BREZNIK, Bulgaria (Reuters) - Pine forests planted in Bulgaria to combat soil erosion are falling prey to a beetle that is feeding on trees already weakened by excessively hot weather, dense planting and a lack of proper logging in the years after the fall of communism.
More than 7,000 hectares of pine forest in the Balkan country perished due to bark beetle attacks in August alone - an area three times bigger than in previous years, said Tsenko Tsenov, the director of Bulgaria's forest agency.
The beetle problem concerns pines planted on around 680,000 hectares of land since the 1950s at lower altitudes than they grow naturally to help fight soil erosion. Global warming and inadequate logging have exacerbated the problem by denying the trees their optimal moisture and the space they need.
The damage is greatest in southern and southwestern Bulgaria, where forest officials have adopted logging plans to tackle the pest infestation. About a third of the lower altitude pines in the Rhodope mountains near the Greek border have succumbed to the bark beetle and other diseases, Tsenov said.
The long-term solution lies in allowing the broad-leafed deciduous trees traditionally dominant at such altitudes to flourish once again, said Damyan Damyanov, head of a local forest enterprise, during an inspection at a logging site near the southwestern town of Breznik.
"After we take the coniferous trees out, we see the saplings of beech, oak and ash trees. The local broad-leafed trees are taking back their place," he said.
Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova; Editing by Gareth Jones