Day one began with a journey from the airport at Poznan to Slonsk and the headquarters of the Ujscie Warty National Park. There we met the Park Director, Konrad Wypychowski, and were given a number of presentations on the administration and history of nature conservation in Poland, as well as an introduction to the habitats and species of the National Park.
The context for nature conservation in Poland differs considerably from that of Scotland in terms of administrative structure. The tiers of administration include 16 Voyvodships (provinces) down to 2479 communities. This appears to result in more local decision making on some aspects of land management. Poland has 23 National Parks and these offer a very high level of protection across nearly 10% of the country.
Ujscie Warty National Park is now 14 years old and was established in 2001 in an existing Landscape Park (a designation with less stringent controls). However, the area’s importance has been recognised since 1977 when the Slonsk Reserve was established and through designation as a RAMSAR site in 1984. After entry into the EU, the area was designated as a Natura 2000 site. The area is an amazingly rich wetland mosaic comprising polders, reedbeds and meadows with remnants of carr forest. A large area of the National Park floods regularly resulting in a semi-natural wetland system with annual water level fluctuations of up to 4 meters. At the time of our visit the area was extremely dry but at its maximum height in the spring, large areas of the Park are underwater, causing some real management challenges in terms of access and maintaining visitor infrastructure. However, it is the river that gives the area its rich variety of habitats. The northern polder is separated from the Warta River by a levee and the water level here is lower and more controlled.
This area is slightly more intensively managed. In the evening Konrad showed us some of the habitats near to the Park headquarters and the importance of grazing management in the area. The relationship with farmers was clearly important but difficult because of the fact that the breakup of large state owned farms after 1989 left farmland abandoned. Reinstating and managing grazing and tailoring water management systems to suit the nature conservation interests is a challenge and priority for the National Park.
Early the next morning we went to a tall viewing platform to assist in some coordinated mammal surveys that take place in the NP. Although the drought prevented the abundance of many mammals or birds, there were still a number of sightings of raptors and passerines that were not typically seen in Scotland. In particular, we had excellent views of golden oriole, red-backed shrike and marsh harrier. Most memorably, we were treated to amazing views of a beaver carrying its kit along the track – despite beavers being common in the area this was something Konrad had never seen. After breakfast we continued to a reserve managed and owned by a small community NGO. The NGO owned a small museum and learning facility on the site and engaged with the local community, schools and tourists. The reserve comprises xerothermic and species rich grasslands, which are managed to preserve their distinctive flora on the south facing slopes.
This involved a regular and rigorous grazing regime with sheep and goats to prevent scrub encroachment. The xerothermic meadows were particularly interesting as they are very different to grassland in Scotland and were full of plant and insect life. However, the grazing management appeared very concentrated and to be having quite severe impacts on the vegetation, although the management approach was unclear and may have involved intensive grazing for a short period on rotation. Finally we returned to the museum to sample some of the cheese produced by the NGO at the site. This is sold to raise money for the charity and was a really good local product that was lined to the nature conservation management of the site. Later that evening we returned to the tower for a further three hours of mammal counts and again had good views of several bird species including white tailed eagle and marsh harrier but few mammal sightings as a big storm was approaching. We were treated to a dramatic thunder and lightening storm across the wetlands before the count was called off as a result of the weather.
Conclusions and Recommendations
This introduction to National Parks in Poland demonstrated that they are more clearly driven by conservation priorities that those in Scotland, offering a level of protection and control greater than that in Natura sites, which are a relatively new designation given Poland’s entry in the EU in 2004. While National Parks have clear conservation priorities, they still face significant management challenges, indeed this might be exacerbated by the fact there appeared to be little history of engaging local land managers actively in the Park management – something that Konrad was clearly addressing. As ever with wetland systems, grazing and water management were critical issues and made more challenging by historic changes in land tenure and European funding. The impact of the current drought showed just how susceptible this area could be to a changing climate and this could become more of an issue in the future. However, the Park is obviously a fantastically rich wetland area, of importance in both the breeding season and the winter months. Some visitor infrastructure existed and the viewing towers are an excellent way to appreciate the extent of the habitats and get good views of much of the wildlife. However, this could be even more effective with further information on the wildlife of the area and explanation for the visitor on land management and the importance of the connection with the river.