Covering an area of 209,256km2 - 5 times the size of Switzerland and larger than the Alps - the Carpathian Mountains are home to 18 million people.
For centuries, the Carpathians have provided a home to diverse nationalities and ethnic groups - people separated by different languages, dialects and traditions, but bound together by a highland way of life and a sense of shared hardships. The name for the Carpathians is derived from the ancient Greek ‘Karpat-Heros’ tribes who inhabited the South Carpathians some 2,000 years ago. Since then, waves of people – Romans, Goths, Avars, Slavs, and Magyars, to name a few – have claimed the land as their own.
The area receives twice the rainfall of surrounding regions and it is this freshwater that feeds the major rivers, the Danube and Vistula, through to the Black and Baltic Seas. More than 80% of Romania’s water supply (excluding the Danube), 40% of Ukraine’s supply and one third of the outflow of the Vistula originate directly from the Carpathians.
Kingdom of the carnivores
The natural diversity supported by the Carpathians is of vital importance for Europe.
The Carpathians are the last region in Europe to support viable populations of Europe's greatest mammals. Brown bear, wolf and lynx can all be found in the forests of the region. Threatened bird species, including the Imperial eagle, Ural owl and the corncrake, have also found a sanctuary here. On a continent where 40% of mammals are threatened by extinction, the Carpathians offer one of the last opportunities for resettling Europe’s large carnivores.
Europe has also lost 56% of its forest cover and just 2% of the remaining natural forests are protected. Meanwhile the Carpathians contain the continent's largest remaining natural mountain beech and beech/coniferous forest ecosystems and the largest area of pristine forest, outside of Russia. Together with semi-natural habitats such as mountain pastures and hay meadows, which are the result of centuries of traditional management of the land, the region's biodiversity is unsurpassed in Europe.
One-third of all European vascular plant species can be found in this region – that means 3,988 plant species, 481 of which are found only in the Carpathians. The mountains form a "bridge" between Europe 's northern forests and those in the south and west. As such, they are a vital corridor for the dispersal of plants and animals throughout Europe.
People and Nature
Man’s impact on the landscape through farming can be detected as early as the 4th century, when prehistoric mountain forests were affected by livestock grazing. High in the mountains, pastoral farming has always traditionally dominated and as a result, mountain shepherding has always been one of the most important elements of the Carpathian culture.
This has at times led to a decrease of forest covered areas and also to an increase in soil erosion, a problem that continues today, especially on steep slopes. However, many traditional, sustainable methods for farming and managing the landscape have survived for generations. Furthermore, several thousand years of human habitation settlement have created traditional landscapes of tremendous value for nature, especially through agriculture and shepherding. These managed landscapes often possess a higher level of biodiversity than the purely natural landscapes.
On the foothills, where the agricultural soil was more fertile, severe deforestation has often been experienced. In the 19th century, the forests were opened up to commercial exploitation, especially for construction of the railways. Large areas were clear-cut or replaced with single-species ‘mono-cultures’ with low biodiversity value (e.g. poor habitat, vulnerable to natural hazard).
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Carpathians were exploited for coal and metal mining and minerals. In the 20th century, industrial expansion caused significant severe air and water pollution, significantly damaging forests due to sulphur emissions and acid rain.
Traces of the Past
In the Carpathians, generally a remote and marginal area, many of the fatal effects of communist planning were avoided. Rather than facing the ‘collectivisation’ of lands, private ownership remained the rule, especially in Poland. As a result, this ‘benign neglect’ preserved many marginal rural areas from the agricultural intensification that has devastated many other parts of Europe.
During those same four decades, unsustainable development in many parts of Western Europe (the birthplace of “sustainable development”) led to the loss of numerous habitats and species – many of which have been preserved in Central and Eastern Europe.
As for forestry, although over-exploitation was the rule at times, techniques which promoted natural regeneration were mostly favoured. Also, many of the countries did not have access to modern harvesting technologies and to the funds that opened up even the wildest and most remote valleys in Western Europe. Thus, the damage known in Western Europe, that led to large areas of artificial forests did not affect Central and Eastern European forests to the same extent.