Report from an ARCH exchange visit to Latvia
Funded by the Erasmus+ programme
and warmly hosted by the State Forest Service of Latvia
We would like to thank our hosts, Baiba Rotberga and Andis Purs for their kindness, generosity and especially their patience as they led us on our tour of their beautiful country. We are also grateful to everyone who guided us and made presentations at the many sites we visited on our trip: Dr Janis Ozolins, Janis Kuze, Janis Baumanis, Janis the Forester, Janis Padure, Gita Strode, Viesturs Dreimanis, The Institute of Environmental Solutions, and the Kuldiga Regional Office of the State Forest Service. Our study tour to Latvia was funded by Erasmus+ and took place under the auspices of ARCH who write and manage the exchange programme.
Andis talks beavers at Kandava…
Effect of cultural and political history on forests in Latvia and comparison with Scotland
Alison Austin, John Muir Trust
If I thought about what I hoped to glean from this visit to Latvia before we departed I believe I was thinking from a scientific land management perspective. I was thinking about forest ecosystems, including top predators and keystone species, such as beaver and lynx, that have been reintroduced or suggested for reintroduction in Scotland. I hoped to learn about how the landscape looked and was shaped by having a more extensive network of linked woodland cover with these species as an important part of the forest ecosystems.
What I found myself drawn to as the week went on was the story of the history of landownership and land use in Latvia, the way in which forestry plays an important role in the economy of the country and how the people of Latvia view, visit and interact with the woodland and wildlife in their country.
There are many differences as is only to be expected in a country with a very different cultural and political past. I found it particularly thought provoking how that history has shaped the habitats and ecosystems that exist and how they function.
History of land ownership
A number of places that we stayed in or visited on our tour of the country were old ‘manor houses’ most of which needed various degrees of repair and development. They ranged from state owned and run as a hostel and health centres to privately owned. These manor houses are the remnants of large estates or landholdings in 1700’s and 1800’s. Upon the establishment of the 1st independent state of Latvia in 1918 much of the land associated with these manors was nationalised by state land reform and redistributed to a number of smaller landowners/farmers . Consequently the owners without income from large tracts of land were often unable to upkeep these properties and abandoned them or sold them to the state.
Our first base at Krimulda, by Sigulda
It appears that in the 1700’s and 1800’s there was a similar pattern to much of Highland Scotland with large landowners/estates owning large tracts of land. This pattern still exists to a certain extent in Scotland today. In Scotland the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 long with the update in 2016 has given local communities rights to purchase land like this but as a bottom up approach allowing communities the initiative rather than in Latvia where the state took the lead.
As a result in some ways Scotland is far behind Latvia in what was a redistribution of property, land and ultimately income/wealth. However with that redistribution comes fragmentation of land into smaller compartments which creates more difficulties to overcome when looking at landscape scale management over a wide range of landowners with a number of different objectives. It did lead me to wonder what the present situation of land ownership and management would be like in Latvia without the intervening years of occupation during WW2 and soviet rule.
At the turn of this century 30% of Latvia was forested which reduced to 27% immediately post WW1 due to timber demand. In comparison Scotland’s woodland cover was reduced to a paltry 4% post WW1. Both countries carried out a programme of afforestation immediately post WW1 with Latvia increasing forest cover to 50% of the country ( 3,227,950 ha) by WW2 and Scotland increased its cover to around 14% of the country (1,121,078ha).This difference could partly be a result of the amount of land owned by the state. Today Forestry Commission Scotland own 9% of Scotland (about 30% of our woodland) whereas the Latvian government own about 27% of Latvia (50% of their woodland) giving them more scope to carry out aims and objectives at a larger landscape scale.
During occupation in 1940 all land was nationalised and from 1949-1950 this evolved into total collectivisation. As part of this political history many families and communities were moved to fulfil roles designated to them by the occupying government. As a consequence many agricultural areas were abandoned and woodland regeneration meant that these areas were often reclaimed by the forest. They often reverted to scrub broadleaf woodland in contrast to the state owed forests of Scots Pine and Norway Spruce managed for timber resource. Between 1950’s and 90’s there were many changes imposed upon on the nationalised land from building, afforestation, water/drainage management to nature conservation.
After Latvia’s independence from soviet rule in 1990 a land reform act was established to allow historical owners of land or their heirs to reclaim private land. This has been complicated by changes in the land where previous agricultural land is now forestry or where nature protection designations have been established. Sometimes this involves a process of exchanging an original claim in return for equivalent or alternative land in a different location with no restrictions.
In the present day there is quite a difference in the amount of woodland/forest cover, the population and the pattern of landownership and size of parcels of land owned by private owners between Scotland and Latvia. This has created an interesting parallel between 2 countries of similar size with potentially similar habitats and ecosystems
Forest scenes on tour
Another major difference is in the average size of the parcels of privately owned land. In Latvia 60% of the land under private ownership is in parcels of less than 20 ha. In Highland Scotland privately owned land is generally distributed between larger estates and fewer owners with a popular quote being that 50% of Scotland is owned by 432 individuals.
From a State Forest Service Fire Observation Tower
From the above table it is clear that Latvian government holds more of the countries more extensive woodland cover than in Scotland, which gives it more opportunity to manage the woodland at a landscape scale and allow for different objectives. Whilst their main aim is to manage the woodlands productively for timber income there appears to be plenty of scope for restricted sections; for example for capercaillie management or beaver habitat which minimise the timber income potential. One State Forest District Manager when questioned about woodland dying from waterlogging due to beaver activity felt there was enough woodland for all some for the beavers and some for the foresters and there was no conflict. In contrast private forest owners dispute this and claim that the drains needed constant unblocking and local hunting groups needed incentives to hunt more beaver to reduce damage to the woodland income. This will be in part due to the much smaller parcels of land owned by private landowners who wish to make their individual portion financially productive.
Beaver dam-created wetlands
What I hadn’t expected was that nearly all woodland was managed or the result of past management. There is nearly no ‘native’ woodland that has not been shaped by past human management in Latvia.
Grazing impacts appear to be restricted to commercial damage to timber as a resource with natural regeneration occurring on any abandoned agricultural land fairly easily.
There are private management agreements between landowners and hunting groups to control deer, beaver, hunt wolf etc. on their land. These agreements include numbers, ages and target areas around key agricultural fields adjacent/within forest. This set up works well for private and state forestry keeping browsing under control and allowing hunters to access the woodland for game and recreation hunting of large predators. In this way the government targets for most game animals are met. It appears that the set limit for deer are often not met which may have the effect of allowing an increasing browsing forestry.
Hunting in Latvia follows a different style to Scotland with local hunting groups setting up high seats and cutting/brashing a line to shoot while members of the hunting group driving animals to the hunters on the high seats. This connection between local communities and their neighbouring land gives the community a better insight into land management needs and impacts as they need to meet landowners objectives to get the right to hunt. This may include agreements to shoot beaver and destroy beaver dams on a stretch of drainage as part of the hunting agreement. In Scotland most local communities are excluded from the connection and understanding of effects and impacts on forest and open land and therefore are less aware of the effects of high populations of deer on the land and less connected directly to hunting and potential access to game meat. This is a result of our cultural history of industrial revolution, depopulation of the highland and clearances of people from the land for sheep farming in 1700 and 1800’s. It would be really worthwhile if landowners ( community, NGO’s and private) found a way of connecting local communities to the game perhaps linked to hind shooting allowing access to game and connection to land. However without the established networks and experience it may be a long and costly action to rekindling a common approach/experience to hunting seen in much of Europe.
Deer management in private and state forestry
A system of nature protection very similar to Scotland has emerged with a number of designated or protected sites over pinned by EU designations. This often leads to a series of restrictions on use to protect existing habitats or species with compensation to landowners rather than a system with grants for active management for nature /biodiversity objectives. However what is clear is that with this much woodland it appears possible to operate commercial economic timber production across a wide range of woodland with community involvement in the form of hunting groups and the presence of large predators including wolf and lynx without the need to fence commercial woodland. The scale appears to be the main limiting factor. Something I believe Scotland would struggle to replicate with less linked up woodland cover, a diverse range of landowners with their own objectives and micro management of individual portions of land.
