Blog 09/15/2023

The coexistence of nature and humans: summer interview from the Adriatic Island Cres

In July IFE SAS took a research trip to the Adriatic island Cres to collect ideas for a small scale study within the COEVOLVERS project to be conducted in collaboration with CETIP and the island’s Development Agency OTRA. The researchers met Ugo Tojć, the director of OTRA and COEVOLVERS advisory board member. The interview with Ugo conducted by Tatiana Kluvankova concerns human and non-human role in the success of Nature Based Solutions (NBS) and the socio-ecological resilience of this charming Adriatic island. We are happy to share part of it with you.

Tatiana Kluvanková and Ugo Tojć. Photo: Iveta Štecová

Can you please introduce some examples of successful and unsuccessful NBS in your community?

The island of Cres is located entirely within the ecological network Natura 2000 (HR2001358 – Island of Cres) and represents a very significant reservoir of biodiversity for the Primorje-Gorski Kotar County, and the Republic of Croatia. The exceptional biodiversity of the island of Cres is partly the result of the thousand-year interaction between man and nature. The island has its indigenous Cres sheep breaded since medieval times in open spaces surrounded by historical handmade stone walls – their building method is acknowledged as UNESCO heritage. Thanks to the extensive sheep farming the semi-natural habitats of karst pastures extremely rich in plant species were created, which occupy almost 30% of the island's surface. It is a typical example of High Value Nature Farming which traditional agricultural activities. The most significant habitats that are directly influenced by traditional sheep farming are 62A0 – East-sub-Mediterranean dry grasslands (Scorzoneretalia villosae) which occupies an area of 14,500 ha, and 3170 – Mediterranean occasional puddles with a total area of 3 ha. 

Nowadays sheep farming is less successful due to the aging of population and the unattractiveness of agriculture to the younger generations. In the past few decades there has been an increasing extensification of sheep breeding, a decrease in their number and, consequently, the abandonment and overgrowing of increasingly large areas of pasture with woody vegetation, and the loss of biodiversity. Abandoning traditional sheep farming has been further expanded in the past twenty years due to the large economic damage caused to sheep farmers by wild boars (Sus scrofa) and fallow deer (Dama dama). These two species were introduced to the island in the 1980s in order to develop hunting tourism, but they soon escaped from the hunting territory. Non-native species are considered invasive when they become frequent in an ecosystem where they did not live before. Overpopulated, they escaped the fenced hunting areas and expanded over the island, damaging stone fences and the sheep population, and so becoming a threat to the original biological diversity.

Gardens. Photo: Iveta Štecová

Are there any non-humans of importance to the success or failure of the NBS in your context?

Because of the presence of griffon vultures and other bird species, the island of Cres is an integral part of the area HR1000033 Kvarner Islands, i.e., a wider area of special protection within the NATURA 2000 network classified in accordance with the Birds Directive. Namely, the largest number of pairs of the last population of griffon vultures (A078 Gyps fulvus) in Croatia are nesting on the cliffs of the island of Cres. There are two ornithological reserves on the island (Kruna and Pod Okladi) where vultures nest. These are carrions, whose survival is enabled by the extensive breeding of Cres sheep (today there are around 13,000 heads) given that vultures mainly feed on sheep and lambs that have died in the pasture. So, there is ecological-social interconnection between griffon and sheep.

Historical dry stone walls. Photo: Tatiana Kluvánková

Are there any activities that your community do that interact with these species or their living environment? What are these?

We have feeding places. Now we somehow maintain them artificially via rescue programs. We observed ten couples nesting here, for longer than the past couple of years. A few days ago colleague of mine, coming from Orlec to work, noticed a dead sheep that must have been hit by a car. He put the sheep in his car, called the rescue centre and he said, “I have a sheep,” which means “I have food for the birds”. They came to collect the dead sheep. So, the community is not all but being aware of the value people try to help.

Historical dry stone wall and sheep. Photo: Nadir Mavrović

Do these activities influence your relationship with these species or their living environments, and if so, do they support or hinder your relationship?

