Managing our natural and cultural heritage assets
Terrain study: Selected aspects of nature management in Poland
18-25 July 2016
Catherine Markey, Grants Manager, RSPB Scotland Headquarters
Mel Nicoll, Campaigns Co-ordinator, John Muir Trust.
Laura Baird, Information Officer, Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park Authority
During July 2016 six staff members from natural heritage organisations in Scotland participated in a one week NET structured training course in Poland. This was funded by the Erasmus+ European Union programme and organised by ARCH. The host organisation was EUCC (European Union for Coastal Conservation) Poland.
The aim of the course was to experience and learn about how nature conservation and public engagement with nature, takes place in Poland. On return to Scotland participants shared that learning for the benefit of their employing organisations and others within the sector. The organisations represented in this trip were:
- RSPB Scotland
- Scottish Natural Heritage
- John Muir Trust
- Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park
Individuals within the group came from a range of disciplines, and collectively covered a broad range of expertise and knowledge. Half were more involved with land management and biodiversity with the other half having a remit that focussed on people engagement and funding. The group therefore decided to write two separate reports, with this one concentrating on the latter topic.
The Society for the Coast (EUCC Poland) hosted the group, ably led by Dr. Kazimierz Rabski. EUCC is a stakeholder and network association with members in 40 countries. It aims to promote a European approach to coastal conservation by bridging the gap between scientists, environmentalists, site managers, planners and policy makers. Since its foundation in 1989 it has grown into the largest network of coastal and marine practitioners and experts in Europe and neighbouring areas. The Society for the Coast currently employs four members of staff. Its work concentrates on the Odra Delta Nature Park.
Poland has a population of 39 million people (39% less than the UK’s 64 million people), and a land area of 313,000 sq. km (28% greater than the UK’s 244,000 sq. km). The trip visited West Pomerania – one of 16 regions within Poland. West Pomerania is in the north west of the country, bordered by Germany to the west and the Baltic Sea to the north. It is Poland’s 5th largest region, and Szczecin, the region’s capital, is the third largest city in Poland by land area. The West Pomerania coast stretches for 190 kms, with white sand beaches, coastal forests and wetlands providing a haven for both people and wildlife. This coast is marked by several spits, coastal lakes (former bays that have been cut off from the sea), and dunes. Inland is characterised by flat areas of wetland, agricultural land and forests comprising of deciduous and coniferous trees. The name Pomerania comes from Slavic po more, which means “land by the sea”.
Recent political history has had an impact on land use and biodiversity in Poland. From 1795 until 1918 no truly independent Polish state existed. The opportunity to regain independence only materialised in 1918 after World War I, when Poland became an independent country. In 1939, at the beginning of World War II, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland. Millions of Polish citizens perished during the course of the German occupation from 1939-1945. A Polish government-in-exile functioned throughout the war and the Poles contributed to the Allied victory. The westward advances of the Soviets in 1944 and 1945 compelled Nazi Germany’s forces to retreat from Poland, which led to the establishment of a communist satellite state of the Soviet Union, known from 1952 as the Polish People’s Republic. After the war, as the Polish territory came under the control of the People’s Republic of Poland, the government-in-exile remained in existence, though largely unrecognised and without effective power. Only after the end of Communist rule in Poland did the government-in-exile formally pass on its responsibilities to the new government of the Third Polish Republic in December 1990.
As a result of territorial adjustments at the end of World War II, Poland’s geographic centre of gravity shifted towards the west and the re-defined Polish lands largely lost their traditional multi-ethnic character. West Pomerania was one of the former German territories which became part of Poland. The German population fled or was expelled and the territories were repopulated mainly with Poles from central Poland and those expelled from the eastern regions. Early expulsions in Poland were undertaken by the occupying Soviet and Polish Communist military authorities. It is estimated that after World War II 98% of inhabitants from the region moved to Germany.
By the late 1980s the Polish trade union Solidarity, led by Lech Wałesa became crucial in bringing about a peaceful transition from a communist state to a capitalist economic system and to a parliamentary democracy. This process resulted in the creation of the modern Polish state—the Polish Third Republic. In December 1990, Walesa was elected President of Poland. After ten years of democratic consolidation, Poland joined NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) in 1999 and the European Union in 2004.