In Scotland many feel our open moorlands are important part of our cultural heritage and that the attractiveness of our country is dependent on maintaining open uplands. It is very much a culturally shaped argument much as the Latvians feel the forests are important to them both economically, and culturally for hunting and berry/mushroom picking. A high level of forest cover is part of their cultural identity. 80% of Latvians visit the forest for hunting or berry/mushroom picking and they want to protect and maintain the forest which is part of their cultural history.
Rich fungi findings
In Scotland we have mostly lost the connection to the land for the average person to be involved in hunting or gathering berries/mushrooms from the forest. However the Forestry Commission has a much stronger objective than in Latvia for encouraging and supporting communities to connect with woodland leading to sale of remote parcels of FC land under Community Asset Transfer Scheme. While we have lost many of the traditional connections with woodland due to industrialisation, depopulation of rural areas in 1800’s and reduction in woodland to 4% of the country pre WW1 there is a rapidly growing culture of woodland recreation including camping, walking and mountain biking. Hunting with a camera and collecting experiences rather hunting wild animals and collecting berries/mushrooms. There could be room for both and it would be worthwhile to re-establish the traditions of gathering forest products
Ultimately in a land with similar though not identical climate (we are a wetter oceanic climate) and many similar habitats or potential habitats (though no mountain habitats in Latvia) it is clear that the resulting habitat network in both countries is controlled by history of land ownership and cultural heritage rather than nature/ecology principal. Latvian habitats benefit from the high amount of state owned land which allows for significant rewilding projects; something that takes far longer in this country with higher private land ownership and traditional farming and sporting activities which feel threatened by nature conservation or rewilding actions. State ownership allowed an impressive rewilding project in the Dunderis meadow where a canalised river system is being re-meandered to create mosaic of wetland and woodland with konic horse and heck cattle mimicking ancient grazing regimes. These grazers use the forest edge for shelter but don’t move all the way through and wolf packs roam the forest and open land as part of an impressive semi-wild ecosystem needing low to no human intervention and no need to micromanager to protect individual habitats/species. What is similar in this rewilding story with Scotland was the local fear of change and opposition to a project that may have threatened towns and communities with flooding. After 2 years of community meetings, extensive hydro modelling and in the end the fact that the state owned enough land to make it feasible with a buffer zone with drainage to protect housing the project has been able to move forward with impressive results. The main limiting factor being the landowner ( in this case the state) and the large size of the piece of land allowing landscape scale management to prevail.
Some unexpected consequences of the social and political upheaval over the years has been to create pockets (both in time and space) for different habitats and species to thrive. Wetlands that were protected hunting reserves for members of the soviet management elite have ended up being protected RAMSAR sites with thriving wetland ecosystems. After the fall of the soviet regime when the new Latvian state was under upheaval there was a reduction in people hunting. Wolf populations increased, as did beaver populations which used the effective system of drains put in for forest management. In this way beavers dispersed over much wider are than perhaps they would have done and the population increased dramatically. This population boom has been difficult to get back under control partly because there is a much lower demand and therefore economic incentive to hunt beaver for their pelts. Beaver hunting is generally controlled as part of a hunting groups agreement with landowner for permission to hunt.
ln Latvia I saw much to be celebrated, admired and replicated if possible. I came away with a wish to see hunting as an opportunity for all to be established to generate a connection with food and forest for more of our population. On Ben Nevis Estate, which I manage for John Muir Trust, we have contracts with three stalkers to stalk on our land (which some do in their time of from their day jobs) in exchange for venison. ln this way we meet our deer cull target and these individuals have access to venison. lf this could be offered to more with supportive hunting groups to allow new people to learn, as in Latvia, the benefits could be shared more widely.
A view of the nature protection system and practices in Latvia
Crispin Hill, Scottish Natural Heritage
Firstly, thanks very much to ARCH, and to Baiba and Andis of the State Forest Service for funding and organising this trip. It was a stimulating and interesting week for all concerned, and clearly a lot of work had been put into it.
Protected Areas… We all know of them, we all have them, and some of us love ‘em. The list of acronyms for them stretches off into the far distance: SSSIs, ASSIs, AONBs, LNRs, SPAs, NNRs, SACs (and its offspring, dSACs, pSACs, cSACs), NVZs, MNRs, ESAs, GCCRs, MPAs. Rightly or wrongly (these days there is considerable argument about this) they form a fundamental pillar around which much conservation-related work revolves. They are also expensive to maintain and manage; and for this and other reasons such as the rise of the ‘ecosystem services’ approach to conservation, re-wilding, and the realisation that these protected areas are all too frequently becoming isolated ecological ‘islands’, there is a growing body of conservationists pushing to evolve, advance or even dismantle this long-established conservation tool.
My work in Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) revolves almost entirely around Protected Areas, and a small sub-set within this area of work, namely Natura sites. These are the sites (SPAs, SACs and their numerous procedurally-related cousins) set up by the EU through the influential ‘Birds’ and ‘Habitats’ Directives 37 and 25 years ago respectively. One of my main drives in coming to Latvia was to see how others protect their nature, and look both for similarities in how things were done, and for differences, and Natura sites would be a clear link between the two countries. I felt both similarities and differences could be interesting, especially as apart from a year-long sojourn in the USA some years ago, where I found their continental-scale approach to hunting and conservation very interesting, the UK is all I have known of Protected Areas.
Of course when you go looking at something like this you need to know the background and context to properly make sense of what you’re examining, and Latvia is naturally very different to Scotland and the UK. It is a country of just 1.9 million people with 900,000 in Riga; and at a national level it has one of the lowest densities of population in the EU. This lack of a long history of industrialisation appeared to us to have resulted in the present population maintaining a greater degree of connection with their natural heritage than in the far more industrialised UK. This is evidenced through the large numbers of licenced hunters in Latvia as well as the widespread mushroom and berry picking that occurs in the countryside. I have to admit I initially thought this was a bit of spin to convince us how the Latvians were ‘into’ their surrounding environments, but as the week went on it became abundantly clear from the numbers of people we regularly spotted searching the forests and road verges – basket in hand – for mushrooms, that this was still a genuine trait amongst Latvians, including Rigans, who would leave town singly or in groups at the weekends at this time of year to collect mushrooms
Latvia has always had a considerable forest resource; and used to have a forest cover of 27% in 1925, while in 2015 it had 52% and rising (mostly due to abandonment of farms and the subsequent encroachment of trees onto agricultural land). Forestry is the biggest export and one of the largest sectors in the country. Geographically, the highest point of the country is just c.360m asl, with the majority below 100m. The climate is not wildly different, though the summers are warmer and the winters colder, with less rain than most of Scotland receives. Within the broad socio-economic framework here a crucial element is a long history of foreign occupation by Germans and Swedes, but most recently by the USSR which lasted up until 1991. The Soviet occupation from 1919 and its sudden collapse both led to great changes within the Latvian conservation landscape.
Some hang-overs from the Soviet decades still seem to exist with an impressive array of State agencies all involved in forestry and / or conservation. The one that seemed closest to SNH in function was the Nature Conservation Agency although it only had a staff of 120, which might partly be explained by the fact that we were told by Gita Strode, one of the Directors, that historically nature protection was carried out through the State forestry service agencies. It was clear from the week that the Forest agencies are still a key player in Latvian conservation. The Nature Conservation Agency seemed to manly be an advisory, data gathering, and monitoring body who are there to provide a balanced, neutral view on conservation matters. We were told of their insufficient resources, with not enough experts to fill vacancies sometimes and political ‘shenanigans’. Another result of the recent emergence of a smaller-state in Latvia was the relative paucity and poverty of the NGOs in the country. The ex-head of the WWF there told us that many people still believe the Government will sort things out for them, and that NGOs were therefore not just recent, but small and poorly-supported. This is something we take for granted in Scotland; NGOs are rarely well-off, but several have strong and valuable voices and this is I believe, to be encouraged.
