SOILS, VEGETATION, AND FAUNA
The soils, vegetation and fauna of Armenia are closely interconnected. Their complexes form natural (or landscape) zones which supersede each other, like stories, from the lowlands to the mountain peaks.
With the marked difference in elevations (from 400 to 4,000m above sea level) five principal natural zones have formed in Armenia: semi-desert with elements of the desert, steppe, forest, alpine and mountain-tundra; these zones are samples of nearly all the zones of the CIS, from the deserts of Central Asia to the Arctic Ocean.
I N T H E C A U C A S I A N H I G H L A N D S
The natural zones do not always correspond to the same altitude location. In the northeastern comparatively cool and humid areas the zones are located lower, while in the southern hot and dry areas they are situated higher. Arid, shrub and grass steppes are the lowest zone in the north-east, while a semi-desert zone with desert areas is typical of the south.
Semi-desert Zone with Desert Areas. In the Armenia a typical desert landscape covers small areas and is found as separate strips in the Ararat plain up to an elevation of 900 m above sea level. The desert strips were formed on river deposits. In the lowest areas humus-poor gray earth, light brown and brown soils with sections of saline soils formed on the loose deposits of the Arax and its tributaries. The formation of these typically desert soils was favored by the continental climate and scant vegetable cover. Where the underground waters are closer to the surface, excessively moistened, so-called tchaltyc soils are formed. In some places there are takyr-like soils and sand knolls.
The semi-desert landscape is found in the valley of the middle course of the Arax up to an elevation of 1,300 m and, in some places, 1,400 m. The land of the semi-deserts undulated and slightly eroded; in the west and along the edges of the plain it is rocky. The brown and light-brown soils are fertile; they are ploughed and cultivated almost everywhere and with irrigation yield large crops.
So-called cultivated and irrigated soils with a fairly high content of nutritive substances and a good structure have formed in the irrigated parts of the plain. Traveling through the Ararat Valley, especially through the Arax steppe the southeastern part of the plain, one can see what looks like snow-covered spaces. These are saline solonets and solonchak soils. Here and there one can see takyrs lifeless patches of dense yellow-white clay with a cracked surface. The vegetation of the deserts is extremely xerophilous, with a predomination of species developing in saline soils (Russian thistle, glasswort, sarsazan, etc.).
New sections of desert soils are increasingly being reclaimed for agriculture. The saline soils are rinsed by irrigation water containing a little (1-2 per cent) sulfurous acid which creates a favorable medium for cultured plants by neutralizing and removing harmful salts. Semi-desert vegetation predominates in the virgin parts of the plain. In spring, during the rainy period, the low-lying and foothill parts of the Ararat plain are all covered with flowers, but towards summer the vegetation becomes parched. In autumn the semi-desert comes to life again as a result of autumn rains, and succulent grasses serve as grazing fodder for the cattle even in winter.
The marshy banks of the Arax and its tributary the Metsamor, as well as the swampy shores of Lake Aigerlich, present a peculiar landscape. They are covered with dense, rather tall (2-3 m and higher) reeds (which sometimes grow even in the water) which turn green in May and June.
O D Z U N M O N A S T E R Y I N N O R T H E R N A R M E N I A
Darker brown soils are to be seen along the elevated edges of the plain (up to 1,400 m above sea level). They are very rocky and have a high content of gypsum and lime and a negligible content of humus. Here and there are so-called motley soils formed on variegated native rocks. The territories of rocky, brown, semi-desert soils are usually called kirs. On deeply eroded slopes these soils are shallow, whereas on comparatively flat plateaus they are deeper. Grapes and other fruit are grown here in tillable areas and on artificial, irrigable terraces. The vegetation in this zone, east of the Ararat plain and in the south of the Republic, on the arid and rocky hills is predominantly xerophilous with a large amount of prickly (tragacanth) shrubs and "cushi on" plants (especially milk vetches and bear's breeches), as well as hard-leafed, evergreen undershrubs and grasses (thyme, lavender) which form Mediterranean-type communities. Among these plants there are many valuable medicinal species.
This zone is rich in reptiles. These include the lethal kufi or blunt-nosed viper and the adder; the scorpion is one of the widespread Arachnida; there are also various species of locusts and termites. Wild boars, jungle cats and jackals roam through the thickets of the Arax; stray leopards are sometimes found . Nutria coypu (South American rodents with a valuable fur) have acclimatized themselves and are now bred in large numbers in the upper reaches of the Metsamor. Birds are also numerous and include marsh harriers, ducks, geese, scoters, gulls and the short-toed eagle that feeds mainly on snakes and lizards.
Steppe Zone. Steppes are the most widespread type of landscape in the Republic. In the northern and eastern areas they reach elevations of 1,900- 2,000 m above sea level, while in the Ararat hollow they begin only at elevations of 1,300-1,400 m and reach 2,000-2,200 m; in the southern arid areas they reach 2,400-2,500 m. In the lower zone of the foothills the steppes are arid, and xerophilous cereals-brome, sheep's fescue, wheat-grass and thyme prevail.