West Pomerania was previously not part of Poland. Prior to World War II the land was used for agricultural production by farmers whose families had lived in the area for generations, and who understood the land. Following the war and the arrival of communism these farmers fled or were expelled to Germany, and people who had no previous connection to the region were sent to live in West Pomerania. They were given houses by the state, and the land was farmed collectively. These weren’t real farmers, but rather people working on the land, where intensive food production was the priority. A lack of agricultural experience and understanding of how nature and farming could work together, combined with an absence of any sense of historical belonging to the area was not good for nature conservation. A legacy of collectivisation of agriculture in Poland was the network of inefficient State Agricultural Farms (PGRs). Relatively inefficient and subsidised by the government, most PGRs quickly went bankrupt after the fall of communism and adoption of a market economy. Collectivisation was more widespread in the so-called Recovered Territories (including West Pomerania), where settlers were not emotionally connected to the land. Collectivisation and persecution of private farmers, on whom quotas were enforced, led to a collapse of Polish agricultural production after 1950, and a large-scale exodus of villagers. Furthermore, government planners decided that the national budget would favour financing heavy industry at the expense of agriculture. As a result, farms experienced shortages of fertilizers, pesticides, machinery and tools.
Agriculture has close and complex links with the natural environment. Some types of farming activities can help preserve traditional landscapes, habitats and biodiversity. However under central planning, agricultural policies paid little attention to environmental issues and farming systems created environmental problems. Intensive farming used large quantities of chemicals, harming biodiversity and, through runoff, marine and other ecosystems. Despite attempts at collectivisation, in Poland small private farms remained the largest agricultural sector throughout the communist period, although farming collectives were more common in Recovered Territories such as West Pomerania.
The presence of water, both sea coast and fresh water rivers and their deltas, has a significant influence on the wildlife of the area, which contains notable wetlands. Following the collapse of collective farming in West Pomerania many areas were not managed for agricultural purposes and a natural process of “rewilding” took place, meaning that today there are many areas incredibly rich in undisturbed habitats, flora and fauna.
Just like in Scotland ospreys return, after their winter migration in Africa, to breed. They can be seen diving for fish just below the surface of the water, before returning to feed their young or choosing a nearby perch on which to devour their catch.
White-tailed sea eagles are the largest bird of prey in both Scotland and Poland. In Poland these eagles are common so are viewed with less excitement than in Scotland where, following local extinction at the hands of man, they have been reintroduced, and their numbers are slowly increasing (currently around 100 pairs). In Scotland a significant wildlife tourism sector has been created based on white-tailed sea eagles, but at the same time there is considerable controversy surrounding the species. Crofters claim that the eagles prey on lambs, and persecution of the birds still exists. There does not appear to be any such issue in Poland, despite a much larger population of eagles. This is perhaps due to the fact that there is very little sheep farming in the area compared to Scotland.
Ducks, geese, swans and wading birds thrive in the wetlands, accompanied by a dazzling array of brightly coloured dragonflies and damselflies. The Warta Mouth River National Park hosts 60,000-70,000 bean geese each year. Swallows swoop low over the water collecting a meal of insects for their young. Common terns and little terns are provided with floating island sanctuaries for their nests. Greylags are the only goose species that breeds in Poland, and can sometimes be seen nesting on top of beaver lodges to stay above the water level which fluctuates by up to 4 metres, and floods a vast area.
Beavers are Poland’s largest rodent and there is visible evidence of their activity. Warta national park has around 100 beaver lodges. Other mammals include otter, and two invasive non-native species are mink and raccoon. With six mink farms within 17kms of Warta national park it is not surprising to see evidence of them in mink monitoring traps.
Flowering plants in hedges and meadows attract moths and butterflies. Long legged, graceful cranes are a common sight in the sky. Local villages create nest sites for white storks on the top of posts. Although storks are largely silent birds, white storks do perform a bill-clattering display. They begin by throwing their heads straight back as they clatter their upper and lower mandibles together rapidly, producing a loud machine-gun-like rattle. Black storks breed high in trees away from human activity. Less welcome visitors to villages include wild boar which can rummage through gardens looking for food and raiding bins.
Nature Conservation In Poland
There are sixteen regions in Poland. Within the West Pomerania region there are: 2 national parks (top of the conservation hierarchy); 6 landscape parks; and 117 nature reserves. These are run by the state. In addition, there are 21 bird and 64 habitat sites (Natura 2000), 2900 natural monuments (these can be as small as a single, distinctive tree or rock feature) and 1361 ecologically protected areas/areas of landscape conservation. The National Parks are distinct from Scottish National Parks in that they have buffer zones and/or the right to establish them. Their specific aims are the protection of nature and landscape, with no requirement to consider economic development as in Scotland. By contrast, the Landscape Parks – part of a network of 122 in Poland – have an explicit remit to protect the area’s natural, historical, cultural and scenic values “in conditions of balanced development.”