The system of nature protection in Latvia has many similarities with Scotland as well as significant differences. During Soviet times there were many nature reserves scattered around, but a considerable number of these were created as they were also prime hunting grounds for Communist party officials. Indeed we visited one at Lake Kanieris; A stunning, huge freshwater lake and wetland area near the coast to the west of Riga, which had also been drained at the beginning of the 20th century before the futility of this was acknowledged and it was re-inundated to become a hunting centre
Freshwater wetlands close to the Baltic Sea, Kemeri National Park
There were waterfowl and waders aplenty, and we quickly spotted marsh harriers and white-tailed eagle from the viewing tower as well as a lone, local fisherman (only fishing is allowed, no hunting). The combination of reedbeds, open water, small islets, and a low-hanging sun created a jewelled effect on the water off into the distance. Spectacular!
Latvia became a member of the EU in 2004 and at that point needed to start the designation of SPAs and SACs. Not surprisingly perhaps given the pressures and resources required for designation, the Latvian Natura 2000 network is based upon older pre-existing designated sites, so all Natura sites in Latvia are underpinned by national designations, this has had some benefits in consistency of application of the legislative requirements. Scotland on the other hand has most Natura sites underpinned by SSSI status, but there are sufficient inconsistencies to create occasional headaches. There are significant differences in ownership of land, not surprisingly given the Soviet history. The State owns c.38% of protected areas in Latvia, compared to c.12% in Scotland. This difference almost inevitably leads to changes in mind-set, culture, and the ability to implement actions and management etc.
Gita explained that there were several lessons learnt / to be learnt from the rush to designate Natura sites. Foremost she said the State “ran too fast”, that there was little in the way of discussions or consultation at the time, and since then they have received many complaints from land owners in particular who do not know why they can’t do certain things to the land they own or manage. There seemed a strong hint that this was an ongoing problem and a drain on resources, and that if they could do things again they would ensure far more discourse with stakeholders.
Much as there is in Scotland there are also many other designations in Latvia. Protected Landscape Areas; these existed before EU entry; they are not Natura sites but are protected as such, which can add to the confusion and resentment already mentioned. Gita said there was also a dearth of landscape specialists within Latvia at the moment too, which was a concern for them. National Parks; these curiously were mostly privately owned and the Nature Conservation Agency (and Forestry agencies) didn’t have a strong role in these areas. Nature parks; which are areas containing zoning as a key feature and different parks have different restrictions which Gita said has also led to some confusion especially around the naming of these areas. One particularly interesting designation, and one that Bea goes into in her report in far more detail was the ‘Microreserve’. These are small reserves that can be nominated by members of the public to protect a species (or less commonly a habitat). This is discussed in far more detail in Bea Ayling’s report. This designation can stop activities from happening, as well as occasionally requiring management measures. Landowners can be compensated for not doing work, but can’t be paid to do actions, and there is some evidence of the designation being used / abused in the planning system. There are also a small number of strict nature reserves where public access is not generally allowed and hunting is prohibited, something that is not the case in Scotland.
We were also shown a couple of examples of Natura site plans which I found particularly interesting as this is something I am helping out on at the moment in SNH. They were in Latvian, but talking to Gita they had been written by the Nature Conservation Agency for particular sites, and were huge documents with considerable volumes of management details and actions for the habitats and species protected by them. Not like the intended plans we have in SNH.
Finally there is a major national undertaking called ‘Project Nature Census’ running from 2016 to 2020. Funded by EU LIFE + this is an attempt to estimate habitat distribution and quality across Latvia to produce a national inventory of habitats of EU importance by digitising the data and analysing the resulting data. Part of this is to also produce five national multi-species management plans (e.g. for owls, and for seals). There is a unified, though relatively labour-intensive methodology with the country divided into 495 square mapping units and field samples being performed by experts armed with checklists to record the habitats found. There is a quality control performed on 10% of the areas surveyed. Again a shortage of the relevant experts was cited as a problem for the Agency in completing this work. Still, at the end of the project Gita anticipated a vital set of ‘baseline’ figures from which other work, monitoring and reporting could emanate.
Overall it was a fascinating insight into the successes and tribulations of the Latvian protected area system; it’s birth after the end of Communism to its accelerated march upon EU entry. Just as interesting were the societal and cultural differences in attitudes and from history, both amongst the public and those working for the state, as well as the similarities that the Nature Conservation Agency and the related Forestry agencies – who all spent a so much time talking to us and answering questions from us that we were almost permanently slightly late – experience to us in SNH.
Micro reserves in Latvia
Bea Ayling, RSPB Scotland
Having fairly recently joined the EU in 2004, Latvia has opted to retain its previous nature conservation legislation from the 1970’s Soviet era, alongside the newer EU legislation. This older legislation allows the designation of ‘Micro-reserves’ (for biotopes and species) which are specially protected nature areas, mainly designated to stop or limit development or forestry management around sensitive wildlife areas.
On Day 2 of our Latvia trip, we visited the offices of the Nature Protection Agency in Sigulda within the Gaujas National Park where Director, Gita Strode, outlined Latvia’s nature protection system and practices in Latvia as well as information about the country-wide nature census. Micro-reserves were a common topic discussed throughout the week by representatives of the State Forest Service and the Nature Protection Agency and opinions on how functional they are were mixed.
My role within the RSPB includes responding to planning applications and providing advice and I found the designation of micro-reserves a fascinating way to provide a level of protection for nature, despite some implementation issues.
How the designation process works?
There is an agreed list of species and biotopes (some are also Annex 1 but others are not), that micro-reserves can be designated to provide protection for. These include capercaillie lek sites and the nests of black stork, lesser spotted eagle, white tailed eagle and various species of woodpeckers and owls.
A micro-reserve for white tailed eagle near Kuldiga, Latvia. The nest is in the top of the far tree in the centre right of the photo.
The State Forestry Service is responsible for designating micro-reserves on forested land and the Nature Protection Agency is responsible for designating micro-reserves on other habitats such as meadows, marine areas etc.
Once one of these sites has been identified (by forest inventory staff, ornithologists or the public), the land owner and municipality must be informed and an expert from the NPA will need to provide evidence and agree that a micro-reserve should be set up within one month. The decision is made taking into account socio-economic and nature considerations, and questions such as ‘is the biotope sustainable into the future?’ or ‘are the owner’s rights significantly affected?’ need to be answered. They can also be designated within Natura2000 sites.
Landowners have the right to claim compensation for the restriction to economic activities in micro-reserves. This is currently €44 per hectare for agriculture and €140 per hectare for forestry. This is paid annually. This compensation can be lost if landowners are found not to comply with any management prescriptions requested by the expert. This compensation is not available to the State Forestry Service and is responsible for creating and maintaining micro-reserves on state owned land. Therefore the process within SFS is self-regulated.
Micro-reserves are protected in perpetuity until the site no longer supports the original species it was set up to protect – for example, if the nest becomes no longer suitable or is abandoned due to natural causes such as a storm causing a tree containing a nest to fall. Again, this needs to be determined by an expert. The number of micro-reserves are therefore growing every year.
On State Forest Service land there are over 2000 micro-reserves (1.2% of the forest area), of which over half are for bird protection (52% of them are for capercaille, 12% for black stork and 10% for lesser spotted eagle which are ‘umbrella’ species); and the rest are specially protected habitats for plants and insects.
Distribution of micro-reserves in Latvia
What do micro-reserves look like on the ground?
The nest or lek site in question is the centre point of the micro-reserve.
If it is an aquatic site, there is a certain radius of restriction around the nest depending on species.
