Each of these lands has its own natural specifics, as well as defined economic and protective priorities. Along with other large mountains in Europe, the Carpathians are a part of the alpine region. Looking at the Carpathians from a farther perspective allows you to appreciate their values and uniqueness, as well as the observation of the numerous common traits of the mountains of our continent. On this trail, the adventure is getting to know the Carpathians from the different, lesser-known perspective of the European network of Natura 2000 areas.
The most valuable areas of the Carpathians are protected by the national law of the individual Carpathian states, as well as by the rules governing the European Natura 2000 network. The fact that a given area is included into the Natura 2000 network does not impose any particular limitations for its visitors or tourists. On the contrary – it is the confirmation of its natural value on a European level and may be an indicator for the establishment of the routes of your searches for adventures in the Carpathians.
The following nine biogeographical areas have been established within the European Union: Alpine, Boreal, Atlantic, Continental, Pannonian, Mediterranean, Macaronesian, Black Sea and Steppic. In terms of natural lands, i.e. biogeographical areas, the Carpathians fall into the Alpine region.
The Alpine region covers the mountain terrains of the Alps, Apennines, Pyrenees, Balkans and Carpathians.
Twenty-one of the European Union Member States have mountain terrains fulfilling the EU criteria within their region, i.e. all but Denmark, Malta, the Baltic Republics and the Netherlands.
In addition, the mountain regions in the European Union cover an area of 1 564 000 km2 and are inhabited by 85 300 000 people (17.8% of the entire EU population). However, the proportion of this territory is only 8% of the entirety of Europe, according to the criteria applied in the working paper of the Commission from 2009.
The Carpathians stretch with a visible arc (with approximate length of about 1300 km) between the Dunaj gorge: on the Austrian-Slovak-Czech border near Bratislava, to the so-called Iron Gate on the Romanian-Serbian border, where they cross the Dunaj as a small enclave. The Carpathians are divided into three sections: Eastern, Western, and Southern, as well as the Internal (older, formed from crystalline rock) and External Carpathians (younger, formed from Flysch) and the Pieniny Rock Belt (formed from limestone).
The largest part of the Carpathians (approximately 55.5% of the entire region, with an approximate area of 220 thousand km2) falls to Romania, followed by Slovakia (17.1%), Ukraine (10.3%), Poland (9.3%), Hungary (4.3%), the Czech Republic (3.2%), Austria (0.3%) and a small part in Serbia.
If one should examine the share of the Carpathians in the overall areas of the listed countries, the most “Carpathian” state would be Slovakia (where the Carpathians cover approximately 73 % of the entire area). This fact is reflected in the traditional culture of this country. In Poland, the Carpathians cover approximately 6% of the country’s area, but the presence of the Carpathians in Polish culture greatly surpasses their percentage share in the country. This is rooted in Poland’s history and the allocation of important centres of the development of culture and arts.
The Carpathians are not tall mountains: the highest peak of the entire range is the Slovakian Gerlach, located in the Tatra Mountains (Western Carpathians). This peak reaches 2655 metres. In Poland, the highest peak of the Western Carpathians is Rysy, in the Tatra Mountains, which reaches 2 499 metres, while the tallest peak in the Polish part of the Eastern Carpathians (Bieszczady Mountains) is Tarnica (1346 metres). Besides the Tatras, only two mountain groups can boast peaks exceeding 1500 metres above sea level – the Beskids mountains' Pilsko (1557 metres) and Babia Góra (1725 metres). In the remaining Beskids, the peaks usually do not exceed 1300 metres. In Pieniniy, the second-most popular mountain range in Poland after the Tatras, the highest peak is
located in the so-called Small Pieniny, and is Wysokie Skałki (1050 metres), not the popular Trzy Korony (982 metres) or Sokolica (747 metres). The majority of the Polish Carpathian area (88%), falls into the Western Carpathians, the remaining 12 % is in the area of the Eastern Carpathians.
