At first glance, the view from our back garden is breathtaking. At second glance it’s still amazing but the heavy snowfall over 2 years ago caused lots of damage and is continuing to have an effect on this untouched area of outstanding natural beauty.
The large patches of brown are not the Autumn colours of deciduous trees but swathes of dead evergreens. This unusual occurrence is due to bark eating beetles, which have seen a population explosion as a consequence of mild winters followed by drought. These beetles live in dead pines, so the trees toppled by snow at the end of winter, March 2013, expanded the beetles housing and incubation area for the next batch to start feasting on the nearest alive tree. The following hot dry summers and mild winters exacerbated the situation. Healthy trees can fight off an attack but a thirsty tree is weak and vulnerable and the beetles take control.
It’s odd how they only attack the pines, trees that are not native to the Eastern Rhodope Mountains and have been planted by humans. Pine trees make up about 30% of the surrounding woodland. They grow fast and are perfect for building, furniture, fences, etc but not so good for wildlife as their canopies block light to the ground below. There is also the restriction on what can grow at ground level as pine forest soil is very acidic. So the natural flora & fauna is out of kilter and I like to think mother nature is doing her bit to reclaim the land.
Pine forests have suffered from this kind of epidemic before and America has been battling for 30 years. Huge areas of plantations have been lost and with them the shortfall in wood trade. The only way to eradicate these beetles is cut down and remove all infected trees or wait for a really harsh winter. As many of the forest slopes here are sheer, a harsh winter is actually preferable! But the Forestry commission are not resting on their laurels, they are actively removing the dead wood and getting a little help from inhabitants of the Eastern Rhodope Mountains. Central heating does not exist in these rural parts of Bulgaria and even in the towns, wood fires are the main heating source and wood deliveries are a common site in the run up to winter.
However in the villages the wood is bought on cheaper self service rates which means ‘go and cut it down yourself’! Everyone mucks in to share the stockpiling, usually one man with a chainsaw and either sons, dads, wives or neighbours. Plus a donkey to carry the load back to the house in several trips. The steepness of these forests make the work physically tough and even though pine logs burn very quickly and coat the chimney flues in sticky resin, its better than nothing and to boot, helping a worthy cause. One day the whole area may return to broadleaf and will be an even richer environment as a result… though probably not in my lifetime.