If a terrestrial site, e.g. a black stork nest within a forest, 5-30ha around the nest is protected as the micro-reserve and up to 100ha around the nest is a buffer zone for the reserve. Forest management would be allowed within the buffer zone and within new growth areas of the micro-reserve in autumn/winter but not the old growth.
For capercaillie leks, the design of micro-reserves is depicted in the photo below.
3ha around the lek, known as the lek centre, is protected within a wider 20ha area which is the micro-reserve. A buffer zone is also implemented within a wider 300ha ‘lek area’, which is up to 1km from the lek centre.
Slide produced by Elmars Peterhofs, Latvia’s State Forests, showing micro-reserve structure for capercaillie leks
Pros and cons of micro-reserves
Janis Kuze from the Nature Protection Agency is running a project to find all lesser spotted eagle nests in Latvia and designate them as micro-reserves as ensures protection of the nest and the surrounding area, including grasslands where they can hunt.
Janis believes that the system has improved over the years and works well, however he thinks it could not be implemented nowadays and is a relic of the old system.
Private landowners do not like the scheme despite being able to claim compensation. Many cases go to court but the landowner always loses. There have been some cases of nests being destroyed before the micro-reserve is designated.
Long-term management is rarely undertaken or followed up on private land despite the threat of losing compensation payments. It is the responsibility of the expert from the Nature Protection Agency to prescribe management activities but these are only suggestions and are not mandatory. Moreover, there is no money in the NPA to ensure the management is undertaken or monitored, therefore many micro-reserves lose their value. However on SFS land, there is internal system control and management is undertaken. As part of a project on capercaillie to stop population decline, they have used the opportunity to restore the hydrological regime in some forestry areas and have closed some drainage ditches, creating better capercaillie habitat, by opening up forest and slowing tree growth providing better feeding and new lekking areas.
There is no calibration or qualification process for experts from the NPA that approve the licences for micro-reserves. There are many experts and there have been lots of cases of inconsistency as most only give advice once or twice a year.
When removing the designation, there is no review period and relies on an expert to say whether the area is still important and it is generally down to the landowner to report it. In some cases, nests are known to disappear unexpectedly but there is no evidence to prosecute. There have been examples of deliberate arson to destroy nests but no prosecutions have followed. Conversely, if the original species has disappeared, the expert will likely find another species to help maintain it, providing protection in that area for the future.
Finally, designation of micro-reserves is used in the planning system. If micro-reserves are close to villages or towns they can be used to try and impede development. For example, there is a case currently in court where a local eNGO applied for a micro-reserve to be designated but it was refused. The eNGO is fighting a development in an area that the municipality has set aside for development, but is also an important area for nature. The case continues.
Nature Conservation in Latvia – Protecting vs Rewilding?
Alan McDonnell, Trees for Life
Before joining the ARCH trip to Latvia, one of the things I was most interested in was the Latvians’ overall approach to looking after nature. My experience of nature conservation here in Scotland has left me feeling that we get as much wrong as we get right because conversations about what our society wants from nature tend to either only involve one point of view at a time or end in slanging matches. What has Latvia done differently and what could we learn from that?
Familiar Ground: Designation and Regulation
One of my first thoughts was ‘this is going to be an easy comparison to make – they’ve made all the same mistakes we have!’ The system of nature conservation legislation explained to us was a familiar story of a domestic layer of laws and protected areas, overlain by European and international protection in the shape of Natura 2000 and Ramsar designations. The domestic, ‘microreserve’ system sounded like it is often mired in legal disputes about restrictions on economic activity between conservationists and land managers. The Latvian Nature Conservation Agency is left stuck in the middle, manfully trying to arbitrate between experts hired on either side of the dispute. The agency’s resources are stretched across a wide range of duties given to it by government anyway, so the drain of continuing legal battles must be debilitating.
We were also shown some of the Nature Conservation Agency’s management plans for Natura 2000 sites. These tend to be large documents, often containing detailed prescriptions for habitat and species management on specific SACs and SPAs. Considerable expertise, effort and care has gone into these documents, but if there aren’t enough resources to implement the management they call for, how much time will pass before they go out of date, especially for open ground habitats and species being affected by natural succession?
Echoes of the UK system’s familiar shortcomings were clear. In Scotland, SNH’s Protected Areas Review highlighted similar issues to those above, but also goes onto conclude that trying to protect nature through protected areas alone is bound to fail in the long run, at least in Scotland. Even if the network of largely disconnected areas protected from deliberate land use change is as well managed as it can be, nature simply needs more land in which to wax, wane and wax anew than the UK’s SSSIs and Natura sites can ever offer.
Maybe rewilding is the answer? We met a lot of skilled and highly knowledgeable naturalists, hunters and foresters in Latvia (most of them are called Janis), but the most humbling day for me was when we visited Kemeri National Park. We began by visiting Lake Kanieris, a large freshwater lake and wetland complex, separated from the Baltic Sea by only 500m of sand dune and beach. The lake has fantastic wildlife viewing facilities including a great viewing tower and a very long boardwalk letting the visitor immerse themselves in the depths of an reedbed that must teem with life in spring and summer. As our guide (Janis) ran through the (very) long list of bird and plantlife found there, including show-stealers like bittern, spotted crake black stork and osprey, we realised that this former Soviet hunting reserve is one of Europe’s most valuable wildlife sites. So far, so impressive.
We then visited a viewpoint over a wide floodplain with a partly canalised river flowing through pastures now grazed by hardy breeds of cattle and horses. A white-tailed eagle soared overhead and songbirds flitted in and out of the fringing woodland. Several pairs of corncrake breed here in the summer, while both wolves and lynx are regular visitors.
Not content with what, to us, was an already overwhelming level of wildlife, the government authorities running Kemeri National Park are well into an EU LIFE funded project to rewild (their word) this landscape. They are not messing around either – 7.5 (seven point five!) km of the river are being re-meandered to restore the natural floodplain dynamics and a closer intermix of habitats. After an in-depth impact assessment, it took two years of negotiations with a suspicious and angry local population to persuade them that the proposals would not increase the risk of flooding. The fact that the State Forest Service has been able to buy large areas of abandoned farmland in what is a sparsely populated area is a significant factor for this project but still, two years to move people from very angry about proposals for change to acceptance is hard to imagine for a project of this scale in Scotland.
Latvia is very different to Scotland in some key respects. According to the State Forest Service, 55% of Latvia’s land area is forested – a mix of commercial forestry, naturally regenerated woodland with little management and forests with a bit of both. 9% of the land area is classed as mires. Although the detail on how much of these two categories include useful habitat for wildlife, it is clear that Latvia has plenty of land for natural processes to operate in.
What’s more, the forested land figure is growing in size due to natural regeneration, largely of pioneer birchwood, onto farmland gradually abandoned since 1991 and the end of the Soviet era. Latvia is seeing a decline in farmland and open ground species because of this woodland growth and at least some, if not many, conservationists there are concerned about declines in biodiversity.
However, there is the counter-argument that nature-led change in the land can underpin much stronger ecological stability in the long term. As woodland matures, gaps open in the canopy and the land adopts a slowly changing patchwork of woodland and open ground, influenced in part by the dynamic relationships between grazing herbivores and their carnivorous predators. Such is the theory of the rewilding movement at any rate, with many citing to the biodiversity-rich results of Norway’s longer history of woodland growth following land abandonment in the 19th century. We can’t yet know if this is really where Latvia is heading.
It’s hard not be impressed by Latvia’s wildlife and habitats. The mammal list on its own suggests a more ecological balance between human land uses and natural processes than we have in Scotland. There a 62 mammal species here, including large predators like wolves and lynx, so many beavers that the EU has provided a derogation to cull them and healthy populations of moose and red deer held in check by a combination of natural predation and hunting, the latter being a widespread practice among the Latvian people.
It is almost certain that nature in Latvia benefits from the protection offered by the countries legal frameworks for conservation. The State Forest Service is the largest landowner and adopts a highly responsible attitude to nature conservation, which is underpins with expert research and technical understanding of species management requirements – the studies of capercaillie habitat by the LMV are an authoritative example.
