Dry karstic grasslands

Short-toed Eagle Circaetus gallicus

Tawny Pipit Anthus campestris

Ortolan Bunting Emberiza hortulana

Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus

Dry karstic grasslands, like the name suggests, are found in the Karst region of western Slovenia. The Karst, or Kras in Slovene, is a limestone plateau lying in the northernmost part of the Adriatic sea. It extends above the town of Trieste in northeast Italy and into western Slovenia. The area is known for its geological, geomorphological and speleological phenomena, known commonly as karstic phenomena. The term “karst” became the technical term describing any karst area in the world, where the landscape is formed with the dissolution of soluble limestone and dolomite rocks.

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The Karst’s most characteristic landscape is a stony grassland, formed through four millenia of human activity: from deforestation to intensive grazing of livestock. Nowadays this kind of grassland is slowly giving way to forested areas, as grazing and land use is being abandoned. Although semi-natural, such grasslands are among the most species rich habitats in Europe. They are included in EU’s Habitat Directive and classified as Eastern sub-mediterranean dry grasslands (Scorzoneretalia villosae = Scorzonero-Chrysopogonetalia).

There are a whole variety of birds living on dry karstic grasslands, that, in Slovenia at least, are not found anywhere else. One of them is the Ortolan Bunting Emberiza hortulana, which is sadly on the brink of extinction in the country. Only a few breeding pairs persist in an area of extensive dry grassland in southwest Slovenia. Another rare species is the Short-toed Eagle Circaetus gallicus which hunts over large stony grasslands. Tawny Pipit Anthus campestris is also restricted to dry open areas of the Karst and is nowhere common. Of the more abundant species of karstic grasslands we also need to mention Hoopoe Upupa epops, Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio, Corn Bunting Emberiza calandra, Cirl Bunting Emberiza cirlus, Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus, Woodlark Lullula arborea, Skylark Alauda arvensis and Melodious Warbler Hippolais polyglotta. In some areas a few tiny residual populations of the once-common Rock Partridge Alectoris graeca are still to be found, although increasingly difficult to observe.

Dry karstic grasslands are an excellent habitat for a variety of reptiles. Among the most interesting species is the Horn-nosed Viper Vipera ammodytes that inhabits dry limestone walls, screes and heaps of rocky. Very common in bushy and overgrown grassland is the European Green Lizard Lacerta viridis, while scarcer are the Dalmatian Wall Lizard Podarcis melisellensis and Italian Wall Lizard Podarcis sicula. Among the commonest snakes are the (here) black-coloured Western Whip Snake Hierophis viridiflavus and the Aesculapian Snake Zamenis longissimus.

Horn-nosed Viper Vipera ammodytes

European Green Lizard Lacerta viridis

Western Whip Snake Hierophis viridiflavus

Dalmatian Wall Lizard Podarcis melisellensis (Photo: Aleš Jagodnik)

The butterfly and invertebrate fauna of Karstic grasslands is very rich – actually the richest in Slovenia. Up to 55 butterfly species can be found on certain meadows, including Marsh Fritillary Euphydryas aurinia, Southern Festoon Zerynthia polyxena, False Ringlet Coenonympha oedippus, Clouded Apollo Parnassius mnemosyne, Great Sooty Satyr Satyrus ferula, False Grayling Arethusana arethusa and The Hermit Chazara briseis although the latter is now very rare. Among moths the most interesting species include Jersey Tiger Euplagia quadripunctaria, the geometer Erannis ankeraria and Eastern Eggar Eriogaster catax. The characteristic Carniolan Burnet Zygaena carniolica is quite common on dry meadows. Three other insect species worthy of mention when speaking about karstic grasslands are the rare and impressive Predatory Bush Cricket Saga pedo, the endemic Eastern Stone Grasshopper Prionotropis hystrix hystrix and the beautiful Owlfly Libelloides macaronius.

Southern Festoon Zerynthia polyxena 

Predatory Bush Cricket Saga pedo

Owlfly Libelloides macaronius

Eastern Stone Grasshopper Prionotropis hystrix hystrix

Dry karstic meadows support rich plant communities that are becoming increasingly rare. A large variety of plant species can be found in these habitats. Here we will mention some of the most characteristic herbaceous plants: Dwarf Sedge Carex humilis, Sesleria juncifolia, Steppe Grass Stipa eriocaulis, Chrysopogon gryllus, Mountain Pasqueflower Pulsatilla montana, White Asphodel Asphodelus albus, Stemless Carline Thistle Carlina acaulis, Centaurea rupestris, Centaurea cristata, Dittany Dictamnus albus, Globe Thistle Echinops ritro ssp. ruthenicus, Amethyst Eryngo Eryngium amethystinum, Genista sericea, Fritillaria orientalis, Great Yellow Gentian Gentiana lutea ssp. symphyandra, Gentiana tergestina, Wild Hyssop Hyssopus officinalis, Illyrian Iris Iris pallida ssp. illyrica, Jurinea mollis, Carniolan Lily Lilium carniolicum, Compact Grape-hyacinth Muscari botryoides, Poet's Narcissus Narcissus poeticus ssp. radiiflorus, Wild Peony Paeonia officinalis, Potentilla tommasiniana, Tragopogon tommasinii and Satureja subspicata ssp. liburnica.

Among the commonest orchid species are Green-winged Orchid Anacamptis morio, Pyramidal Orchid Anacamptis pyramidalis, Three-toothed Orchid Neotinea tridentata and Early Spider Orchid Ophrys sphegodes. Several other rarer species are found but not mentioned here.

Centaurea rupestris

Mountain Pasqueflower Pulsatilla montana

Illyrian Iris Iris pallida ssp. illyrica

Amethyst Eryngo Eryngium amethystinum

Fritillaria orientalis

Carniolan Lily Lilium carniolicum

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