The steppes in the western foothills of the Gegham mountains, in Vaik, Zangezour and Meghri are entirely different. They are so-called tragacanth steppes where prickly "cushion" plants-milk vetches and bear's breeches-predominate. There are many shrub thickets of a mountain xerophilous formation, sometimes whole "forests" of small and prickly shrubs of thorn, Turkish terebinth, pear, plum, barberry and hawthorn. Here and there are forests of juniper, a xerophilous coniferous tree which is also to be found in the woodless Sevan basin (on the slope of the Areguni mountains).
Chestnut soils prevail in the arid steppes. Despite their shallowness, especially on the slopes, these soils contain a good deal of humus. Vast areas were tilled for centuries and undergone considerable changes and this resulted in a variety of cultivated and irrigated soils. On the flatland and gentle slopes the layer of chestnut soil is thicker than in the foothills. Tobacco, grapes, other fruit, cereals and fodder crops are grown here.
Higher up, above the zone of arid steppes are black earth steppes. Mountain black earth is particularly abundant on the young volcanic plateaus and the middle mountain slopes. These soils contain a good deal of humus and resemble those of the Russian steppes. The most fully developed are stipa steppes with combinations of feather-grass and sheep's fescue, hair-grass, wheat grass, beard grass, meadow grass and various dicotyledonous grasses. Higher still in more humid areas (for example, on the Ashotsk plateau, in the north-western part of the Lori plateau) meadow steppes prevail.
The steppe zone is Armenia 's granary. It is quite well cultivated, especially since in many places the land can be tilled without irrigation. This is the main zone for growing grain crops, potatoes, tobacco, cabbage, etc. During the last few decades beets and fruit have been successfully grown in many steppe areas (the Shirak plateau, the Pambak valley) and grapes in the Talin district. Orchards and vineyards have also been appearing on the western slopes of the Gegham range, at the foothills in the Kotaik, Artashat and Vedi districts.
The animal kingdom of the steppes similar to that of the semi-deserts. The
abundance of grain crops and wild grasses attracts numerous rodents and birds.
The rodents are represented by the Asia Minor souslik and the jerboa, the lesser
mole rat and voles; the birds are represented by the lark, hoopoe and curlew.
There are many predators-weasels, eagles which feed on rodents. The reptiles are
represented by Renard's vipers.
The greater part of the forests are located in the north-east of the Republic where they cover 28-30 per cent of the territory, taking up the steep slopes of numerous mountains and canyons. The upper fringe of the forests reaches an elevation of 1,900-2,000 m above sea level.
The second large tracts of forests are located in Zangezur where they cover more than 20 per cent of the territory and reach an elevation of 2,200-2,400 m. The rest of Armenia is almost devoid of forests. They occur only as small islands on the eastern slopes of the Aragats and Tsakhkunyats ranges and on the southwestern spurs of the Gegham mountains.
Cinnamonic forest soils have formed in the lower regions of the north -eastern areas where the climate is quite humid, and brown forest soils, in the upper zone. Beech trees interspersed with oaks predominate in the forests of the north. The other trees include hornbeams, Armenian and Russian elms, maples and ash trees. In some places thin xerophilous forests occur. In the forest areas, wherever the slopes permit, agriculture is being developed. The cultivation of wild fruit plants is under way, and new forest orchards are being created. The forests preserve moisture and prevent soil erosion.
The forest areas in the foothills of the north-east and the rocky slopes of the Zangezur are often covered with shrubs or thorns and beard grass. Only 12 per cent of Armenian territory is now covered with forests and shrubs. The stock composition of the forests of northern Armenia has also considerably changed in the last few centuries. Formerly the oak predominated. Since many species of oak are xerophilous, i.e., are adapted to arid conditions, but need plenty of light, the southern oak forests are thin and light. About 100-200 years ago the climate in these parts started gradually to change for reasons so far unknown: the rainfall became more frequent and abundant, the temperature began to drop, at first imperceptibly and then more and more; this was particularly the case on the northern slopes which as a rule receive less solar heat than do the southern slopes.
The beech, a shade-resistant and hydrophilous tree, began to grow in the shade of the oak. Gradually it displaced the oak. Now we see mainly beech forests-dense, tall and with a thick canopy especially on the northern, more humid slopes. Beech forests are damp and dark, and photophilous plants cannot develop. Only here and there, in the depths of such forests, does one come across 300-350-year-old oaks, the last representatives of the extinct groves.
Forests change their composition and nature under the influence of man's activity. Thus the felling of oaks results in replacement of oak forests by white beech forests; the white beech in turn yields to the Oriental hornbill, and valuable tree stocks are gradually replaced by low-grade trees. northern, more humid slopes. Beech forests are damp and dark, and photophilous plants cannot develop. Only here and there, in the depths of such forests, does one come across 300-350-year-old oaks, the last representatives of the extinct groves.
