Latvia 2016 – what is the land for?

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The first thing that struck me about Latvia is that there are trees as far as the eye can see and it’s rare to see a fence, except occasionally in city gardens. In a country where forest covers just over half of the land mass (and the aim is to reach 56% cover) it was interesting to be introduced to a variety of different responses to land management with different values regarding for who or what the land is for.

From our base in Līgatne Baiba Rotberga and Andis Purs from the Latvian state forest service took us on an educational adventure, giving us what felt like a unique and special insight into quite a range of subjects which I know I’d never have had access to without them. We visited foresters, a hunting lodge, a flooded bog, meadows and forests managed for biodiversity, a peat extraction site, a berry farm, a wildlife safari park and were introduced to Latvian recreation and overloaded on delicious food. Here are my highlights form the week and the topics that I found most interesting.

Forestry

In her introduction to Latvian forestry Baiba gave us a brief political history of the Lavian state and how this has influenced the landscape. The democratic parliamentary republic of Latvia was established in 1918 but in 1940 it was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union, then in 1941 suffered Nazi occupation being reoccupied but the Soviets in 1944. In 1949, during Soviet occupation, all private farms were collectivised and became state owned and marginal land was reforested. As part of the military strategy no clear cuts were allowed along the roads as these are the easiest to access in times of war. Lots of forest cover remains from the Soviet era but this is slowly changing due to globalisation. Latvia regained independence in 1991 and there is now growing private land ownership. Forests are now roughly half private and half state owned but with private ownership on the increase. The main differences between state and private forests are that state forests must grant open access and they tend to thin less (as private forests thin to encourage game). They are both under the same legislation but another difference is that there are EU subsidies available to private forests so big areas are forested for subsides and tax breaks, you don’t pay land tax if you forest trees.

Latvian forests are primarily pine, with birch coming in second then spruce. Most forest plantations are clear cuts, where all the trees are removed at once. This causes some problems such as fire safety as the young saplings burn more easily and also there is less biodiversity in these areas.

Baiba also raised an interesting question of how much forest cover people are happy to live in. Studies have shown that if the area has over 80% forest cover people find it oppressive, especially as Latvia is so flat, over 98% of the country is under 200m elevation. The aesthetic quality of the forest is something which informs public opinion on forestry which has to be accounted for in their strategy and ultimately impacts what they can do. But it’s not just the percentage cover but also forest landscape design which is important to people’s experience, a topic which is the Scottish academic Simon Bell focuses on: http://www.eca.ed.ac.uk/architecture-landscape-architecture/simon-bell

Overall the forestry policy is to manage the forests sustainably and it was interesting to learn of all the different state agents involved in delivering this policy; the ministries of agriculture, education, defence and environment. There are 29,000 hectares of research forests where state and universities are building a picture of how best to manage the land for wood production but also for biodiversity.

Demonstration forestry

I enjoyed hearing Ziedonis Vilcins’ story of how he set up his private 650 hectare demonstration forest which is providing a living example of natural tree regeneration and continual forest cover (as opposed to clear felling). He wanted to create regular income rather than quick profit from forestry by intelligently managing the land. After Latvian independence in 1991 is was possible to claim back ancestral land which is what he did, along with some additional neighbouring lands. After a while he realised that in the current framework he didn’t have time for natural forest regeneration as laws dictated that you need to thin or commercially replant, this inspired him to find a way to promote natural regeneration.

His forest demonstration project was helped when WWF started promoting forest cover and FSC certification came in. For him the FSC process was great, he gained lots of knowledge about sustainable forestry but still felt that he lacked detail on continuous cover forestry. After his experiments and continued work with WWF, he now uses the continuous cover method for most of his land and hasn’t replanted any trees for ten years! He has established 47 sample plots of spruce, birch, grey alder and pine and now his main focus is to communicate which tree species which are most suitable for a given site. He measures the annual stand density increase to find out what method gives the greatest volume increment. Ziedonis appeared to know each and every tree in the stand and have a mental map of when each trees will be ready to fell. For him, a barrier to long term thinking and a sustainable approach to forestry is that the average forest owner is poor and needs to gain money in the short term. People are also thinking in hectares rather than in single trees which is a difficult mindset to change.

Another issue he highlighted was the problem industrial scale forestry presents. In mainstream forestry the trend is towards bigger machinery. As one harvest operator replaces twenty chainsaw operators this destroys local industry. This is very hard for local people and many have left to Russia, Belarus and Ireland. This means that there are no more skilled chainsaw operators which causes problems in the forest industry. There are many overgrown stands as private forest owners want to hire harvesters but they don’t come as the areas are two small. Chainsaw operators can also make a better decisions when it comes to which tree to cut. His continuous cover method requires chainsaws as harvest operators require clearing of the undergrowth. Leaving undergrowth is better ecologically, it brings hunting potential and produces a good yield of mushrooms.

