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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 4000 feet to 5500 feet above the sea, more rarely extending to about 6000 feet 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 pine forests of the Alps the prevailing species are the common spruce and the silver fir; on siliceous soil the larch flourishes, and surpasses every other European species in height. The Scottish pine is chiefly found at a lower level and rarely forms forests. The Siberian fir is found scattered at intervals throughout the Alps but is not common. The mughus, creeping pine, or Krummholz of the Germans, is common in the Eastern Alps, and sometimes forms on the higher mountains a distinct zone above the level of its congeners. In the Northern Alps the pine forests rarely surpass the limit of 6000 feet above the sea, but on the south side they commonly attain 7000 feet, while the larch, Siberian fir and mughus often extend above that elevation.

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