However, it is hard to escape the suspicion that the accidental and deliberate rewilding taking place here will become increasingly important for the resilience and diversity of the natural world in Latvia. After less than thirty years since this was triggered by independence from the USSR, it is too early to tell whether this is really the case or simply rewilding dogma. Only time will tell if Latvia’s landscape backs this up – see you there in 100 years?
Peatland Management and Conservation in Latvia
Emma Goodyer, Manager, IUCN UK Peatland Programme
Latvia is a relatively small peatland nation in comparison to Scotland. However, the ailments of Latvian peatlands are strikingly similar: pressures from forestry plantations, drainage, peat extraction for fuel and horticulture plus the added pressures of climatic change all resonated with me. The scale of the Latvian landscape feels vast and their forest and peatland habitats much larger and less fragmented than those in Scotland. They feel truly wild. Perhaps this is the way they once were in the UK?
Working as a peatland ecologist I was of course pleased when we reached the middle of the trip and it was finally ‘Bog Day’! In the morning we visited a restored lake with a peatland mosaic of reeds and calcareous fen. The reeds buzzing with Bearded and Penduline tits which eluded our binoculars. Lizards and frogs sunbathed in the open fen. The waters were full of Charophytes and the surface skimmed by Fen raft spiders. Our guide, Jānis Ķuze (Nature Conservation Agency), described the failed attempts to drain this land for agricultural gain in the Soviet era and the subsequent reversion to wetland habitats. Water levels are now carefully controlled with a series of sluice gates to maintain an optimal water level in the wetland whilst preventing flooding of surrounding land. Their operation is also carefully controlled to allow fish migration between this important spawning habitat and the Baltic Sea.
Due to the lingering effects of historic drainage, some light management of the vegetation is required to maintain the designated habitats of open, calcareous fen and alkaline freshwater. Reeds are cut and used for thatching (a traditional, cultural use of such vegetation) and scrub encroachment around the edge of the reserve is prevented by cutting seedlings.
Boardwalk into wetland by Lake Kanieris
Ķemeri National Park
In the afternoon we visited one of the largest raised bogs in Latvia, Ķemeri (6,192ha). The main part of the peat dome had been preserved largely due to the value of the ‘ecosystem services’ it provides the nearby spa town of Júrmala. The interaction of acidic water from the bog reacts with the basic bedrock yielding sulphuric groundwater which is hailed as the most valuable medicinal product of the region. In the 18th and 19th century, the town of Júrmala developed as a small string of spa resorts along the Baltic coast, built around springs of this sulphur rich water emanating from the bog. Wealthy land owners from Riga would visit Júrmala to relax in the spa resorts and during Soviet times, top communist union officials were even rewarded with holidays in the area.
Only small areas of this bog had been exploited and we visited one such area which has now been restored as part of a LIFE project. Due to the stingy baggage allowance of our budget Ryanair flight, many of us were without wellies and ended opting for some barefoot bog-trotting which was quite an experience: soft peat and moss between your toes, the prickle of sedges and the squelching of water! The restoration area was seeking to recover an area suffering from surface-milled peat extraction. Surface milling aims to dry out the peat with a dense network of drains and then ‘hoover’ the dry peat from the surface of the milling field. This creates a deeply drained and flat surface which poses unique challenges for restoration. The Latvian’s chose to focus on simply restoring the hydrology within the peat by blocking the drainage channels. No virgin materials such as plastic piling are used, with peat dams being the favoured approach, and the results are encouraging. They took a proactive approach to all other aspects of the restoration such as re-creating a varied micro-topography from the flat surface or introducing a suitable suite of peatland plant species. In the UK, we often struggle with controlling invasive plant species on drier parts of the recovering bog or ensuring that suitable species are present through direct re-introduction. This is less of a concern for the restoration at Ķemeri and the peatland seems to be recovering quickly with good coverage of the desired peatland vegetation. Rarities in the UK like the Bog Rosemary (Andromeda polifolia) are abundant. We even found Scheuchzeria palustris which is known commonly as the ‘Rannoch Rush’ here in Scotland and only found on a couple of sites within Rannoch Moor!
I asked if methane emissions were a concern from the large areas of standing surface water before us. The reply was an emphatic ‘No’- intact Latvian peatland systems typically have large pools of standing water and, in the long term, the potential greenhouse gas emissions from these pools will be paid back by 100s of years of carbon sequestration by the restored bog. Perhaps in the UK, we are too tangled up in the micromanagement of our sites, tinkering on the small scale and longing to satisfy short-term targets? Perhaps we too should play the long game…
The relative inaccessibility of Ķemeri bog (due to a lack of drainage) had the added bonus of protecting bog from human influence. These islands, slowly being swallowed as the peat layer grows, will eventually become engulfed in the next 4-5000 years. But for now, they represent some of the best and least disturbed examples of habitat for Capercaillie and Black Grouse.
Peatland and bog woodland scenes from Kemeri Mire
On Friday, with the rest of the group all being enthusiastic peatland converts, we had the opportunity to visit another bog at Kalnansi. We enjoyed a quick stroll around the boardwalk and the opportunity to keep our feet dry whilst enjoying the wetland habitat. Even in remote areas, encouraging a positive experience with nature and promoting a connection with the environment seems to be truly important to the Nature Conservation Agency and the State Forest Service. At all of the sites we visited, there was good interpretation available in Latvian with an English translation. Towers on many of the publicly accessible reserves provide the visitor with a view over the landscape which really allows you to appreciate how it connects with surrounding habitats and just how varied wetlands can be at this large scale.
A number of LIFE projects have resulted in the restoration of raised bogs in Latvia and it is unfortunate that we are about to lose access to this funding in the UK as we prepare to exit the EU. Hopefully LIFE funding can continue to restore Latvia’s peatlands, as per the excellent project at Ķemeri, but for some sites, either under agricultural use or being commercially extracted, the future seems uncertain.
The culture of NGOs and environmental lobbying which we are reliant on in the UK to provide challenge to government seems absent in Latvia. It could be argued that land managed by the state or by private individuals is sometimes conflicted with economic values. There is little discussion of ‘natural capital’ or ‘ecosystem services’.
Approximately 45% of all peatland soils in Latvia no longer support peatland vegetation (a similar value to those in Scotland). As a result not only are many services such as supporting water quality or biodiversity diminished but peatland CO2 emissions are twice as large as those from other sources (transport, industry etc) in the country (excluding land use). Peatlands therefore have a vital role to play in future discussions about the Latvia’s climate mitigation strategies. This also raises questions about how forested peat soils should be managed- at present, there doesn’t seem to be an appetite to restore peatlands which have been drained and planted with commercial forestry back to open bog, as is beginning to happen in some areas of Scotland (e.g. the Flow Country).
The importance of the economic market over ecological or intrinsic values is demonstrated by the continuation of peat extraction in the country. There is no market for peat in Latvia whilst in excess of 2million tonnes per year continue to be extracted. This is bolstered by the export of Latvian peat to over 95 countries, the majority of which is shipped across Europe, including to the UK, for horticultural use. Reducing demand for peat compost by buying sustainable alternatives and avoiding purchase of potted plants or food grown on imported peat soil is a small action which each of us can take, here in the UK, to reduce demand for peat. Not just for the sake of Latvian raised bogs but for Scottish ones too.
HUNTING IN LATVIA 2017
Andrew Treadaway, SRUC
My interest on this Nature exchange trip to Latvia was from the point as a trainer of hunters. I am interested in the experiences that Latvia has had with introduction of the European Beaver (Caster fiber) and the increase of Eurasian Lynx (Lynx lynx) native in Latvia. Both are hunted in a supervised basis along with Wolves.