The group from Scotland was fortunate to benefit from the knowledge of the West Pomerania Regional Landscape Parks team over the course of several days. A common theme is a lack of staff and resources to properly look after these protected areas. For example, there is one landscape park administration based in Szczecin of 9 staff, including 1 ranger, for all 6 of the landscape parks. It was notable that with no dedicated fundraising staff, Park personnel – who may be specialists in other areas – spend a large amount of their time preparing grant applications in order to get new projects off the ground rather than necessarily being able to utilise their specialist skills. However, with only around 30% of the budget of the Wolinski National Park coming from government, for example, it was clear that the ability to pull in additional project-based funding was critical to both National and Landscape Parks.
The level of protection and involvement of local people varies across the parks, and the staff aim to protect natural, cultural and historical aspects of the parks through education and cooperation with other organisations. The forestry department and landscape park staff work closely together. All forestry in Poland is state owned, and the habitat management is carried out by forestry staff. The landscape park staff work in partnership with local communities, NGOs and with their counterparts in Germany who are responsible for the western bank of the Odra River, characterised by greater investment in both visitor infrastructure and flood prevention that the more natural Polish eastern bank.
One of the most noticeable differences between nature conservation in Poland and Scotland is the small number of nature conservation NGOs who are managing land in Poland, compared to charities in Scotland who own and actively manage large areas of land for nature. The Society of the Coast is one of only three or four NGOs who own and manage land in Poland. There are not large membership organisations to provide funding for wildlife conservation. Neither does there appear to be a culture of charitable trusts that could help fund such activities. This may change in the future as the capitalist economy and personal wealth continues to develop following the fall of communism.
Joining the European Union in 2004 resulted in huge investment to Poland. It also meant that areas in Poland became part of the Natura 2000 network of protected sites. Poland’s national parks and landscape parks are covered by Natura 2000, and EU funding signs were seen at all the sites that the group visited. As an EU accession state, Poland qualified for funding to help bring it to a level more in line with the rest of the EU. Paths, interpretation and other visitor infrastructure were created. The vision of helping people to understand the importance of nature, in order to protect it for future generations means that there are ambitious plans for other major projects.
People and nature: community engagement
Natura 2000 designations cover about 20% of Poland. All land within Polish National Parks and Landscape Parks was apparently automatically included within the Natura 2000 network due to time pressures to meet the requirements of the EU legislation after Poland’s entry to the EU in 2004. The sudden and widespread imposition of this strict level of protection for these areas was understandably not always well-received by local government nor communities and this has had, and to some extent continues to have, a significant impact at the local/community level. From the conservation perspective, however, this means that significantly large areas are under a high level of protection giving great potential for managing land on a landscape scale, as well as larger havens for wildlife.
The haste with which sites were designated as Natura 2000 sites left little or no time to communicate and consult with local communities. There had also been an initial tendency to portray these sites as places where many activities were prohibited, and this is recognised as having caused conflict in some cases. It was suggested that there were lasting tensions in some areas as a result. Staff were clearly working hard to redress this, against a backdrop of residual, relatively low levels of awareness and importance attached to nature conservation. Significant efforts are currently being made to increase understanding of the huge value and potential of the local natural environment, both for leisure and recreation and also to develop the local economy. Wider government strategies to build and strengthen local and regional identity in the wake of the political and cultural change that Poland has experienced are currently a powerful driver.
Within the two National Parks that formed part of the itinerary, purpose-built visitor centres give a strong identity to the Park and focus for visitor education and management. This is particularly the case in the Wolinski National Park where the centre incorporates a popular natural history museum and there is also a famous bison reserve and wild animal rescue centre. In contrast, the Landscape Parks do not have the same infrastructure. However, the extended time spent with representatives from the Landscape Parks gave a fairly detailed insight into the efforts Park staff are making to reach out to the local and wider community in other ways. For example, the team has run marketing campaigns such as the recent distribution of free, high-quality leisure maps for the six Parks through local newspapers over a period of weeks. They also have a close working partnership with the state forestry service which has educational bases within the forests, where their outreach work engages over 15,000 people each year. Other initiatives include information stands at local festivals – one had been set up at the busy St Jacob Festival underway at the time of visiting the regional capital Szczecin.
Park staff, however, commented on the difficulties in progressing other projects and initiatives due to lack of staff time and resources. For example, their website and Facebook pages are kept up to date but the lack of specialist communications staff and general staff time means they have not yet been able to capitalise fully on this and build a strong online presence. This is a great shame given the huge potential to use photos and film footage from the beautiful sites under their care to engage more fully with local residents as well as to reach out to a wider audience, including overseas.
Partnership working was evident in many of the projects under way and at many of the sites visited during the tour. For example, the Landscape Park is working with counterparts from the Unteres Odertal National Park on the German side of the river on a number of projects including organising and promoting festivals such as the “Kranichwoche” (Week of the Crane). This gives opportunities to learn more about these birds and go on guided walks and boat trips. A local “Stork Week” festival has also been developed by an enterprising local cafe owner on the Polish side of the river, supported by both the Landscape Park and German National Park. The cafe appears to function as a small tourist information centre, runs a variety of courses and craft etc workshops and the owner seems to be involved in a number of other initiatives to encourage visitors to the cafe, the village and the nearby revitalised, historic Park Dolina Molosci.
