Updated: Aug 30, 2019
At the start of September, I was fortunate enough to take advantage of one of the many benefits of being part of the European Union. Through the Erasmus + programme I took part in an Arch Network nature exchange to Latvia. As an employee of a conservation organisation in Scotland, I am grateful to have access to such an opportunity. Though only a short trip, we packed in a great amount of learning excursions. The following is an overview of the trip and some of my reflections on the countries approach to wildlife conservation and land management.
Latvia is one of the Baltic States of the former Soviet Union. It became independent in 1991 and joined the European Union in 2003. Bordering, Lithuania, Estonia, Belarus and Russia it is c65, 000km2 with a population of c.1.9million. This means the population density is 30 people/km2 by comparison to 69 people/km2 in Scotland.
The first stop in exploring the management of the natural environment was Kemeri National Park. One of only 4 National Parks in the country, Kemeri is also one of the most visited due to its proximity to the countries capital, Riga. Kemeri is synonymous with bogs. Much of Latvia’s land is below 100m above sea level creating the perfect conditions for water to accumulate and form a complex of mires. Historic drainage of the bogs is now being restored with funding through the EU in a LIFE+ project. As well as active restoration of the bogs, the hydrology in other areas is being restored for the benefit of other habitats such as floodplain meadows, a habitat which has been degraded through the straightening of rivers and losing the natural processes.
The aims of the EU Funded LIFE+ project “Restoring the hydrological regime of Ķemeri National Park were as follows:
-Restoration of raised bog in the surroundings of the former peat quarry in Zaļais Bog
-Restoration of bog woodland and swamp forests along the western margin of Ķemeri Raised Bog
-Re-meandering of the straightened Skudrupīte River, restoration of floodplain meadows
The next location was Kuja Forest, under the management of Latvian State Forest Service (LVM- Latvijas valsts meži). This large expanse of forest is surrounded by a landscape shaped by the former Soviet Union, collective farms. These vast agricultural areas were formed by the consolidation of multiple holdings to create larger areas for agricultural production. Their legacy is one of open plains with integrated hedgerows. Yet in this landscape there is abundance of wildlife to be seen. The grasslands were alive with butterflies. White-tailed eagles nesting in the adjacent forest forage over the open land. Lesser spotted eagles and marsh harriers can also be seen. But it is these open landscapes contrasting with the dense forest which create an arena for wolves to howl. All along the forest edge were signs of these large carnivores. The forest is also a hotspot for hunting with boar and moose as frequent quarry.
Lake Lubāns and its surrounding wetland complex is the largest inland water body in Latvia. It provides a veritable feast of wetland birds. As well as being protected by EU Law it is designated under the Ramsar convention as a site of international significance for its water birds. In summer it is notable for its breeding great snipe and corncrake. During the winter months it provides a resting place for over 26,000 waterfowl, including large flocks of bewicks swans. Large predators also roam with bears, lynx and one the country’s most important wolf populations. It is no surprise then that we humans too make use of the treasures offered by the wetlands. They are a rich larder for a variety of fish, a destination for wildlife tourism and a spot for quiet reflection or a wild swim in a bog pool.
On the final day of the trip we visited Krastini Farm, in the Gauja Natonal Park, where we were most warmly welcomed. The farm, which has been part of the same family for over a hundred years, has seen considerable changes over time. Historically, low intensity agriculture, with grazing animals was prevalent. This low intensity grazing of domesticated animals created habitats representative of the open and dynamic forests that once covered much of Europe and were grazed by large wild herbivores. However, during the Soviet era agricultural practises changed and the grazing was reduced and there was a drive for more forestry. Despite these change remnants of a historic landscape remained. It is these features which are now being restored to a habitat known as wooded meadow, the equivalent to what is known as wood pasture in the UK.
This habitat is of high conservation value. The grasslands have been known to be very species rich with examples of over 60 species herbaceous plants found in one area of only 25m2. Some very old trees have managed to survive and with them maintain some of the specialist species which have adapted to living in decaying wood. One of the more emblematic species is the Osmoderma eremita or hermit Beetle which is listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List. It is endemic to Europe and is entirely dependent on veteran trees as it lives in the decaying heartwood. Krastini Farm is one of only the 10 sites that have been identified as an area suitable for the conservation of this species in the country. There are estimated to be only 500 trees with Osmoderma present in Latvia. As well as witnessing a re-invigoration of the landscape we were also treated to the most delicious lunch followed by homemade honey and jam.
Latvia has in place many of the similar processes and structures which affect wildlife and land management in the UK. For example, they have similar institutional organisation, with a State Forest Service and State Nature Conservation body, which both enforce and promote positive management of wildlife & land. They too are governed by EU law, in particular the EU Habitats & Birds Directive, which is the legislative underpinning for much of the wildlife conservation focus in the country.
Wildlife conservation and management is not without its challenges. In particular a huge amount of work is being done to restore the countries important bogs. These are both hugely important for wildlife but also for global climate change in their ability to capture and store vast amounts of carbon. However, some projects have been hampered by the impacts of beaver. The result is that the beaver population is heavily hunted due to its unrestricted status but evidence suggests that the population is still robust to support high levels of harvesting.
Latvia also borders many other countries with similar habitats so when thinking about scale, there are large continuous areas, particularly of forest cover, whereby species can move through the landscape. This of course presents its challenges with regards to monitoring and hunting of species but it does mean that species which need large territories, such as lynx and wolves, can be more dynamic in their distribution.
At over 50% forest cover Latvia is one of the most forested countries in Europe. It appears to live more harmoniously with its wildlife. Noticeable is the extent of fruit bearing apple trees and allotments adjacent to so many settlements. Hunting is much more engrained as part of the culture but so is fishing, foraging and managing forests for multiple uses. That said much of the country is still heavily managed and hugely shaped by the actions of man. A downside of this with respect of forest habitats is that much of the land has some sort of disturbance, although there are some strictly protected reserves. This constant disturbance results in a lack of diverse woodland structures, old habitats or the peace and quiet needed for the more sensitive species.
Latvia's expansive forest cover provides abundant opportunity to see habitats and species which are unlike those found in UK.I would recommend a visit to anyone who has a love for the outdoor life. It is a place of inspiration from a woodland point of view and a great place to see a whole host of forest plants and animals. What is most striking is peoples connection to the forest, whether that’s through hunting, forestry or other types of recreation. I live in hope that the UK will again become more connected to our environment and strive to conserve it.
A huge thank you to Erasmus + and Arch Network for funding and co-ordinating the trip. An extra thanks to the Latvian State Forest Service, in particular Andis Purs our star host, who showed us the real Latvia.
A story map, co-authored by the whole group, gives more detail on each aspect of the trip
Visit Arch Network for more information on the programme.