Latvia’s native game and some introduced species which can be hunted are Moose or Elk (Alces alces) Red Deer (Cervus elaphus) Roe Deer (Capreolus carpeolus) Wild Boar (Sus scrafa) Beaver CCaster fiber) Wolf (Canis lupus lupus) Eurasian Lynx (Lynx lynx) Red Fox (Vulper Vulpes) Badger (Meles meles) Pine Martin (Martes martes) Stone Martin (Martes foina) Polecat (Mustela putarius) Snow Hare (Lepus timidus) Brown Hare (Lepus europaeus).
The introduced species or those which have migrated into the country from neighbouring countries are Racoon Dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides) Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) American Mink (Neocision visian) and more recently Golden Jackle (Canis aureus).
Then there are also deer which are park reared and non-native but which can be shot are Fallow Deer (Dams dama) and Japenese Sika (Cervus nippon).
Hunting has been influenced by German system, as well as Swedish, Polish and Russian traditions. Regulations in hunting lie in the Game Act Law and are between landowners, State and hunters. Hunting regulations can be more easily changed, being more flexible for game management. The Ministry of the Environment has inspectors who are involved in the control of hunting. This varies to our own method of legislation in Scotland, such as our Game Act and Deer Act 1991 and the Deer Scotland Act 1996 which are more ridged.
Lynx and Wolves come under EU legal framework for hunting and game management where by culling is controlled to specific numbers only. Beaver although introduced are now quite common and are considered a pest in certain circumstances. The strict conservation status protecting the animal in the past has been responsible for its success to the point of over population and competition for space.
In Scotland, we are giving the Eurasian Beaver formal protection. My concern is that unless we have well thought out legislation in being able to sustainably manage them we will suffer the same problems as Latvia. Our damage will occur in Forest and Agricultural land through flooding and waterlogging. It is understandable that Beavers are a keystone species for the long-term role in aquatic management but we should have recourse where unacceptable economic damage is taking place.
In Latvia during the 1930’s Eurasian Beaver were reintroduced from Norway and then again in the 1950’s from Russia, which was very successful. Limited hunting started in the 1970’s. However, the hunting of Beaver was too late and the population exploded at the same time Latvia regained its independence. The greatest problems found were in the flooding of land from their damming activities.
A landowner Mr Uiestrus Dreimanis, who we were introduced to on our trip, had experienced high numbers of Beaver on his land and remembers trapping over 300 in one year with the use of Connie bear traps.
The best time for a hunter to successfully cull Beavers is during March by boat when they can be shot and it is possible to remove as many as 5 Beaver per night. Beaver can reproduce more rapidly than can be controlled by large predators in suitable habitat. This does not bode well for Scotland which does not hold any suitable predators. The West coast of Scotland has been found to be less successful an area for introduction by Scottish Natural Heritage than the River Tay area where a wild illegal population may be as much as 400 and are causing problems for landowners.
In Latvia, the castor oil from Beavers is still sold for medicinal use and used in alcohol. It is currently easier to sell the gland which is also used for the base in high end perfumes than the delicacy of smoked Beaver meat. Unlikely to be popular in Scotland.
In Latvia the drainage systems were made by the Russians, which used to be cleaned annually, if maintained they would have levelled the Beaver population off quicker. It was the Russian collapse of collective farming and withdrawal that allowed less profitable land to go back to natural forest since 1991. This has created a large quantity of pioneer deciduous woodland ideal for Beavers and herbivores. The private sector has also contributed by felling existing pine and spruce stands which have gone back to private ownership. After which deciduous woodlands have been opted for as there is a less intensive management programme and can be established from natural seedlings.
This is like the investment plantings of the 70’s and 80’s in Scotland, which also led to an increase of the natural deer populations. In Latvia, the system of ditches is still thought justifiable in forest areas by the amount of biomass that is produces from the forest.
Currently damage has decreased by Beaver from an annual 4000 Ha to 170 Ha in the last 10 years in the Latvian State Forest. (There being approximately 1.5 million hectares managed by the State Forestry Service.) Annual cleaning and renovating of the ditch systems within commercial forest areas make it easier to control Beavers. This would have to be a consideration for our Forestry Commission here in Scotland. Forestry companies also make contracts with hunting organisations to control Beavers from renovated ditch systems, with payment linked to success. (We could emulate)
Beaver flooded Hayfields
Beaver flooded forests
Our trip took us to see the Kandra region and we were introduced to a private landowner, who showed us a man-made pond, made specifically for hunting, which had artificial nest sites for Mallards, not dissimilar to our own situation. However, these ducks are fed in the locality of the pond and Wild Boar has been attracted to this food source. This has proven to be problematic in that African swine fever is now present in the Wild Boar population. It started in Continental Europe 50 years ago from Spain and Italy. Latvia had meat imported from Africa by the Russian army. Infected pork was sent to the Caucasus region and went from Russia to Belarus to Lithuania and onto Latvia. Pigs need to be killed at once to contain this fatal disease.
Latvia is trying to diminish the Wild Boar population as much as possible. The virus can remain in the bones and marrow and so be a source of infection when eaten. This would also be a worry in Scotland, where we have a pig industry as well as that in England and Wales. At present our Wild Boar only faces unrestricted hunting and there is at present no accurate knowledge of population figures.
Feeding of wild animals is not allowed in native reserves and is regulated. There are rules regarding placement of feeding stations being near young plantations and feeding of Wild Boar is regulated due to Swine Flu.
The right to hunt belongs to the landowners, which is the same for Scotland. Prospective hunters can rent from the State Forest Service and pay a fee. This is very much like our system with the Forestry Commission, where we can lease ground on an annual basis, which tends to be to the highest bidder and those that can fulfil contractual requirements. The other similar method is to go through private landowners, which is more difficult in Latvia but easier in Scotland with less restrictions.
Hunters in Latvia require permission to hunt and this is through registering with the State Forest Service, a practice alien to hunters in the UK, but both countries require firearms licences, issued through the Police.
Moose, Red deer, Roe deer and Wild Boar are all monitored in respect of the European Union, for estimation of game numbers and distribution. The National Protection Board also deals with semi protected animals, such as Wolf, Lynx and Beaver. They report every 6 weeks on the health of these populations. The data comes from the State Forest Service as well as from the hunters themselves. In Scotland, we are committed to report annually on the quantity, species and location of the deer we shoot, including their sex and whether adult or juvenile.
Their hunting grounds are digitalised on GIS, which gives greater control for management purposes. The quotas for Wolves tend to be reached annually but Lynx are not being reached. The prescribed State controlled cull figures will include road traffic accidents and this information is imperative for lead hunters in adjusting cull figures in their hunting region. Any Lynx or Wolves must be reported immediately when shot, so that the quota numbers can be adjusted nationally.
Like in the United Kingdom, hunters undergo examinations, but theirs are mandatory, while in the UK they are still voluntary. Every hunter in Latvia must go through the State Forest Service for a 2-part exam – 1 – Theory awareness on legislation and game biology – 2 – Skills on shooting moving targets to obtain their licence. There are discussions being held in making this last part a more regular test. Their use of shotguns and rifles has different exams. This is also voluntary in Scotland, but could well do with being mandatory with being set up through registered organisations similar to that in Germany. For driven game in Latvia where beaters are involved there is a designated test and licence for a group leader, which is at a higher level than that of the ordinary hunter.
Hunting clubs are beginning to incorporate shooting tests for both moving and stationary targets. Failing to pass this then the hunter is demoted to being a beater on driven hunts only,
We visited an area controlled by a local hunting clubs which covered 8000 hectares of both fields and forests, giving a mosaic pattern to the landscape. Here the hunting clubs negotiated with landowners and farmers to have certain fields where no game control is carried out. The remaining fields and forests being heavily protected. On one particular 1500-hectare farm, there had been 100 hectares set aside of non-protected sanctuary areas for large game animals. This co-operation can extend 2 – 3 hunting clubs covering 100 hectares, each having only portions of the total amount. The sanctuary land is usually of poorer quality and helps to concentrate areas of damage. It also means small areas surrounded by forest, land which has remote access or has inherent dangers for shooting, such as unsuitable backstops can be chosen. This land is still covered by EU grant money and is still agriculturally managed, but crop yields will be significantly reduced. Tendencies are for hay meadows as opposed to expensive crops.
