Natural history

Greece has been continuously inhabited for at least 8000 years, and the results have included intense cultivation in the limited arable areas, deforestation by shipbuilders and goats, and increasing population pressure on finite resources.

Expanding urban centers and road networks restrict animal ranges so that wild creatures bigger than a fox are rarely encountered. In addition, Greeks are ruthless and thorough hunters, fishers and woodcutters; conservationist notions were completely foreign to them until after the Second World War.

Since then the Dhasiki Ypiresia (Forest Service) has become a powerful entity to contend with, many species of plant and animal are officially protected and a handful of national parks has been set up (though these conform more to the idea of a North American national forest or wildlife sanctuary than a recreational park). Seven reserves—Crete’s Samarian gorge, Kefallonia’s Mt. Enos, Attiki’s Mt. Parnitha, Mt. Oiti, Mt. Olymbos, the Vikos/Aoos environs and the Prespa Lakes—are known of, as this volume goes to press. In most there are express prohibitions against picking wildf lowers or gathering herbs, and I’ve personally seen this vigorously enforced by forest rangers. Hikers should refrain from picking plants everywhere, as many Greek wildflowers are endangered species.

In recent years Greece has suffered a rash of summer forest fires, many of them deliberately set. Motives for this arson are unclear and complex, but there seems to be an upsurge of incidents during election years when political extremists of both stripes try to frame their opponents. It is also suggested that agricultural property is torched by speculators to force intransigent owners to sell out at depressed prices. But the foregoing does little to explain the destruction of vast tracts of wilderness; this vandalism seems a protest against the forest service’s rigid no-building, no-grazing, no-clearing policies in areas designated as woodland. The firebugs may wish to present the bureaucrats with a fait accompli (“no more trees to protect, no more restrictions”), but the authorities have dug in their heels, declaring that land classification is irrevocable and that burnt areas shall be deemed “forest” until doomsday. To aggravate matters, forested tracts are taxed according to their potential value even though the owner is denied income from logging. Some sort of compromise seems in order to prevent the wholesale devastation of Greece’s remaining wilderness.

Given this uneven record of resource management, the abundance of smaller mobile and vegetative wildlife may come as a pleasant surprise. Like so many things Greek, the flora is a melange of things African, Asian and south European that meet only here. Some interesting speciations have occurred as a result of the islands’ mutual isolation by the Aegean eons ago, and many Greek species are found nowhere else.


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