The Carpathians were formed during the orogenic movements that formed the Alps, Pyrenees, Caucasus and the Himalayas. The evolution of the Carpathian form took several stages and continues to this day. The first elevations of the Carpathians appeared from the warm Tethys Ocean, which covered a significant part of Eurasia.
From the earliest times, the Carpathians mixed the people from Asia with the Celts, Germans, Slavs and nations travelling from the south of Europe. The Carpathians were an area of nomadic shepherd economy, trade, and its cities were founded as early as the 13th century. The mix of nations, the long-practiced shepherd nomadism, as well as the difficult living conditions produced the unique Carpathian culture. During the last century, the Carpathians hosted mixtures of the following elements: Slavic (Russian, Polish, Slovak, Czech), Wallachian, German, Romanian, Bulgarian, Jewish, Romani and others. The architectural monuments, traditional customs, music and husbandry methods are currently held in great value, and are subject to research and protection. The Carpathians hold also the old transport trails from the South to the North and many local roads, which were used to carry salt, wine, wood, copper, fabrics, amber and new cultural trends.
The Carpathian Nature continues to be very rich and covers habitats and forest and mountain species. The Carpathians are home to approximately 3988 species of vascular plants. This composes one-third of all vascular plants appearing in Europe. They are also the home of the large predators which are endangered with extinction in Europe, such as bears, wolves, bobcats and wildcats, eagle owls, golden eagles, black storks, as well as mountain goats, marmots, and the inhabitants of primeval forests such as beavers, otters, deer, boars, badgers and many others. The world of insects, reptiles, amphibians, and fish is also very interesting. Currently, besides the domestic systems of nature protection, the Carpathians are protected with the Natura 2000 network of areas at the level of the European Community. The most important habitats include beech, fir and spruce forests, wet-ground forests, mountain meadows and boggy areas, along with diverse flora and fauna.
The Animals of the Carpathian Primeval Forest
The Carpathians were once covered with a thick forest composed of fir and beech, spruce, elm, sycamore, linden and ash trees, with rich supplements of larch, wild sweet cherries, hornbeam and forest bushes. The fir, rightly known as the queen of the Carpathians, has lived here for hundreds of years. In the Beskid Sądecki mountains, you can easily find specimens of over 300 years of age. The beech trees also live long, but they do not reach the same age as the firs. The thick mixed forests and the higher mountain woods still form the remains of the Carpathian Primeval Forest, which was once a difficult barrier to cross, even for the excellently organised Romans. The Carpathians have several climatic-vegetation belts (distribution of plants depends on altitude): up to approximately 600 metres above sea level, we are dealing with upland vegetation, the area between 600 and 1100 metres above sea level is dominated by subalpine forest. Above 1100 metres above sea level, we are entering the upper subalpine forest, which is much more developed and present in the Tatras and on Babia Góra.
The wild backwoods of the Beskid Sądecki mountains are still home to the largest European predators – bobcats, wildcats, wolves, bears and badgers. The deer, foxes, martens and other small mammals find good living conditions here and are also not uncommon. The quality of the environment and its wild nature is shown by the permanent presence of the bird species, which are rare in Europe (and Poland) - eagle owls, golden eagles, black storks and dozens of other interesting species. There are also returns and surprise guests! They are the beavers, which are slowly becoming common, and the previously unseen cormorants. Naturalists will be happy to have the opportunity to encounter the spotted salamander and all other species of domestic tailed amphibians, including the endemic Carpathian newt. The mountain fire-bellied toad – a small amphibian, which is the point of interest and protection of the European Union – is still rather common.
As befitting of a frontier (in the geographical and environmental aspects), you can sometimes encounter southern species here (this is the only place to hear an actual cicada during a warm year!), while the abundance of butterflies and beetles has no equal in all of Poland. In order to experience the vastness of the Carpathian Nature during a visit to Stary Sącz, it will suffice to take a walk upon Miejska Góra or to the ponds in the fork of the Dunajec and the Poprad, or even to carefully observe the area from the downtown cafes.
