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Subalpine Region of the Alps
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Subalpine Region of the Alps

The Subalpine is the region which mainly determines the manner of life of the population of the Alps.

On a rough estimate we may reckon that, of the space lying between the summits of the Alps and the low country on either side, one-quarter is available for cultivation, of which about one-half may be vineyards and corn fields, while the remainder produces forage and grass. About another quarter is utterly barren, consisting of snow fields, glaciers, bare rock, lakes and the beds of streams.

There remains about one-half, which is divided between forest and pasture, and it is the produce of this half which mainly supports the relatively large population. For a quarter of the year the flocks and herds are fed on the upper pastures; but the true limit of the wealth of a district is the number of animals that can be supported during the long winter, and while one part of the population is engaged in tending the beasts and in making cheese and butter, the remainder is busy cutting hay and storing up winter food for the cattle.

The larger villages are mostly in the mountain region, but in many parts of the Alps the villages stand in the subalpine region at heights varying from 1200 m to 1700 m above the sea, more rarely extending to about 1800 m. The most characteristic feature of this region is the prevalence of coniferous trees, which, where they have not been artificially kept down, form vast forests that cover a large part of the surface. These play a most important part in the natural economy of the country. They protect the valleys from destructive avalanches, and, retaining the superficial soil by their roots, they mitigate the destructive effects of heavy rains. In valleys where they have been rashly cut away, and the waters pour down the slopes unchecked, every tiny rivulet becomes a raging torrent, that carries off the grassy slopes and devastates the floor of the valley, covering the soil with gravel and debris.

In the conifer forests of the Alps the prevailing species are the Norway spruce and the European silver fir; on siliceous soil the European larch flourishes. The Scots pine is chiefly found at a lower level and rarely forms forests. The Swiss pine is found scattered at intervals throughout the Alps but is not common. The Mountain pine is common at higher altitudes, often forming a distinct zone of Krummholz above the level of its congeners on the higher mountains. In the Northern Alps the pine forests rarely surpass the limit of 1800 m above the sea, but on the south side they commonly attain 2100 m, while European larch, Swiss pine and Mountain pine often extend above that elevation.