The Ljubljana Marshes – the romantic entrance hall of the Slovenian capital

Photo: archive Landscape park Ljubljansko barje

October 2011

The Ljubljana Marshes (Ljubljansko barje) are a vast marshy plain extending over approximately 150 square kilometers from the southern suburbs of Ljubljana to the first foothills of the mountains in the south: the Krim, the mountains around Vrhnika and the Polhov Gradec Mountains. If in the past, these marshes were regarded as an almost degraded, desolate area that should be drained as soon as possible because of the fog if not for other reasons, cultivated with more useful plants that bring direct benefit to humans and possibly also built-up since it neighbors the city, today the prevailing attitude is luckily rather different. In past decades, the Ljubljana Marshes have come to be regarded as an exceptional natural treasure, one of the last remaining great wetlands or marshes (it is estimated that in Europe between 70 and 90 percent of wetlands have been lost for ever, including their animal and plant species) and a habitat oasis of some birds and other animals that can be found nowhere else.

This year it was recognized as one of the locations in six European countries where Neolithic or Copper Age pile dwellings existed. It was also designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Metamorphoses of the Marshes

Photo: archive Landscape park Ljubljansko barje

Ljubljana Marshes are a tectonic depression filled with thick deposits of loam and sand throughout millennia while in the more recent period at the end of the Ice Age a large shallow lake rich with fish and other aquatic animals extended here that also enabled the survival of the aforementioned pile dwellings. The lake with insufficient tributaries was later transformed into the marshes where special role was played by riparian vegetation which, due to the lack of oxygen in water, started to form peat, a layer of dead plant material which does not decompose but every year accumulates in new layers which can become several meters thick. Such an environment does not provide much food for quick growth and is therefore inhabited by special plant species, among them even carnivorous plants such as sundews of the Ljubljana Marshes.

The possessive mentality that certain benefit for humans has to be derived from everything caused many changes in the Ljubljana Marshes in the years of the developing capitalism. Poor and acidic soil was inadequate for agriculture but the thick layer of peat proved to be excellent fuel for all kinds of heating. Exploitation of peat which seemed inexhaustible in 19th and the first half of 20th century became a rather profitable business which largely destroyed deposits of this natural resource. When the peat became scarce, however, human imagination turned to the projects of draining the Marshes and the attempts to turn the land into arable fields or at least pastures. Numerous drainage trenches required regular maintenance which attracted a considerable number of people to the area who maintained them and also engaged in farming. Also the constructors succeeded in finding ways of building lower structures in the Marshes and thanks to building on stilts, although it is more expensive than usual building, they have built relatively large residential and industrial areas as well as a shopping center on the marshy plain in the second half of the previous century.

Such violence against nature went on uninterrupted until the adoption of the European Natura 2000 Directive which designated some built-up and the majority of already drained areas as a natural value. The new spatial plans of Ljubljana which were adopted in 2010 had to face this fact so that the Ljubljana Marshes are today probably formally well protected from many ambitions to materially exploit this area.

Development opportunities

Photo: archive Landscape park Ljubljansko barje

But the Marshes really deserve all these release of burden. In its core, the splendid, somehow different landscape divided like a checkerboard into large squares by drainage trenches half a century ago hides plant and animal species that can be found nowhere else. The Ljubljana Marshes are a nesting area of as much as one half of all birds known in Slovenia or 250 in total! Among them are the most famous and unique corn crake (Crex crex), the Eurasian curlew (Numenius arquanta), the whinchat (Saxicola rubetra), the grasshopper warbler (Lacustella naevia) and the northern harrier (Circus cyaneus). With white sand paths leading through meadows and fields, trees of various species planted along the edges of former trenches, especially during autumn and winter this is a nostalgic landscape gradually fading in the misty distance. The Marshes are a real treat for the eyes also when viewed from the air, so one of the attractions of the Ljubljana tourism was also flying over the area in hot air balloons. However, these flights have been substantially limited since it was discovered that hissing caused by the balloons terrifies animals even more than airplane overflights.

Today the area is managed by the public institute Ljubljana Marshes Landscape Park. Its director Barbara Zupanc has been involved in this project for a decade and in cooperation with relevant authorities as well as with the interested people and municipalities (The Marshes include territories of as much as seven municipalities), the Republic of Slovenia finally declared the park and established the public institute two years ago. Today three people are employed in the park but practically everything has changed. Daily visits, helping people to perform certain tasks, solving current issues and problems which are quite numerous since the institute has been operating for only two years while many adverse habits are older and more persistent, testifying how much work has already be done by the small team.

Text by Jože Osterman, Sinfo, October 2011