The Carpathians in the European Union
Since 1992, the main objective pursued by the European Union for protection of Nature has been the creation of the Natura 2000 zones. The network covers special areas of conservation, commonly referred to as habitat zones, as well as special protection areas for birds, called the bird zones.
The structure of the network also covers the identification and preservation of the ecological corridors connecting these areas, which is necessary to preserve the ecological cohesion of Europe. In Poland, the implementation of the Natura 2000 zone network is done by the Ministry of Environment and the work is done in stages, the first of which was completed in the spring of 2004. The designation of the Natura 2000 zones is based on specifically defined criteria covering the entire EU, which are verified and passed in Brussels.
The Natura 2000 network does not over-ride the domestic law and rather applies itself towards the previously existing protected areas. Natura 2000 is equipped with a legally defined procedure of evaluating if the proposed investment should present a hazard to the objectives of protection of the designated habitat or bird zone. Contrary to domestic law, in the case of natural reserves and national parks, Natura 2000 does not automatically impose a ban on the realisation of economic ventures.
The complex procedure of evaluating the environmental impact is controlled and verified by a new government institution: the Environment Protection Directorate, with regional representatives in each voivodeship.
Natura 2000 in Slovakia
The domestic list of proposed Natura 2000 zones has been accepted by the Government of the Slovak Republic (Decree no. 239/2004). This official regulation opened the development of the domestic Natura 2000 network as an integral part of the broader European network. The list contains 382 zones, with total area of 573 thousand ha (11.7% of the territory of Slovakia). Of interest is that 86.5% of these zones are located in forests.
The protected forest areas are the karst Slovakian valleys, reserves in the Tatranský National Park, the natural and cultural landscapes of the Danube valley, the mycoflora along Bukovské Vrchy and the Carpathian beech of primeval forests in NNR Stužica-Bukovské Vrchy, NNR Havešová, NNR Rozok and NNR Virholat. In broader context, with consideration of the cultural and spiritual dimensions of the forest, 477 habitats with 1317 sites have been distinguished. Other protected zones and landscape elements, such as the arboretum, orchards, gardens, etc. are also noteworthy. The Special Bird Protection Areas (SPA) represent a different category of the Natura 2000 network. The total area of the proposed and submitted terrains reaches 1154 thousand ha, 51.6% of which overlaps the existing SPA network. The area of the already designated SPA zones reaches 357 667 ha.
In the area of the Prešov land and its surroundings, Natura 2000 appears imposing. Starting in the north (and on the Polish border), the Natura 2000 zones appear near Plavec and Stara Lubovnia (particularly interesting ones are near the villages of Jarabina and Litmanowa) and near Bardejov, which is the home of the last preserved fragments of the Carpathian primeval forest. The true basin of the valuable Natura 2000 zones is the central terrain marked out with the Levoc – Spiskie Podhradie – Branisko line. Here you can find several naturally valuable zones around Levocza, and even more around Spiskie Podhradie. The area surrounding the peak of Rajtopiky (1036 meters) in the Branisko range is, as well, very interesting. Likely, the largest area satisfying the criteria of Natura 2000 is the Cergov range, which reaches the outskirts of Prešov and spreads from the outskirts of Muszyna in Poland, if you consider the Kraczonik range (Cergov Mountains) as the northern enclave of Cergov.
Grand area of European nature: Poprad Refuge PLH 120019
The surroundings of Stary Sącz and the Beskid Sądecki mountains are a part of the Natura 2000 network under the name Poprad Refuge PLH 120019 as a habitat zone. This means that the forest and non-forest habitats and species of the Natura 2000 lists selected according to EU criteria, fall under special protection. The fact that a given area hosts zones protected by the Natura 2000 network confirms that its natural values have been deemed significant at the level of the entirety of the European Union and that they are of particular importance to it. Furthermore, the Natura 2000 network allows for the introduction of financial mechanisms of compensation for the people experiencing limitations resulting from environment protection, or implementation of the support for activities compliant with the objectives of environment protection.
