Our relatively short time in the Rhodope Mountains has been wonderful, discovering nature that is different to our experiences in England yet very familiar. The countryside is very similar to the UK with the four distinct seasons and the same species of trees including Oak, Walnut and Silver Birch.
From our very first visit 6 years ago, the Rhodope Mountains made us think of how Britain used to be, before they cut a lot of the trees down and concreted over a large amount of land. Here there are miles and miles of broadleaf woodland, spanning the valleys and cloaking mountainsides. The Autumn colours are intense with a mix of yellows, oranges, reds, greens, purples and golds. All year round the colours are more vibrant and richer and the air is cleaner.
Another link to UK bygone times is the variety and often very surprising natural wildlife. After dark, a female boar and her piglets trot through the village lanes and try to help themselves to garden cucumbers and potatoes, but they don’t succeed as, like a Mexican wave, dogs bark at them as they pass each home in the sprawling village. They are also bigger than the wild boar we’ve seen on TV, with long legs and their backs as high as the bonnet on a Suzuki Grand Vitara (we closely followed a female in our jeep headlights before she disappeared into the bushes). Quite sizeable animals and boar hunting is well managed in these mountains so their population is very stable.
Drive down the mountain early in the morning and numerous Red Deer bound across the dirt road and a magical sound is the stags roaring across the valleys when the rutting season begins in September. Standing in the back garden you hear them from all directions and can pinpoint where on the mountainsides they are and if your lucky, see them. We have a good pair of binoculars for such occasions! Red Deer are huge, female bodies up to 2 meters long and we have spotted them from our back garden, sunning themselves in a snow covered glade. The environment is perfect for lots of big wildlife.
Mountain Cats have been seen too but keep their distance from humans, as do the Wolves and Black Bears. Wolves have attacked village sheep at night but when the sheep are much deeper in the forests than we go. Domestic animals are not penned in here but wander freely. Much of the wildlife habitat is dense woodland on steep inclines and very rocky in places. There aren’t any wild Rabbits up here as the soil is not deep enough and too sandy but there are plenty of Hare and we have seen Foxes too. Mice are a problem with lots of hay barns and grain to feed the village livestock over-winter. Other homes in the village have domestic cats but we only have a dog so we trap our mice humanely and I take them for a long walk before releasing. Another mammal is the Forest Dormouse, who we often see in our grapevine. A very cute creature who looks like a bandit with black stripes over it’s eyes but we’ve haven’t managed to photograph yet. Hopefully more wildlife photographers will holiday here soon and manage to capture a shot.
Bulgaria is an increasingly popular destination for bird watchers with many Eagles and Vultures living here and reservations have been set up to ensure they stay protected. Because Melanya is situated on the crest of a mountain ridge, you can watch them glide for miles. Golden Eagles are regulars, attracted by the free range chickens in our village and I join in shouting to ward them off. Everywhere there are blue flashes of Jays, almost as common as Sparrows. Green, Great- and Lesser-Spotted Woodpeckers come to feed in our fruit trees and Nuthatches nest in our walnut tree. Every year Cuckoos and Fieldfares return and Swallows build their nests in our deep window enclaves. It’s lovely to see the little chicks heads all vying for the best feeding spot.
We also have numerous types of finches who feast on the garden insects. Birds are one of the best pest controllers for us organic gardeners!
As Bulgaria is also a Mediterranean country, situated north of Greece, there are a few more species to add to the list, like the Black Woodpeckers with their bright red crests, and native Tortoises that trundle up and down the mountain lanes, generally in the tyre ruts so you have to keep stopping your vehicle to move them out of the way! White and rare Black Storks migrate here every year to build their nests high up and many types of Lizards are seen sunning themselves before they dash for cover.
As well as the common butterflies, there are many other varieties frequenting our garden, including rare Scare Swallow Tail. Moths too are unusual – Jersey Moths have a bright red hind wing underneath black and white striped forewings. Giant Peacock Moths have an 11-14cm wingspan and the caterpillars 8cm long, bright green with fluorescent blue warts. The colourful Spurge Hawk Moth caterpillars are 10cm long! (see picture below). Snakes and scorpions live here too but don’t be alarmed, you are safe as long as you don’t put your hand in a dark hole and the scorpions are not dangerous to humans. We’ve only caught glimpses of both even though we spend a lot of time working in our acre garden, picking mushrooms in the mountains, fishing in the river and walking in the forests looking for wildlife!