We were also shown a forest which had been harvested previously of Aspen. The surrounding Conifer stands had been left for 2 to 3 years, un pruned or thinned, as the deer congregated to feed on the regeneration coming up in the Aspen stand area. Then hunting clubs utilise driven hunting as opposed to stalking or high seat culling. The game animals are driven on a regular basis to move animals out of then area rather by stress and culling, so moving to other areas. The practice of driven hunts was restricted during the height of the Swine Flu epidemic, in fear of spreading the disease further.
However, it was found that forest damage from both Moose and Deer had increased.
View from platform
To successfully cull animals by driven hunts a lot of preparation of each stand in the area is required prior to the hunts. The hunting lanes are cleared in September by younger tree stands, where vegetation growth is prolific.
The hunting season starts in October for driven hunts, but hunters usually start later than this to incorporate time where there are no leaves on the trees for maximum visibility.
Although there is a market for game meat, 90% is eaten by the hunters themselves or given to the landowners. It is estimated that the average annual reduction in the large game animals are split 50/50 between hunters and Wolves, Lynx etc.
There is currently a slow movement to non-lead ammunition for humane and health reasons. Any leases with the State Forest Service and Large Forest Companies can have contracts for up to 30 years with hunting clubs creating stability and long-term management of game animals for their benefit. I would like to see this model adopted in Scotland, which would give hunters and the benefits they create more acknowledged and acceptable.
Status and management of Eurasian beavers in Latvia
Pete Haskell, Scottish Wildlife Trust
Beavers have been the subject of much (often heated) discussion in Scotland in recent years. The conservation community, landowners and the media have all focused their attention on these intriguing mammals that were hunted extinction in Scotland over 400 years ago. But why would a rodent that is often viewed as a pest in many of its native countries be the subject of so much hype in Scotland? This was a question asked by several of our guides during the 2017 ARCH exchange to Latvia!
The answer – because in November 2016, Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham made the landmark announcement that beavers could once again be a part of Scotland’s natural heritage.
As an employee of the Scottish Wildlife Trust – one of the two lead organisations involved in the five-year Scottish Beaver Trial in Knapdale, Argyll – this was a fantastic and historic moment. Unfortunately, not everybody shared this view. As well as the licenced and closely monitored beavers that were translocated from Norway to Knapdale, a second population of beavers lives in the catchment area of the River Tay. This population stems from either escaped or illegally released individuals and now numbers several hundred. The surrounding area in Tayside consists of prime agricultural land, a small fraction of which has been lost due to the wetland-creating antics of beavers. This has led to an increasing dislike for the animals amongst certain stakeholders within the rural community and resulted in some unregulated shooting of beavers by landowners in the region.
With tensions rising, Scottish Natural Heritage is developing management guidelines to lessen the negative impacts of beavers. My primary motivation for wanting to visit Latvia was to see how another country deals with this landowner-beaver conflict.
A short history of beavers in Latvia
Similarly to in Scotland and other parts of Europe, beavers were hunted to extinction in Latvia several hundreds of years ago. During this period of unprecedented human pressure, the global population of Eurasian beavers fell to as low as 1,200 individuals. Fortunately, several small pockets of beavers survived and in the late 1920s they were reintroduced to Latvia from Norway. The population was further bolstered in later years by reintroductions from Russia.
By the 1970s, the population of beavers had increased dramatically, so much so that a limited amount of beaver hunting was allowed once again. Despite this hunting pressure, the beaver population continued to increase significantly. Part of the beaver’s success was likely due to the artificially increased habitat area available to them – an unintended result of the widespread canalisation of Latvia’s wetlands that took place during the Soviet-era.
When Soviet occupation of Latvia ended in 1991, the beaver population increased further still. Bizarrely, this second population explosion was due in part to a change in fashion-sense – fur coats and hats made from beavers were no longer in demand and as such, hunting for the fur trade decreased.
Beaver control and management in Latvia
Today, Latvia’s beaver population totals around 80,000-100,000 individuals and the impact that they have on certain land uses is significant. As such, control and management measures are necessary, some of which are outlined below.
One control measure that is not (currently) available in Scotland is one of natural control by predators, but Latvia has retained populations of both wolves and lynx. Seemingly, the impact of beaver predation on the population is very low, but I was very interested to hear that in years of drought, the entrance holes of beaver lodges can become exposed to the extent that predators can penetrate the lodge and predate on the adults and kits inside.
In the early 2000s, the hunting limits for the species were lifted altogether, but hunters are still required to submit reports of the numbers killed and they must adhere to the beaver hunting season that runs from August to May.
Fig 1. A Conibear trap used to catch beavers
Beavers are primarily hunted using metal traps known as Conibear traps, one of which was demonstrated to us by Mr Viesturs Dreimanis on the fourth day of the Latvia exchange. The trap was incredibly powerful, hopefully ensuring a very quick and humane death. Mr Dreimanis told us that in a single year, he had trapped over 300 beavers on his land using these traps despite him not being the only hunter in the area – a clear indication of just how prevalent the species is in the country.
I was interested to hear that some hunters in Latvia smoke and eat beaver meat, but in towns and cities, many people won’t eat it because beavers are viewed as dirty animals akin to large rats.
One industry that is heavily affected by beavers is forestry. During a presentation by the Latvian State Forest Service we were told that ten years ago, beavers were the number one culprit for damages to State-owned forest, with an area of 4,000ha damaged each year. However, that number has been significantly reduced to just 170ha due primarily to drainage ditch renovation.
Ditch renovation can involve either the removal of beaver dams from ditches or the complete infilling of ditches. Whilst the former of these is effective in the short-term, beavers can rebuild dams in a matter of days, so it is an ongoing and expensive control measure. Infilling of ditches is a successful longer-term management technique, but is obviously only an option for ditches that are no longer required.
Another control measure, albeit not one that is feasible for entire forests, is to put guards around the bases of trees, much in the same way that we do in Scotland to prevent browsing by deer.
We saw several different types of guard on the trip, from quick to install wire mesh guards, to much more significant metal structures around the bases of trees along the river in Riga.
Fig 2. Two examples of tree guards in Riga
As well as seeing management measures to prevent or control the negative impacts that beavers can have, we also saw several examples of the impressive engineering ability of these industrious animals.
Standing atop a 6ft-high beaver lodge surrounded by wetland habitat that was buzzing with insect life, knowing that the animals that created this habitat were directly underneath my feet was an amazing experience. These keystone species are key to the survival of so many others. For me, this is why the Scottish Government’s announcement to let beavers live once more in Scotland is such a significant one – it’s so much more than simply bringing back a species that went extinct.
Scotland could certainly learn lessons from Latvia’s experience with beavers over the last century. In my eyes, the most important of these is to have a robust management plan in place early on. Whilst beavers have been back in Scotland for almost a decade, it’s certainly not too late to ensure that this is the case. By implementing such a plan, I sincerely hope that beavers and people will be able to live side-by-side in Scotland in much the same way as they appear to in Latvia.
Forestry Management’s Role in Latvian Capercaillie Conservation
Gregg Wilkie, RSPB Scotland
The capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus), otherwise known as the wood grouse, has long been an important bird to Latvians and their culture. Its previous abundance within the ubiquitous Baltic conifer forests, combined with its impressive size (it is the largest member of the grouse family), and its iconic fanlike tail and lustrous dark plumage, meant that for centuries, it was a popular quarry species amongst hunters. Although a woodland bird, they were often seen by Latvians, partly due to the cultural proclivity for people to forage for mushrooms and berries within forests, and partly through the tendency for capercaillie to appear on roadsides to take sand baths in the disturbed ground. Surveys suggest that even today, 90% of Latvians recognise a capercaillie. Their arrogant posturing, distinctive’ gurgling/popping’ noise and aggressive mating ritual (or lek), where males compete for the breeding rights with onlooking females, are legendary. This can be attested to by numerous cultural references to capercaillie in the likes of folk songs and local stories.