Other examples of partnership working between the Polish and German Landscape and National Parks have included construction of the first of a planned series of viewing towers and associated interpretation and projects, including landing stages for canoeists and kayakers, solar powered boats and official Park camp sites (camping being generally prohibited in the National Park). Cross-border co-operation is apparently a specific element of national government and regional strategies for social, cultural and economic development. This encourages in particular the development of small and medium sized tourism etc businesses.
More structural projects aimed at connecting communities with their landscape and taking an interest in nature conservation have included the provision of a children’s play park alongside an important wetland habitat, where the Park also built a substantial shelter for educational activities and has provided interpretative boards in Polish, German and English. Staff have discovered to their frustration, however, that the facility is being under-utilised due to the lack of on site parking and people are not prepared to park on the far side of the river and walk across to the site. The Park is therefore considering a further funding application to develop parking facilities at the site itself and maximise the potential from this site where habitat restoration projects are also being progressed.
A start has recently been made on the development of a “scenic routes” project, taking in viewpoints including one which is relatively high for the area and therefore gives a fantastic view out across the river. This site is notable for its plants, wild fruits and herbs. Subject to funding it is hoped a viewing terrace and interpretation can be developed. In the meantime the viewpoint is being promoted on the maps that have recently been distributed, and which include information in Polish, German and English.
Work has also been underway at the Wieslaw Czyzewski Cedynia heathland reserve to improve and encourage visitor access to this rare habitat for the area. The roadside part of this site is already a well-visited area due to an important historic monument but this had not previously been connected to the wilder part of the reserve. Improved access has been created with a waymarked path incorporating interpretation panels and leading up to a spectacular viewpoint across the Odra, where there are great opportunities for bird, insect and other wildlife watching opportunities. The municipal authorities have also constructed a bike route along the nearby main road to further encourage access.
The most recent Landscape Parks project is an interesting example of partnership working that has also involved the support of a local business. Park staff worked with the local community to create a 620m waymarked path linking the villages of Stary Kostrzynek and Osinowem Dolnym with what had only recently been formally identified as the most westerly point in Poland. A special stone has been installed along with interpretative panels in Polish, German and English. Funding sources included the fast-food chain McDonalds, along with the forestry authorities, department of culture and sport etc. The project appears not only to have arisen out of a concerted effort to get the community to come up with ideas but also to have involved its hands-on support.
Finally, the most ambitious of current projects is an exciting but immensely challenging and costly trans-border project to restore and re-open the derelict, historic Siekierki military rail bridge across the Odra and establish a connection between the Polish and German sides of the river for walkers and cyclists (the Europabrucke/Most Europejski project). A high-level viewing platform is included in the plans and would give stunning views across the river and the wilder, backwaters and wetlands on the Polish side and their abundant wildlife. Key national and inter-national cycle routes pass immediately adjacent to the German side of the bridge and the large population of Berlin is only some 60km away so there is clearly tremendous potential to attract significant tourist numbers. Park staff and partners were working on the final stages of a major bid to European Interreg funds during our visit. The project is also complex from the environmental/habitat impact perspective owing to the presence of an eagle owl and Natura 2000 designated sites. It will be critical to ensure that visitor access and associated noise does not disturb either wildlife nor the fantastic peace and tranquillity that can currently be experienced due to the bridge being little-visited at present due to its poor structural condition and because access is prohibited from the German side.
The role of NGOs in landscape protection and nature conservation
In spite of the high number (around 2000) of non-governmental organizations with environmental agendas, in contrast to the UK there is apparently no significant NGO ownership of land in Poland; just three or four organisations fall into this category. Furthermore, environmental NGOs and those that do own land cannot count on large numbers of members with the capacity to support them financially through subscriptions or donations. Interest in, financial support of and capacity to engage with nature conservation organisations has not been top of the list of priorities for most people due to socio-economic and employment conditions. However, there is nonetheless some impressive work being done at both local and national level in terms of land management and practical conservation projects, as well as lobbying on environmental/nature conservation issues. For example, NGOs had apparently played a key role when the Natura 2000 site network was being drawn up, using the specialist skills, knowledge and advocacy of members to identify important species and habitats and to lobby to ensure that these were not left out and appropriate boundaries drawn up.
