Grassland is hardly a natural state of Slovenian nature, but meadows are is vitally important for the Slovenian biodiversity. Also, don’t underestimate its importance for tourism …
Meadows, as we know them, are the result of hard work from farmers. Wherever a meadow is no longer used, it changes. At first, the meadow flowers grow tall and beautiful, but then the grass becomes denser and denser and eventually takes over. Eventually, trees sprout and the meadow slowly changes into a forest. Therefore, it seems that forest is the natural state of much of the Slovenian landscape. But if meadows are not natural, how come that they can harbour such a fantastic diversity of flowers?
We find one answer to this question when we look where these flowers can grow outside of meadows. In fact, a number of them are growing in forest edges or even in the middle of forests, like common hogweed and some thistles. So these are forest plants which seized the opportunity to grow in the sun. Other forest plants persist where trees have been cut, but never completely appear to be at home in meadows, these include anemones, hellebores, Cyclamen and many other long-lived plants.
Other meadow flowers are bound to scarce open places along rivers and streams and on steep rocky slopes. Together, all these plants are still explaining only a fraction of the beauty of a Slovenian meadow. To understand where the other meadow plants originate, we have to look at why farmers maintain meadows. They do this, to make hay and silage, which they feed to animals. These animals are therefore the key to the existence of meadow vegetations. Long ago, before the first farmer started to cultivate a meadow, there were shepherds with animals. And even before that, there were just the animals.
The pink flowers in this meadow are wild orchids. Orchids grow in places where other plants struggle and the grass is not too dense. They manage to do this because they cooperate with a fungus: they provide sugars (from photosynthesis) to the fungus while the fungus extracts scarce nutrients from the soil for them.
Cattle, horse and European bison are all native to Slovenia, as are deer and wild boar. All these animals can, and on occasion, do damage forests. Especially in winter, they strip the bark of young trees, killing some, slowing down the growth of others. Because of these animals, open places stay open much longer. Together, they can maintain a half-open landscape with many patches of meadow vegetation between the forests. Probably, this is where many other meadow plants come from.
However, this is not easy to imitate nowadays: the interplay between grazing animals, forest and meadows is never stable but influenced by movements and numbers of animals. In turn, these numbers are reactions to the availability of food, weather fluctuations, the presence of predators and catastrophic crashes in population sizes because of animal diseases. Nowadays, we don’t like such fluctuations. Specifically: we exterminated bison in Slovenia long ago, we like to control the movement of cattle and horses, supplement feeding of deer and wild boar in winter, prevent outbreaks of diseases and we are also not agreeing on what to do with those predators. On a landscape scale, we like to be in charge, and we determine where a meadow is and where the forest may grow.
But look, how glorious these meadows are! Like the open patches in the forest before modern farming, these meadows are home to an endless variety of flowers, which form a colourful mosaic in the landscape!
The best of the best: a wet meadow with Wild Gladiolus in southern Slovenia. Only with continuous traditional use, such places can exist.
Until now, I wrote about meadows as if they are all similar, but that is not the case. Far from it: in Slovenia, we find a tremendous variation in meadow vegetations, and we can see this from a long distance: each meadow appears to have a different colour! These colours depend on which plants are flowering, and that, in turn, depends on soil, moisture and nutrients. In general, we find the most diverse vegetation on places where plants have to struggle to survive. Where nutrients are limiting plant growth, plants are competing intensely. Each species uses the soil differently, and those plants do best which are different from their neighbours. Simply put: plants which differ a lot are less in each other’s way and can co-exist together.
Once we fertilise a meadow, things change. Plants still compete, but it no longer pays off to use the soil differently. Instead, in a fertilised meadow, the fastest grower outcompetes all other plants in a battle to reach most sunlight. This is why fertilised meadows become terribly boring places with just a few plant species and even fewer butterflies.
A meadow full of dandelions is nicely yellow for about a week each year but is a sign of the total destruction of the diversity of flowers. And, sadly, we can nowadays find such meadows all over Europe. They are often shown on pictures in tourist’ brochures, but few tourists will ever see them, because of the short main flowering season of dandelion. And, those tourists can just as well see such meadows at home! Sure, such dandelion meadows do permit several harvests of silage each year, but this is poor food for horses and I am not convinced if it is that good for cattle either.
When a meadow is no longer used for hay-making, the grass grows dense. Eventually, trees start to grow and the forest takes over. Here, the beautiful meadow flowers can no longer survive.
Fortunately, there are still many meadows in Slovenia which aren’t fertilised, and which are still home to the glorious diversity of flowers and butterflies which also we enjoy. Such colourful meadows used to exist everywhere in Europe, but nowadays, they are sought after as an unexpected delight by travellers from far. Every farmer knows intuitively how to maintain them: like it has always been done. Who will resist the temptation to “improve” on these creations from former generations, who have built on the natural diversity of Slovenian flowers?
At all of our tours, you will see beautiful Slovenian meadows, full of flowers and butterflies. So why not join our Nature Tour, our Wild Orchid Tour, or our Butterfly Tour? Also, during our specialised Grasshopper Study Tour, we will spend most of the time in meadows. However, grasshoppers are most abundant when the diversity of spring-flowers is dwindling in early summer.
Only where there are many flowers, there can be many butterflies. And only meadows which are “unimproved”, can be a home for beautiful diversity.