling hills almost completely devoid of tree cover. These drylands were likely once forested, but the legacy of intensive land use and overgrazing now bear a completely different landscape that supports agriculture, despite the saline soils and very limited water reserves.
I’d made a connection on-line with a kind couple in Skopje who are actively interested in Permaculture and were willing to host me for a few days. I got dropped off just around the corner from their house and we headed out for dinner to get to know one another. I still had one day of Macedonian coppice-related site tour to go….