Three specific projects/sites being managed by environmental NGOs were visited during the trip:-
Case Study 1: Stowarzyszenie na Rzecz Wybrzeza (Society for the Coast)
The Society has four separate pieces of land totalling around 1,000 hectares of meadows and pastures along the coast of the Szczecin Lagoon. The Society for the Coast’s goal is to create as far as possible a natural and diverse landscape/habitat, following a history of intensive farming in the area and subsequent colonisation by reeds and grasses unsuitable for grazing. All of its land is included in the Natura 2000 network as a result of effective lobbying and campaigning to include one site that would otherwise have missed designation at the time the network was being drawn up. The society is using a mixture of mowing and grazing by Highland Cattle and primitive, semi-wild Konik ponies to improve conditions for birds such as lapwings, black-tailed godwit, redshank and corncrakes. The Society encourages responsible access and has provided visitor facilities such as a parking area, interpretative garden, signage, shelter for educational activities and a viewing tower. It puts on educational activities and has provided a fleet of ex-hire bikes for the local community and there was evidence of these being used to access the reserve. The Society is part way through building a substantial Field Station, incorporating accommodation and other facilities but, frustratingly, work had stalled due to the need for further funding. The Society feels there is a strong business case for the centre as it believes there is significant potential to tap into the high-end of the tourist, leisure and business market. For example, the river and lagoon are popular with sailors and kite surfers etc and there is good potential to market the Field Station and nature reserve as an alternative meeting venue to large businesses in cities such as Berlin, which is just two hours away. The Society is also determined to help with the development of the local economy and had organised workshops to show the potential for developing small businesses capitalising on the natural assets on their doorstep.
Case Study 2: Zachodniopomorskie Towarzystwo Przyrodnicze (West Pomeranian Wildlife/Natural History Society)
Founded in 1994 this organisation is split into two distinct parts – one focusing on birds and currently managing around 100 ha of rented wetland to improve the prospects for the globally endangered aquatic warbler, and the other a wild bison project in the Walcz Forest where it is involved in the protection and development of the population and increasing its genetic variety. The organisation has around 50 members and some donor support. It also raises public awareness about the environment – particularly threatened habitats. A visit to the wetland site being managed by the Society gave an opportunity to learn more about the significant local challenges of managing the habitat as well as wider global aspects to saving this species.
Case Study 3: ZDOW (Zielona) Dolina Odry i Warty)
ZDOW has been working to create a safe breeding haven for oystercatcher and little terns. This has involved the construction of artificial rafts in a man-made reservoir created by nearby sand and gravel extraction, as well as the re-creation of a marsh habitat around 15km away at the Warta River Mouth. With only 20 pairs of oystercatcher in the whole of Poland, contrary to their ubiquitous presence in Scotland, the significance of the project was apparent. Additionally, little terns have only three breeding sites in Western Poland and for nine years up to 2013 there had been no successful breeding owing to predation by mink and fluctuating water levels. Central to the success of the project was the close relationship that had been established with the local community, schools etc, with no shortage of volunteers coming forward to help. Notable too was the relationship that has been established with the nearby minerals company operator who has become passionate about the project in spite of the potential to disrupt extraction to the extent that he had moved operations by 100m at one point to avoid a nesting site and had also agreed when expanding his operation into a wider area not to extract during the critical nesting season. A partnership had also been established with other ornithological organisations further afield in Poland and into Ukraine. The capacity of the project to reach out to the local community is undoubtedly helped by the celebrity status of the driving force behind the project who is well-known locally as a National Geographic photographer. He clearly understands the power of stunning images and both local and national media coverage and has maximised the opportunities presented by his photographic skills to develop a film and attractive project website. It was moving to hear of the project’s success in 2013 when 11 pairs of little terns had bred successfully, of the 200 greylag geese now overwintering at the reconstructed wetland, and that this has become the only successful place for breeding oystercatcher in Poland.
Nature conservation and development pressures
In the limited time available and as a first-time visitor with little prior knowledge of the country and region it was difficult to gauge the extent to which this area currently faces challenges in balancing nature conservation and development pressures, the rate at which these may increase and what capacity there is within the various nature conservation bodies to address these over coming years. However, a site visit to one particular project and discussions on two other aspects whilst travelling through the area gave some examples:-
Case Study 1: Polskie LNG
A vast new oil terminal and liquefied natural gas plant had recently been constructed at Świnoujście on the Baltic Sea. This was a national infrastructure project of great significance to Poland’s energy security, receiving and distributing up to 5 billion cubic metres of natural gas per annum. The project involved an understandably high level of environmental impact assessment, especially in relation to the presence of Natura 2000 sites, and had resulted in a number of mitigation measures to address both natural heritage and local community impacts. These had included the removal of protected species to alternative habitats (for example, dark red helleborine and protected amphibians), substantial tree and shrub planting, measures to protect the sand dunes and, notably in terms of public amenity/acceptance, the construction of a new access to the beach and car park, signage and environmental education trail. High visitor numbers in the summer months (around 18 months after its opening) were evidence of its popularity. However, now the terminal and associated mitigation was complete it was hard to gauge just how controversial this development had been during the planning and construction process. It was suggested that ecologists had ultimately been confident that with careful siting and mitigation the site (a former military base long earmarked for industrial development) was probably the best location for such a development along this stretch of coast.