There are also other Natura 2000 zones established in the vicinity of Stary Sącz – including the Little Pieniny PLH120025, the Pieniny PLH120013 (both areas have their counterparts in Slovakia) Orava-Nowy Targ Peat Bogs PLH120016, Magura Refuge PLH180001 (habitat zones) and the Gorce PLB120001 (bird zone). Among the listed habitat zones – the Pieniny and the Peat Bogs - are also bird zones.
The Natura 2000 Poprad Refuge is roughly the counterpart of the Poprad Landscape Park, which covers the entire area of the Beskid Sądecki mountains. A significant difference is the fact that the Poprad Refuge excludes the river valleys of the Dunajec and part of the Poprad, which are protected by other Natura 2000 zones.
About the protection of the Beskid Sądecki mountains
“The wild nature of the Radziejowa Range and Jaworzyna Krynicka forests, the colourful valleys of Dunajec and Poprad, the naturally wild Muszynka valley, the wealth and diversity of the flora and fauna, these are only some of the impressions awaiting the visitors of this Park.”
This was written in the introduction to the first edition of the book entitled Przyroda Popradzkiego Parku Krajobrazowego (The Nature of the Poprad Landscape Park) (Stary Sącz, 2000) by Ryszard Masłowski – the erstwhile Voivode of Małopolska.
Since then, the over 300-page monograph has received several reprints and continues to be an excellent compendium of knowledge of the Beskid Sądecki mountains - because it is all about the protection of the environment, traditional culture and landscape of the Beskid Sądecki mountains! When Count Adam Stadnicki protected the first enclaves of the unique Carpathian Primeval Forest, it was enough to exclude a few out of tens of thousands of hectares of afforested mountains from the economy. But the beginning of the 19th century was a time of rapid technical development and suddenly growing resource demands. They entailed deforestations and changes to the landscape. Around the year 1919, the first national forest reserve – the “Obrożyska” linden forest – in the Beskid Sądecki mountains was created in reply to the merciless exploitation of this relict linden forest. More astute naturalists and social activists saw the need of systemic environment protection, and the first international frontier national park, composed of the Polish National Park in the Pieniny and the Slovak Natural Reserve in the Pieniny, was opened in 1932. The Gorce National Park was legally established 1981. Its creation took almost 10 years and ended with a serious compromise.
In these conditions and on the wave of the interesting idea of the creation of landscape parks – a form much lighter on the economy and new investments – the efforts of the erstwhile Nature Conservator Antoni Szewczyk led to the creation of the Poprad Landscape Park. This was one of the first landscape parks in the Carpathians and one of the largest in Poland. The park’s area is 54 thousand hectares (around 79 thousand hectares, together with the buffer zone) and covers the entire area of the Beskid Sądecki mountains and the valleys of the main rivers: the Dunajec, the Poprad, and the Kamienica Nawojowska, as well as the Kraczonik Range – a mountain group considered a part of the Cergov Mountains.
Since its beginnings, the Park’s authorities and offices have been located in the building at 3 Daszyńskiego Street in Stary Sącz. This address is well-known to many students, scientists and tourists as a place where you can find the most detailed information and publications on local Nature. In the scope of its activity, the Park’s authorities have created several new natural reserves and monuments, prepared and implemented numerous educational campaigns and issued dozens of publications.
Some of the core employees of the Park have been delegated to the new government institution called the Regional Directorate of Environment Protection (RDOŚ) in Kraków, which was founded in 2009. This institution was established in order to administer the Natura 2000 zones and the most important forms of conservation, which continue to be natural reserves. The building at 3 Daszyńskiego Street in Stary Sącz is also the home of the RDOŚ Department of Field Affairs.
Information on nearby Natura 2000 zones can be found in commune offices and tourist information points (IT), which are usually eager to use the Natura 2000 network in regional promotion. How many Natura 2000 zones have you seen thus far? Describe them, attach photographs and your observations, because the Carpathian Map of Adventure awaits!