For those who enjoy tranquillity and a wide range of landscapes, Skopelos is an idyll. It is criss-crossed by a network of mule tracks and goat paths, which pass through dense pine forests, through olive groves where herds of goats graze, and tiny hamlets with picturesque country cottages. Along the way there are numerous wayside springs where you can quench your thirst.
The island boasts a huge range of flowers, trees and shrubs- around 700 species in total -providing colour and wonderful scents throughout the year. Around 67% of the island is covered by woodland: unlike the Cycladic islands, the Sporades are extremely green islands. Skopelos has vast tracts of pine forests, whose scent fills the air, and whose resin is collected and used to flavour one of Greece’s most famous products, retsina. The island has orchards of plum, almond and pear trees, olive and citrus groves, and small vineyards which still produce the once famous and abundant local wine.
If you are interested in wildflowers, its well worth visiting in April and early May as you will see a wide variety, including poppies, anemones, irises, convulvulus, freesias, and gladioli.
Skopelos also has a wide variety of fauna, including around 66 species of wild birds, native and migratory. There are several kinds of birds of prey: most common are the Eleonora Falcons, and the Scops Owl, but you may also be lucky enough to see eagles, vultures and buzzards. Along the coastlines, you can see herons, kingfishers, cormorants and gulls. Apart from birds, there are a large variety of butterflies, lizards, frogs, hares, stone martens, tortoises, hedgehogs, bats and snakes. Most of the snakes are not poisonous; only the viper poses a real danger-but as with most snakes, this is only when it is disturbed or provoked.
The island also has a small and rapidly disappearing area of Wetlands, areas where water naturally accumulates for at least part of the year. Generically, wetlands include rivers, lakes, marshes, estuaries, lagoons, mangroves, seagrass beds, and peatlands. On Skopelos they comprise coastal wetlands with dunes separating them from the sea, giving small salt and freshwater marshes adjacent to steep limestone hills. There is also a very small freshwater marsh rather more inland, at Loutsa. Wetlands offer sanctuary to a wide variety of plants, invertebrates, fishes, amphibians, reptiles and mammals, as well as to both migratory and sedentary waterbirds. They are among the most precious natural resources on Earth.
There are few remaining wetlands on Skopelos, but those which still exist are lushly greened. They comprise small wetland areas with various bird sanctuaries, which, despite their proximity to the beaches, are out of sight of swimmers.
The local flora consists of rush and glassworts, plants that create an ideal habitat for migratory birds or permanent animal residents. Visitors can see herons – white or not – pelicans, cormorants, herring gulls and many duck species.
The wetlands are valuable not only because they serve as staging areas for migratory birds in spring and in autumn: they are an integral part of the hydrological cycle, in which water is continuously being recycled through the land, sea and atmosphere in a process which ensures the maintenance of ecological functions. They play a key role in the provision and maintenance of water quality and quantity as the basis of all life on earth. And they frequently constitute rich and diverse transition zones between aquatic ecosystems and terrestrial ecosystems such as forests and grasslands, contributing to the conservation of local biodiversity.
In addition, wetlands are of enormous social and economic value, in both traditional and contemporary societies. Since ancient times, people have lived along water courses, benefiting from the wide range of goods and services available from wetlands. The development of many of the great civilisations was largely based on their access to, and management of, wetland resources. Mediterranean landscapes generally have been used as agricultural-forestry-pastoral systems for more than eight millennia.
Unfortunately, the areas of wetland still existing on the island of Skopelos, like 60% of the world’s remaining wetlands, are being degraded or used unsustainably. Despite their importance, wetlands are among the most impacted and degraded of all ecological systems. In the past few centuries, they have been commonly regarded as unproductive, unhealthy lands. Many countries, often with government support and backing, have made considerable efforts to convert them from a ‘worthless’ existence to economically viable systems for agriculture or fisheries production. Many have been filled with domestic and industrial wastes (some of which have been of a toxic nature), while others have been drained to create additional land for development. Activities such as these, albeit on a small scale, have not been absent from the island.
It may seem that in the vast scheme of things, the small areas of wetlands here are not significant enough to be of any direct benefit to the islanders. However, they are in fact part of the often complex mechanisms and processes that generate other benefits or ‘services’ from which people eventually derive. What we mean in terms of ‘services’ and the value given to them is an idea best illustrated by the following example:
The presence of ecological structures like woodlands and wetlands in a catchment may have the capacity of slowing the passage of surface water. This function can have the potential of modifying the intensity of flooding. It is something humans find useful – and not a fundamental property of the ecosystem itself – which is why it is helpful to separate out this capability and call it a function. However, whether this function is regarded as a service or not depends upon whether ‘flood control’ is considered a benefit.
People or society will value this and other functions differently in different places at different times, according to the existing socio-economic system. Any problems that arise appear at this interface of people and the environment.
Since the Enlightenment, the separation of thinking about human and natural systems has characterised western thought. Fortunately, the concept of a socio-economic system is important because it helps overcome this trend. It has come to be understood that in defining what the ‘significant’ functions of an ecosystem are and what constitutes an ‘ecosystem service’, an understanding of spatial context (geographical location) and societal choices and values (both monetary and nonmonetary) is as important as knowledge about the structure and dynamics of ecological systems themselves. Therefore there has grown up a more holistic way of thinking which seeks to focus on the need to preserve what is called ‘natural capital’ .
The beginning of this article set out the ‘natural capital’ which is one of the glories of Skopelos. The nature of Skopelos for visitors is composed of many special memories: the excellent tavernas, the people, the beaches, the verdant countryside, the emerald sea; all these experiences combine to enrich the lives of everyone who stays on the island. For locals, we are connected to the past, the future, and the entire living world around us, by the most profound legacy possible, the island on which we live. Visitors and locals alike should not take it for granted: it should be nurtured and protected; especially in times of economic adversity, when cutbacks need to be made and ‘austerity’ is the new buzz word.
Dr Brian Ridout, Dr Elizabeth Ridout and Philip Insall have produced a book listing and illustrating the butterflies they have found during numerous trips to Skopelos over the past few years. It forms part of an ongoing project to assess the wildlife of the island and is not yet comprehensive, but includes photographs of the rare Pygmy Skipper Butterfly and others. The following is taken from the introduction to the book:
“The Mediterranean region contains some of the most intensely damaged environments on our planet. Skopelos has managed to avoid much of this destruction, but the pace of change seems to be accelerating. Nevertheless, Skopelos remains an important island for natural history with delicate ecosystems that have not been damaged by development.
It is possible for changes to occur side-by-side with conservation, but we must learn the significance of habitats that remain so that important decisions can be made.
We have a responsibility to understand the wildlife and its requirements on these islands so that as much as possible is retained for future generations.”
Every living thing on Skopelos has a place in what we call the ‘balance of nature’. Upsetting that balance can have untold effects, from which more often than not, we are the losers. Once this is lost, it can never be replaced. The community as a whole needs to engage in any debate about long-term sustainable development of the island and its resources. The concept must include the maintenance of all the island’s ecosystem services and the elements of human well-being that depend upon them, not least in the realm of tourism. The links between biodiversity and the benefits that people enjoy from nature must be understood so that the wider community can take them into account in decision making – and I include in this even the simple decision of taking litter home!