Case Study 2: Traffic pressure and road upgrades
Another example of pressure on the natural environment of the area, though explored in less detail, was the pressing need to upgrade a number of the major roads in the area, in particular the National Road 3 which comes north from the Czech Republic border. Congestion is a major issue at times owing to the attraction of the coastal resorts. Initial phases of this work had already been completed, not without controversy. With an increase in car ownership and the likely continued popularity of the seaside towns with their spas and beaches for both Polish people and those from further afield, notwithstanding demand from developing industries, it would appear that pressures for further road construction and improvements will rise, potentially leading to conflict with nature conservation objectives given the high level of designated sites in the area.
Case Study 3: Wind farms
There were very few wind farms visible on the Polish side of the river but there was a high level of visual impact from multiple turbines not far away on the German side. The lack of subsidies and a national energy strategy that prioritises coal-fired generation were apparently acting as a check on wind farm development but this topic was not explored in great depth so as to understand better the opinions of those working in nature conservation as to the impacts on species, habitats and landscape, nor public opinion more widely. It would be interesting to know the extent to which nature conservation specialists feel confident that under different economic conditions/a different strategy the high level of designated sites in the area would act as an effective check on developments that might impact on protected sites/species.
It was difficult for a first-time visitor and in the limited time available to explore in proper depth current and potential future tensions between nature conservation and development. In general, public opposition to development proposals seemed (other than the LNG terminal) so far to have centred on whether a development would impact on individual or community amenity rather than explicitly on the natural heritage. Examples given of where there had recently been vocal lobbying included a campaign against a proposal to farm bio fuels in the area. Locals were concerned about living in proximity to a processing plant that would give off unpleasant smells and had organised themselves well to oppose this on those grounds and the developer had, for now, withdrawn its plans. There had also been opposition to mink farming but again largely it seemed on the grounds of impact on residential amenity.
Looking to the future, it seems reasonable to expect that in spite of the high level of highly protected natural heritage sites, the region is likely to face a challenge balancing international, national and regional economic development priorities with nature conservation. It may also be the case that the true definition of sustainable development in the area will become a thorny topic in coming years as is the case in Scotland’s National Parks, although National Parks in Poland do not have the same duty to promote sustainable economic and social development of the area’s communities. Pressures in this region may be particularly high, given its strategic location in Europe. This was apparent from an investor’s guide to the region which highlights the attractions of investing here – 1200 ha are defined as Special Economic Zones, there are local tax exemptions for seven years, availability of EU funds, as well as the geographic advantages of proximity to the Baltic Sea and motorway network of Germany and Scandinavia.
It is to be hoped, as and when development pressures arise and there is a need to challenge them on environmental grounds, and/or where there are opportunities to influence national, regional or local policies impacting on the natural heritage, that improved resources and socio-economic conditions will give the relevant agencies, NGOs and wider public the capacity to lobby effectively to ensure the unique qualities and high levels of biodiversity of this area are not lost.
Comparing Polish and Scottish approaches to managing National Parks
The Information Officer for Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park (LLTNPA) in Scotland participated in this visit and has drawn comparisons between various aspects of the work of LLTNPA and the National Parks in Poland from the perspective of visitor management. While there are some differences in the types of environments found in Poland and in Scotland, there is a shared purpose in making these special places accessible to visitors, educating people about habitats and rare wildlife, while ensuring that effective measures are in place to make sure that the environment is not damaged by the presence of people in these special places.
Several locations in Poland’s Parks have benefited from the installation of viewing platforms, from where there were fantastic views of the surrounding landscape. These platforms are ideal for spotting birdlife and just enjoying the natural environment. While some graffiti was found on one platform, they were otherwise in good condition. In contrast, a recently constructed viewing platform in LLTNPA has scorch marks made by visitors setting up disposable barbecues on the platform. There are plans in Poland to create more viewing platforms, which have been commissioned, while in LLTNPA the designs for several viewpoints across the National Park as part of a scenic routes project were chosen through a competition process.
The viewing platforms in Poland are a distinctive feature in the landscape, while the structures in LLTNPA were selected from designs that had specifically taken into account the impact on the landscape. The winning designs were chosen partly because the materials used enabled the structures to blend into the landscape. As well as viewing platforms, it was easy to find information boards with details and pictures of the local wildlife in Poland, this is not something that has been done in LLTNPA to the same extent, and would be worth developing.