Hunting

A notable interest group in Latvia is the 21,000 active hunters who operate in private and state owned forests. I was surprised at the close and widely accepted connection between conservation and hunting. As demonstrated during our visit to the hunting lodge, as well as shooting, the hunters have an interest in helping to maintain wildlife populations and habitat and communicated their understanding of the need to support shooting quotas to maintain future populations. The main animals hunted in Latvia are; moose, red deer, roe dear, wild boar, beaver, wolf, lynx, red fox, badger, pine martin, stone martin, polecat, snow hare, brown hare, raccoon dog (non-native) and American mink (non-native).

Animal tracking

Janis taught us to open our eyes and noses as we searched for evidence of wildlife in the forests and woodlands. Learning to read the evidence that animals leave behind is an important part of the picture in ensuring that their habitats are protected as it enables you to monitor event the most secretive of animals. The highlight was finding otter scats which have a rather distinctive smell.

From the micro to the macro

Next we visited Sedas Purvs flooded bog which is an incredibly impressive wetland habitat where they boast up to 70 bird species have seen in one day. Getting to the equally impressive viewing station was quite an adventure (involving canoes and wet feet) but we made it!

Land for biodiversity

We spent the following few days with Viesturs Lārmanis whose interest in land management is focused on biodiversity rather than the wood industry, he considers himself a nature conservationist, a bridge between scientists and the public. For him, the public sees green vegetation and they think “we’re green, we don’t need to so anything” which is far from the truth. Like Ziedonis his family reclaimed their farm after the fall of the soviet union and they have since expended their land by buying neighbouring land. As well as organically farming cattle he is working on improving biodiversity of the wet meadow and park landscape on the land. Their property is located next to the Gauja river which has dramatically changed its course over the years as demonstrated by this fascinating LIDAR image from the Institute of Environmental Solutions.

The above photographs of the pasture throughout the year also show natural seasonal shifts which they don’t resist by installing drainage and is important for the ecology of the meadow.

Forest fires

Viesturs took us to Borealo mezu apsaimniekošana, the taiga forest site where he campaigned to establish a controlled forest fire regime as part of the management strategy. Boreal forests rely on fire every 50-100 years, it is the biggest driver of natural processes. Many species rely on natural forest fires such as the fire beetle who travel 10s or 100s of kilometres, even crossing the Baltic sea, so they can lay their eggs in the burnt timber. Some plants wait for fire, as their seeds only grow after being exposed to 60°C.

There was a big public discussion about this burning and he feels he ultimately lost this battle, despite having local support, because the media reported it to be unsafe which swayed decision makers. Overall despite not achieving the desired management he viewed the project as having a positive outcome that it raised the profile of environmental protection, something which is rarely reported on or seen as important in the mainstream media. Another successful outcome was that other elements of the suggested management are now happening such as leaving fallen trees for dead wood and making openings to encourage natural stand regeneration.

Land for enjoyment

We were introduced to a new and exciting way to enjoy the river Gauja and Baiba tought us a novel way of folding crisp packets!

Peat extraction

Rows and rows of freshly cut peat is quite an alarming sight first thing in the morning (or any time of day) if you have been involved in projects to mitigate climate change and restore damaged peatbogs. A sort of confused silence clung to the group as we moved from this spectacle onto the topic of berry production on the former sites of peat extraction.

A friendly lady from “Very Berry” told her us that she has the best job in the world and that her cranberries and blueberries are just delicious. She also came armed with wildlife books with markers on the pages showing which species they get here; mice, snakes, frogs, short toed owls, eagles and a whole host of other brilliant and rare species, none of which were here when it was a peat extraction site. These American cranberries do very well here and business is booming, exporting to many companies, including Tesco in the UK.

I enjoyed the tour of this small factory and getting to see the whole process from seeing cranberries growing on the ex-peat bog, juicing, bottling, freezing and finally the sales room. Despite all this the eco-credentials of this company seemed uncomfortable as, though “Very Berry” don’t cut the peat themselves (this is the work of another company) their berry production relies on destroying the peat bog. When asked how she felt about this she answered that there are lots and lots of peat bogs in Latvia and this is only 250 hectares and there are 1000 hectares surrounding.

Wildlife safari

The final stop on our journey was a chance to see Latvia’s wonderful wildlife (in captivity). It brought up the classic debates over the educational value of providing an opportunity for the public to see wild animals vs the moral question of whether it’s acceptable to keep wild animals in cages. It was hard not to be amazed by the site of five notoriously illusive lynx but in general the mood felt a lot lighter when a white backed woodpecker chose to pay us a visit. The park also had some nice interactive interpretation encourage visitors to use all their senses and inspiring ways to present information such as this tree ring timeline which I definitely plan on adopting.

It’s amazing what you can learn in a week, especially when you are with such a great group of folk! Thank you Agata, Stephen, Melissa, Stuart and Rea for a wonderful trip, to Libby for making it possible and to Baiba and Andis for looking after us, it’s clear how much thought and energy you put in.

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