Forests change their composition and nature under the influence of man's activity. Thus the felling of oaks results in replacement of oak forests by white beech forests; the white beech in turn yields to the Oriental hornbeam, and valuable tree stocks are gradually replaced by low-grade trees.
In southern Armenia, because of the very dry climate, there are no beech forests. Here the oak predominates; in the lower forest zone it is the more xerophilous Aras oak, in the middle zone, the Iberian oak, and in the upper zone, the mountain oak, which can be found at altitudes as high as 2,600 m.
The whole forest zone of Zangezur is characterized by cinnamonic soils. In more arid places, mainly on the lower fringe of the forests, there are thin xerophilous woods with short leaf-bearing trees and shrubs-the hackberry, Turkish terebinth, fig tree, pomegranate, honeysuckle and cotoneaster. Thin almond and pear forests are widespread in southern Armenia, while islets of thin juniper forests are found all over the Republic. The thin xerophilous forests are very light, and xerophilous grasses, which have come from the neighboring steppes, or represent mountain xerophilous vegetation, grow under the trees. The forests of Armenia are full off wild fruit trees and shrubs-apple, pear, cherry, plum, cornelian cherry, medlar and sweetbrier.
In the Armenian forests we encounter the impoverished fauna of the Caucasian forests. This is characterized by the wild boar and the roe; there are also Syrian bears, wildcats, lynxes and many rodents squirrels, voles and dormice. There is a particularly large number of birds. The most numerous are the dunnocks, woodcocks, robins, warblers, tits and woodpeckers.
The alpine zone embraces the mountains and plateaus located higher than 2,000-2,200 m above sea level. Its lower areas have mountain-meadow black earth-type soils covered with sub-alpine vegetation.
The enduring and cold-resistant mountain oak still grows in the forest areas on the lower border of the zone; it is a rather undersized tree with a small crown, often with branches curved and bent by the wind down the slope. Tall grasses-up to 70-80 cm of the sub-alpine zone grow, forming a continuous cover, in clearings and on the edges of the forest. There are tall cow parsnips with umbrellas of luxurious white flowers; they reach a height of more than two meters and have succulent, sweet stalks which are used for food. There are also tall poisonous aconite with blue flowers emitting an intoxicating odor, bright pink anemones and other plants. In the woodless areas there are no tall grasses.
The zone of alpine vegetation is located above 2,800-2,900 m. Because of the lack of heat the grasses are undersized and the period of vegetation lasts only 2 to 3 months. In many places glacial formations are clearly manifest; "seas of stones" are encountered, a cold mountain climate prevails. Mountain-meadow soils, which in some respects resemble bog soils have formed in the flat parts and on the gentle slopes of this zone. Higher up are soddy-meadow soils.
The Aragats massif, the Gegham, Vardenis and Syunik (Zangezur) ranges with their mountain-meadow black earth are covered with alpine pastures. During the summer months everything hereabout turns green, bursts into flowers and smells sweet; even the gray, silent cliffs and piles of stones seem to come to life. The dense alpine motley grass meadows and the "alpine grass carpets' higher up are not only a pleasing sight, but also contain numerous nutritive substances and vitamins. These lands are the most valuable resources of the Republic's highland zone. Depending on the elevation of the terrain and the composition and height of the grasses, these meadows are used either for spring and summer pasturage or for hay.
A considerable part of Armenia 's alpine soils (higher than 2, 500 m above sea level) are not used for farming because of the lack of heat.
The alpine fauna is quite rich. The birds are particularly numerous and comprise the snow-cock (a large and very cautious bird of the order of Galliformes), the Himalayan and Alpine accentors, the shore lark, the snow-finch and the largest bird of prey of these mountains the bearded hawk. In the southern areas and on the Aragats there are bezoar goats and, less frequently, mountain sheep or mouflons.
S I S I A N, S I W N I K' P R O V I N C E
The mountain-tundra zone covers various alpine ridges and peaks of the tallest ranges and massifs. Here rock waste is being formed as a result of weathering of the rocks. The rigorous climate gives rise to primitive soils with cushion-like vegetation. In some places the snow lasts all the year round. There are small glaciers on the peaks of the Aragats and Kapuytjukh.
Before the Socialist October Revolution much of the Republic's territory became unfit for use. The forests and the fur-bearing animals were rapaciously destroyed. The improper plowing of the land intensified erosion. Important measures for protecting and enriching natural resources including afforestation have been carried out during Socialist era. By 1975 the new forests already covered an area of 70,000 hectares, an increase of 28 per cent of the existing area.
The fauna is also being changed. The following species have become acclimatized in the Republic: the raccoon-dog (northeastern forest areas), the nutria coypu (Arax valley), white-fish (Lake Sevan) and red deer (the Khosrov forest).
An important role in protecting and restoring natural resources is to be played by the Dilijan, Shikahogh and Garni preserves and numerous forest parks. Certain rare animals are protected. In 1958, the Supreme Council of Armenia passed a law on protecting Nature and prohibiting the hunting of such endemic and valuable animals as the bezoar goat, the mouflon and the punctate deer.