Some information boards were clearly designed to appeal to young people, for example, one information point took the form of cubes that spun round on a central pole. There were different illustrations on each side of the cubes. This kind of interactive feature has become popular in many museums and galleries in Scotland.
One of the parks included on the trip is situated on the border between Poland and Germany, at one point the border is delineated by a river with a bridge that effectively links the two countries. The group looked at the bridge and its surrounding environment, first from the German side and then from the Polish side. The bridge is in a poor state of repair, but there are plans under development for a viewing platform to be constructed on the bridge. It was interesting to see how much more developed the German side was, though the Polish side had the advantage of a greater abundance of wild flowers and insects since it had been left undeveloped for decades. The group visited several different locations close to the German border. The Western edge of Poland had previously been part of Germany until just after the Second World War. From then until the end of the 1980’s Poland had been a communist country, but since the end of communism, many areas of land than had previously been cultivated and farmed were left abandoned, leaving wildlife to flourish.
The subject of transboundary cooperation between Parks in Germany and Poland was explored on a visit to the National Park Unteres Odertal in Germany. On the day the group went to the visitor centre in Criewen, an exhibition was formally opened, which illustrated the work of a collaborative project with the National Park in Mozambique. Staff from the Park in Germany had visited the Park in Mozambique, and while there are inevitably differences in both wildlife and economic situations, the staff had clearly formed good working relationships, and were able to learn from their counterparts.
During their time in Poland, the group were fortunate to be able to meet the Directors of several National Parks who all emphasised the importance of working in collaboration with other Parks. This makes particular sense in Europe where migrating birds move through different National Parks and collaborative working and information sharing will be of particular benefit in monitoring wildlife, and learning more about the migrating patterns of many bird species.
In Poland there are 23 National Parks, while in the UK there are 15 National Parks, two of which are in Scotland. There is some collaborative working between the National Parks in the UK, most recently the UK Parks have promoted ‘National Parks week’, which was marketed by all UK National Parks to highlight specific projects and events in Parks across the country.
There is a strong cycling culture in Europe, and in Poland there were many cyclists, both in towns and out and about in the country. There is a long distance cycling route from the Czech Republic through Germany, passing the border bridge to Poland. As well as the plans for the actual bridge, the intention is to promote the route to the bridge from the Polish side for cyclists, who would then be able to join up with the cycling route on the German side of the river.
In Scotland, LLTNPA has been working with Sustrans, a charity that helps to develop and promote cycling routes across the country. There have been some complaints to the Park about work to upgrade paths, where they have been widened for disability access and in some areas tarmac has been used to upgrade the paths. Complainers suggested that the nature of the routes had been adversely affected by these upgrades, however the materials used were specifically chosen to ensure that little ongoing maintenance would be required, and in Scotland there is specific legislation to ensure that accessible access is taken into consideration for people of all abilities. Given the greater cycling culture on the continent, such complaints may be less likely.
Any developments that involve building new structures in LLTNPA have to take into consideration the potential impact on the environment. The untouched nature of vast areas of land in Poland where wildlife thrives undisturbed is enviable. It was notable that in some cases, National Parks in Poland had been set up with the boundaries specifically created to exclude people from living in the Park. This was possible since much of the land was owned by the State. This is not the case in LLTNPA, where the Park Authority must work with landowners to develop effective land management solutions that take environmental factors into consideration.
The issue of toilet provision is a matter of interest to anyone who is out and about for extended periods of time, and is the subject of regular complaints to LLTNPA. Given the close proximity of Glasgow, the largest city in Scotland, to the Park, on a sunny weekend, toilet provision in the Park is put under severe pressure. In Poland, the Parks visited on this occasion were not sufficiently close to a large urban area (with the exception of Warta Mouth National Park, which is close to the town of Szczecin, where the Park headquarters is located) for this to be such a great problem. In one location there were two portaloos located near a viewing platform, other than this, comfort breaks were met by the facilities in restaurants, which provided the ideal opportunity to sample wonderful Polish food. LLTNPA has been actively involved in promoting local food and produce, this is an area which can be of significant benefit to Parks in any country, helping to support the local economy and providing something that visitors will be looking for. Tasting locally cooked food was certainly a highlight of this visit, and staff were always happy to meet any specific dietary requirements that were requested.