They definitely strengthen our positive attitude and collaborative manner. Many of them die of electro cution – when they land on an electric pole, touch electric lines, they get an electric shock. They die. We collaborate with the distribution system operator, a state company. They insulate the poles, so when the birds come, they cannot get in contact with the electricity. This is a systematic approach, we could say this is a sort of national effort. When they have to do some intervention on the lines, they try to put the new lines underground. This is sometimes very expensive and sometimes not financially sustainable, because they are taking the line to provide the electricity to 5–7 houses in the middle of the island. One could say who cares about the seven houses, you have to make a big investment. But they said at the national level they recognize the island of Cres as a sort of priority for nature protection, so they do not bother about economic feasibility, they say ok, let’s do it, just to help nature protection. This is something I learned recently that at the national level they care about this area, and I was pleased to hear it.

Do non-humans contribute to the improvement of your community? If so, how? 

Griffons are a symbol of our community, sort of a brand, as well as Cres sheep. Both are an integral part of the island’s economy and resilience.

Dry stone walls meeting in the water pond. Photo: Nadir Mavrović

Do you know any laws, regulations, or policy that either support or suppress the non-humans or their environment within your context?

The invasive game, wild boar and fallow deer populations have a direct impact on the management and maintenance of Cres habitats, i.e. plant and animal species within the Natura 2000 ecological network. In addition to the indirect pressure on biodiversity manifested through more intensive abandonment of sheep farming and the consequent overgrowth of pastures, the animals mentioned above also have a direct impact on the preservation of certain habitats. Also, non-native wild ungulates are a threat to sheep due to the interspecies competition (spatial and nutritional overlap), which is especially evident in fallow deer, causing overgrazing of pastures and drying up of natural puddles. So far, the measures taken to remove wild boar and fallow deer from the island have not produced the expected results. The management of the eradication process is left to individual hunting lessees lacking cooperation and coordination, and in the implementation they use almost exclusively measures from the domain of hunting described in the corresponding hunting management documents. 

Until now, the problem has not been approached systematically, with the involvement of the professional and scientific community, either those specialized in the field of hunting, or those specialized in nature protection. The impact of non-native game on the island's ecosystem and biodiversity is generally neglected and has been expanding. The Government (several ministries that are directly or indirectly in charge of the problem) has changed some laws according to which these species now can "domicile" as autochthonous species, and so legalise the introduction of these animals into the Game Management Plan and the problem seems to “disappear.” 

As the consequence, the future scenarios for the development of sheep breeding on our islands are very pessimistic and predict a significant decline in the number of breeders and bred sheep, abandoning the traditional way of breeding by losing open space areas traditionally used for breeding. Moving sheep to closed, small, fenced areas increase costs and reduces farms to small scale. This will result in the loss of the special identity of Cres sheep and the typical organoleptic properties of Cres lamb. Abandoning the traditional way of breeding sheep will inevitably result in the loss of biodiversity of the island's flora and fauna and will also negatively affect the possibility of preserving the local population of griffon vultures. 

Olive groves and olive harvesting. Photo: Ugo Toić, Frantisek Zvardon

Finally, can you identify the most influential features to support long term sustainability transformation on your Island? 

In my view, these are supportive /collaborative partnerships and policy synergies. 

We have new ideas on how to green our island. For example, to develop a green bond system to support nature-based solutions for carbon emission eco-tax. 30% of the total emissions of the archipelago come from maritime transport, mainly car ferries and catamarans. Why aren’t people allowed to pay a voluntary emission compensation fee as with air lines? Apparently, the state does not allow to collect such type of eco-tax, even if it is voluntary. Similarly, we have an idea to install solar panels on the kindergartens where parents can contribute to this investment instead of paying the monthly fee for the kindergarten. This way we believe we could involve the community in energy transformation. A new, promising idea is organic waste system transformation to energy source. The project partners are communicating with the ministry of finance and tax authority, and for the time being cannot find the way to do it.

The Eurasian griffon vulture Photo:

Dr. Tojc has more than 10 years of experience in rural and regional development, in particular with developing and implementing participatory project for the island’s long term sustainability and is active in the design and implementation of EU island sustainability polices. Ugo received an interdisciplinary education in biology and agriculture, followed by 20 years of experience in the agri-business sector and policy. He has a broad international experience and training from Wageningen University (1998, 2001) the World Bank (1999), and the Council of Europe (2010, 2015). Since 2011 he acts as a consultant and manager for the regional and rural development agency, developing and supporting the implementation of projects: Island clean energy, landscape study or local development pilot projects. He serves as  Coevolvers Advisory Board Member. 

Cover photo: Wild pastures (Photo: Tatiana Kluvánková)