Deer, Moose & Forestry in Latvia

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Paul Roberts – Scottish Natural Heritage


This report was written following an Archnetwork nature exchange study tour to Latvia in August 2019. I’ve worked for Scottish Natural Heritage for ten years and prior to this worked for the Deer Commission for Scotland. Seeing first-hand how the Latvian State Forest Service manages their forests and wildlife; the challenges, opportunities and some of the solutions they have found was a valuable experience for me that will influence both my professional and personal life.

Forestry in Latvia

Over half of Latvia (52%) is covered by native forest made up of; Scot’s pine (34%), birch (30%) and spruce (18%), with aspen and alder making up the remainder. Of this 49% is owned and managed by the Latvian State Forest Service; Latvijas Valsts Mezi on behalf of the Latvian Ministry of Agriculture. The remaining 51% is privately owned by increasing large and multinational companies (for example Ikea are the second largest private forest owner managing 90,000ha of forest). This compares to Scotland which has 18% forest cover, of which 33% is owned by Scottish Forestry and 66% privately owned.

Latvia has 683 protected areas; 333 natura sites and a further 350 areas protected by domestic legislation. Approximately half of Latvia’s forests (30% of state owned forest) have some form of protection from commercial timber extraction:

  • Protected forests (in state reserves, national parks and wildlife parks), 12.6 percent;
  • Restricted management forests (in protected landscape areas and for environmental protection), 38.5 percent;
  • Exploitable forests (all other forests), 48.9 percent.

Where management takes place this consists of clear felling small stands of between 5 – 10ha of mature trees. Two-thirds of cleared forest regenerates naturally from seed by trees deliberately left within the stands, from the seed bank in the soil and from surrounding trees. A third of cleared forest is planted with commercially grown saplings. Commercial thinning also takes place and again regeneration is allowed to take place naturally from seeds. All regeneration is by native trees and saplings are grown from Latvian forest stock.

Forestry is economically important in Latvia. In 2018 forest products were worth 2500 million Euros which is 20% of Latvia’s export revenue. Other economic benefits include employment, tourism, recreation and hunting; non-wood products are worth 100 million Euros. Forestry is also important in Latvian culture and society and there is a strong, Scandinavian connection to the forest. Hunting, foraging and mushroom and berry picking are popular activities. The public have recreational access to all state owned forests but restrictions apply to private forest land.

Damage to young trees by herbivores has a significant economic impact. In 2018 15,000ha of forest was damaged. Of this 85% was caused by herbivores, 5% by insects, 5% from windblow and the remainder from drought, fire etc. The cost of protecting trees is also significant at 2.3 million Euros. Chemical repellents are widely used as a deterrent and fencing is rare and expensive. Distraction feeding by leaving piles of leafy branches to draw moose away from young trees is also used.

The two forest–dwelling herbivores that damage tree are moose and red deer (also called elk). Roe deer are also widespread in Lativa but are not considered to cause significant damage to young trees. The populations of both red deer and moose are increasing, with red deer being more numerous in the west of the country and moose in east. The estimated density of both species is approximately 0.5 – 1.0 ha. Both species are hunted across the country to control damage to young trees but also because hunting is culturally embedded in Latvian society.

Herbivore management: Hunting

Hunting is a popular activity in Lativa and there are approximately 22,000 registered hunters and it is estimated that hunting is worth 37 million Euros a year. There is a strong history and tradition of forest hunting and an influential political lobby with many senior politicians being active hunters. Although there is a rural/urban split in attitudes to hunting in Latvia (with urban populations more likely to have negative views of hunting) this is not as marked as Scotland. Overall hunting is generally accepted as both a sporting activity and an evidence-based mechanism for controlling both herbivore and carnivore populations.

Hunting and game management in Latvia is supervised by three government authorities: the State Forest Service, part of the Ministry of Agriculture, manages population estimates, quotas, permits, damage assessment, register of hunters; the State Police, firearms regulation and enforcement and the Ministry of Environment, management of protected species and hunting in protected areas.

As in Scotland, wild deer in Latvia aren’t owned by anyone and hunting rights go with the land but can be sold or leased to third parties. The State Forest Service leases hunting to 923 hunting organisations and issues licences at a cost of 1.42 Euros a year plus 0.50 Euros per hectare. On private land hunting rent is set by the landowner. There are no Deer Management Groups in Latvia, instead the country is divided into 2074 hunting districts which manage hunting at a local level. State Forest Service leases are issued to individual hunters, hunting syndicates and hunting associations on agreement of a set of conditions including overall land management objectives, cull targets and agreed collaboration with neighbours.