Beetroot soup and cold soup with dill
In terms of access to sensitive areas, there are some places in Polish Parks, where visitors are completely banned during the bedding season. Within LLTNPA, specific nesting sites are protected by law during the breeding season, however the Park Authority Rangers have sometimes been required to direct visitors away from such areas where people have inadvertently gone too close to nesting birds. There was a clear emphasis from the staff in Poland, on the importance of educating people to understand and appreciate the environment and wildlife of their Parks. LLTNPA is similarly involved in educating young people and welcoming school groups to the Park. In addition, dogs are not allowed in Wolinski National Park. It has been suggested that one of the reasons for the decline of one of the rarest birds within LLTNPA, the capercaillie, has been due to the presence of people with dogs,
In many of the locations in Poland, the staff talked about the efforts that have been made to engage with local villages, to educate people in the value of the natural resources and how they can contribute to the local economy. There was a great emphasis from everyone on how valuable these environments are, and the importance of ensuring that local people understand how they can benefit from the protected landscapes on their doorsteps. While the conservation message, highlighting the importance and value of the natural environment is the key message, in Scotland, it can sometimes appear to be drowned out by a requirement for LLTNPA to introduce byelaws to combat the negative impact on the environment through decades of overuse.
There is a balance to be struck in any Park, between welcoming visitors, whilst ensuring that their presence has minimal impact on the environment. Litter is a huge problem in LLTNPA, either left by day trippers or campers, as well as marine waste which is washed up on our loch shores. In the different Parks visited in Poland, there was very little evidence of litter. This included a beach on the Baltic Sea, which was very popular with sun seekers, but even after a busy weekend, staff had found that there had been very little litter left. This was in complete contrast to the situation at Loch Lomond after a recent sunny weekend in May, when areas around the loch shores and nearby village were left strewn with litter.
Park staff in Poland believe that the educational message they are taking to young people is having a positive impact, and that young people are influencing their parents in this. In one Park there had been a decision made to have fewer litter bins, and this had not resulted in more litter being left by visitors. In contrast, LLTNPA is involved in complex discussions with the four local authorities who are located in the Park and are responsible for bin collections. Each local authority has a different policy for waste collection, and visitors assume that it is the responsibility of the Park Authority, which results in a steady stream of complaints about bin collections.
At every visitor centre or Park headquarters, the group found there were facilities available to accommodate educational visits from school groups. In one of the parks there was space to show film footage of the local wildlife as well as tanks containing live fish that would be found in the area. While the number of staff employed in the Parks in Poland is small, the investment in time and resources to educate young visitors should help to spark the interest of tomorrow’s naturalists, ecologists and scientists, as well as the more immediate likely impact of youngsters asking their parents to bring them back to visit the Park again.
As well as the interboundary co-operation seen in Parks, there are strong links between the Forest Service and Landscape Parks in Poland. The Polish Forest Service, are actively involved in providing education on the conservation of habitats and wildlife in the forests, and habitat conservation is a factor in how forests are managed.
Before visiting Poland, the LLTNPA Information Officer consulted the Park Authority tourism team to ask if there was anything in particular they would be interested in learning about, and was asked to find out what languages were used on promotional literature. In many places, leaflets were available in Polish and German, and in most cases they were in English too. This was also the case on Information boards. Leaflets and signage in LLTNPA are usually in English with some information in Gaelic. The Scottish Government actively promotes the use of Gaelic, however lessons could be learned from the Polish Parks in their use of European languages. LLTNPA welcome visitors to the National Park from all over the world and could perhaps do more to provide information translated into German, and other European languages.
As well as signage in Polish, English and German, Latin scientific names that are universally recognised for plants, birds and animals were useful in conversations where translation from Polish to English was not possible.
The staff in every Park covered on the visit, took time to answer continual questions from the group on all aspects of the management of their Parks, and expressed interest in developing links with environmental organisations in Scotland. Fostering such links would be of clear benefit to all, in relation to everything from education projects, shared knowledge of habitats and wildlife and ideas on promoting National Parks.
This study tour was a unique opportunity to look at specific issues that are of concern in LLTNPA to see how they are dealt with in Parks in Poland. It was fascinating to see where there was shared common ground and to learn about how things are managed differently. The enthusiasm knowledge and dedication to their work shown by all of the people working in the Parks in Poland was inspiring. Despite relatively low numbers of staff, the range and quality of the work undertaken to preserve, maintain and promote their Parks is amazing. At the end of the visit, all members of the study group expressed their enthusiasm for welcoming the staff who spent so much time in making this visit so memorable, should it be possible for them to make a return visit to Scotland in future.
“All the wild world is beautiful, and it matters but little where we go, to highlands or lowlands, woods or plains, on the sea or land or down among the crystals of waves or high in a balloon in the sky” (John Muir)
Acknowledgement with thanks to Erasmus+ who were the funding agency for this visit, as well as ARCH, the project promoters and EUCC Poland, the host partners.
Many thanks to Libby who selected us to participate in this study visit and huge thanks are also sent to Kazimierz our wonderful host for the week.