Although information on the population status of the capercaillie is not comprehensive, counts have been undertaken since the 1930’s which show a decline in numbers nationally from about 8,000 in the 1930’s to c4,000 today. Comparison of the data of both Latvian Breeding Bird Atlases (1980-1984 and 2000-2004) also show an 8% decline in distribution. These declines in population and distribution have led the IUCN to classify the species as vulnerable in Latvia according to its criteria. This report looks at current forestry research and conservation efforts being attributed to capercaillie in Latvia based on my experience on the 2017 Archnetwork visit to Latvia.
With some 44% of land use in Latvia being attributed to forest, it was not surprising that our itinerary was inextricably linked to forests, whether to state and private forested areas, walks along forested wildlife trails, exploring forest-edge peat bogs or learning about forestry management from experts within a classroom setting. Unfortunately none of the field visits specifically focussed on capercaillie management – and sadly there were no sightings of these magnificent beasties. We were however fortunate enough to benefit from the considerable experience of Elmars Peterhofs, resident capercaillie expert in the State Forest Research Institute when we visited the State Forest Service’s NW Regional office in Dundaga.
To me, a layman fundraiser, it seemed strange at first that a country with so much forestry has seen such a decline in its capercaillie population. It soon became apparent however that various factors linked with changes in governing regimes and forestry management, as well as climatic factors, seem to have had negative impacts. The main causes for the decline are thought to be:
- Uncontrolled hunting and poaching
- Forestry wetland drainage
- Climate change/natural disasters
Having spent my sabbatical in RSPB Abernethy Forest in the Highlands of Scotland where they manage for capercaillie, I was keen to see how Latvians were managing forests to conserve the species. Elmars was good enough to provide a host of information on the subject though his presentation on a recent State Forestry-led project that concentrated on the forestry management aspect of capercaillie conservation.
The first thing to say is that, the overwhelming majority (c95%) of capercaillie live in State-owned forests, which are mainly pine (as opposed to many of the privately owned forests which have a greater amount of deciduous cover which is unsuitable habitat for capercaillie). To an extent, this bodes well for Latvian capercaillie given that biodiversity management is the main management objective for 20% of the State owned forestland. No management intervention or felling is planned in these areas, other than targeted management to benefit protected species such as capercaillie. With the historical declines in the capercaillie population, they have become one of the most protected species in Latvia and the Latvian State Forestry (LVM) response has been to set an objective for the ‘integration of capercaillie protection and habitat conservation in forest management processes’.
To achieve this objective, a number of steps were identified and undertaken as part of the recent project:
- Inventory of lekking territories
- Information analysis and identification of capercaillie ecological requirements
- Development of forest management guidelines for capercaillie lek territories
- Guideline implementation
- Monitoring of capercaillie population
Lek surveys were undertaken to understand the spatial distribution and disposition of capercaillie lekking sites across Latvia. These have been digitally added to the GEO (Geospatial Information Agency) database to outline the territories on a map. These territories are then managed for capercaillie according to State Forestry guidelines. All known lek sites are afforded Micro Reserve status (normally about 100ha), which provides strong restrictions in forest management to prevent disturbance and/or degradation of the lek site. This protection is bolstered by a further buffer zone around the Micro Reserve where fewer management restrictions apply. LVM employees (foresters) have been instructed to record all capercaillie activity that they observe in the forests and this information is added to the database in order to help shape the management guidelines. For instance, forest planners and forest cutters can plan when to fell or transport timber during the lekking period in spring.
Data on the disposition of lekking sites has been useful in determining factors and habitat types that are selected by capercaillie. The information collected has allowed indices to be built which show that capercaillie select for sites that:
- Are pine dominated with associated nutrient-poor soil conditions
- Have predominant forest age of >80yrs with mature ‘grouse pines’ that have strong branches in which capercaillie can roost
- Have varied stand height
- Are of medium density (40 – 80%) with visibility of at least 25m to allow them to watch for predators and to allow flight. This density also provides sufficient light to allow blaeberry and cotton grass – two important food sources for capercaillie – to thrive
- Have low ground cover so they can watch for predators. Spruce undergrowth is also important for hiding, especially during lekking, where it provides a hiding place to bolt to from the open lekking sites
- Have areas of open sandy soil for ‘sand baths’ (often root plates of fallen trees or even on the side of forest roads)
- Are wet/boggy areas within forest landscapes – with some 86% of leks in Latvia taking place on wet soils.
This information is important in conservation terms as it allows LVM to identify optimum existing and potential areas of forest where they can then control the forest management process in the best possible way for capercaillie. So in addition to minimising disturbance from forestry activities during the lekking season, LVM are able to use their knowledge of favoured habitat to manage optimum/promising forest areas which may contain or attract capercaillie in due course. Management activities take place in autumn and/or winter include:
- Thinning woodland to create optimum density
- Reducing ‘second floor’ spruce influence – ie taking out (but not eradicating) growing spruce
- Removing excess undergrowth to maintain low level cover. In adverse weather conditions, this can include fallen wind-blown trees or branches broken off by excess ice. In either case, where time allows, damaged trees/branches are removed ahead of the lekking period to maintain the lek site
- Hydrological regime restoration: where the land is drained, the ditches are in-filled using an excavator. This in turn slows the rate of forest growth and restores favoured boggy areas within the forest
- Restriction of any management between 1st March and 31st July to avoid disturbance
- Linking areas of suitable habitat with pine corridors
- Restricting clear-felling in capercaillie areas and ensuring that any felling is replaced only with pine
Monitoring provides essential data regarding the success or otherwise of the conservation efforts being implemented and all known lek sites are monitored between 1st April and 15th May. Only the males are counted (as they fly in to roost at the lek sites) and the location of lekking males is recorded and mapped. To extrapolate the total population, LVM assume a ratio of five females to each male. Broods are then surveyed in August using a Finnish triangle method, whereby three people walk in a line spaced 20m apart (to help ensure the birds are flushed from their nests) in a ‘double triangle’ which zig-zags across a 1km square. Each year nearly 80 census routes are covered across all the LVM capercaillie areas. In addition, all LVM staff are trained to identify capercaillie droppings and other signs, and these are also recorded digitally by the workers whilst undertaking their work in the forests.
Much of the design work carried out as part of this project was built upon Finnish capercaillie conservation expertise. The Latvian project started in 2014 and is only now drawing to an end, and although it is still too early to say for sure, Elmars is confident that it is proving successful. It seems that the decline of capercaillie in Latvia over the last few years has halted, which mirrors what has happened in Finland following the similar management that they pioneered. With so much pine forest in the hands of LVM, there is plenty of scope to replicate this management across Latvia.
As stated at the beginning of this report, there are other factors, such as hunting, predation and climate change which will come into play in terms of being factors that affect capercaillie numbers in Latvia – and these are warranting their own research (eg the increase in predation due to rising pine marten numbers). However, it seems at least that the forestry management and monitoring approaches that have been trialled give cause for optimism to at least maintaining capercaillie numbers at current levels, if not increasing them.
Despite appearing successful, it seems it may be difficult to replicate this approach in Scotland given the smaller forestry cover and the fact that a much higher percentage of forested land is in private ownership, which clearly limits the impact the state can have. Our capercaillie populations are also scattered in somewhat disparate pockets of more favourable habitat that may be more difficult to connect with pine corridors, especially when multiple landowners own the land in between. Perhaps more realistically, the conservation of capercaillie in Scotland will rely on land owner partnerships with capercaillie conservation being at least one of the priority objectives of management – including expansion plans for natural pine forest regeneration.
Kandava Beaver dam near the Dunduri Meadows
Bea and a bear Space Monkey