Cull targets as based on damage to the forest as estimated by the State Forest Service. Hunters are given bag limit to meet within the legally-defined hunting season, if the limit is reached before the season ends hunting stops. Hunters record deer taken online logging the time, place, species and sex and carcasses are tagged so that they can be traced back to the individual hunter. A mobile phone app is being developed to facilitate this. The data collected is used to monitor cull targets and assess damage management across the country.

Although the right to hunt comes with land ownership, a minimum area of land is required by law in order to hunt each game species:

  • roe deer; no less than 200 ha of woodlands and farmlands
  • red deer hinds and calves; no less than 1000 ha of woodlands
  • red deer stags; no less than 2000 ha of woodlands
  • moose; less than 2500 ha of woodlands

This is calculated by estimating the winter forage areas required for each species. The average land holding is 10ha so this minimum land area requirement ensures collaboration between hunters and encourages population scale management. It also prevents the subdivision of land for hunting into smaller and smaller areas.

There is no qualification required to demonstrate competence to hunt. Hunting is so popular and widespread in Latvia that the State Forest Service does not employ professional stalkers or rangers and all deer and moose management on state owned forest is carried out by what we would call ‘recreational’ hunters. Hunting tourism is also popular in Latvia and provides revenue for private landowners. There is a general trend of rural de-population across Latvia and this may be partly responsible for hunters being an aging population. However, demand for land to hunt over remains high often leading to conflict between hunters or between hunting organisations and the State Forest Service.

Latvian forest also have beaver, wildboar, lynx, wolves; all of which are hunted. Lynx and wolves are European protected species and Latvia has secured a derogation under the Habitats Directive to allow harvesting of both species. European brown bears are expanding their range into Latvia from Estonia and Russia, however the population is small and to date hunting has not been allowed.

Comparisons with Scotland

Latvia and Scotland face similar challenges in growing trees commercially and managing the damage caused by herbivores. They also share the same challenges in managing their forests to facilitate access and recreation and to protect key habitats notified under Eurpoean and domestic legislation. Hunting in Latvia and stalking in Scotland is commercially important but also has a long history and a significant cultural and societal value which brings similar challenges to both countries.

A key difference between the two countries is that half of Latvia is covered by native forest. Felling and regeneration (compared to replanting) is more extensive and takes place at a smaller scale (stands of 5-10ha) across the country. This differs to monoculture stands of non-native sitka spruce, often large forest blocks which are clear felled forest and replanted.

Another fundamental difference between the two countries is land ownership. The State Forest Service owns half of Latvia’s forest (approximately 25% of the country) as a result of the legacy of the Soviet occupation (1941 – 1991). Although private companies own large areas of land the average land holding size is only 10ha. Latvia’s red deer and moose (the key herbivores that damage commercial tree crops) are forest dwelling and live at lower densities than in Scotland. Latvia does not have any open hill ground and does not have the history and culture of open hill (red) deer stalking. Consequently there is less conflict between land managers, managing large estates who have competing objectives; for forestry (and low deer numbers) verses commercial deer stalking (and high deer numbers). Another consequence of the more integrated approach is the absence of deer fences in Latvia. Also the popularity of hunting in Latvia means that the State Forest Service does not need to employ professional stalkers to manage deer on public land.

Roe deer are managed in forests and woodland in the lowlands of Scotland and this is mostly done at a local scale by individual forest managers. Roe deer are not considered to be a significant cause of tree damage in Latvia; partly because they are found in lower densities due to the presence of forest dwelling red deer and moose. Roe deer are hunted in Latvia to manage crop damage on agricultural land and as trophy animals rather than to prevent tree damage.

In Latvia deer management is administered centrally by the State Forest Service and there is a national register of hunters who require a license to hunt. However management is devolved to the 2074 hunting districts with cull targets and objective agreed locally. This and the requirement of a minimum land area over which to hunt different species means that there is a more collaborative approach to hunting in Latvia. Cull reporting is more rigorous than in Scotland and hunters are required to record where, when and how many deer they harvest.

Final thoughts

Latvia has strong forest culture which feels very Scandinavian. There is a strong connection between the people and the forest which includes recreation and access but also encompasses foraging, berry and mushroom picking and hunting (both herbivores and carnivores). Latvia’s extensive, natural forest is seen as a key national asset and makes a significant contribution to the Latvian economy. The land ownership pattern and the lack of different habitats mean that conflicting land management objectives for deer are rare.

Wildlife management is highly devolved giving a sense of local ownership of the objectives for deer and carnivore hunting but with a national, strategic overview. The overall impression is that Latvia’s native forests are managed for deer and trees and conservation.

Paul Roberts – September 2019

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