Forestry sector in Latvia by Agata Baranska, Forest Enterprise Scotland.
This report follows a week-long structured training for adult learners in Latvia, hosted by Latvian State Forest Service (SFS), organised by Archnetwork Scotland and founded by EU Erasmus+.
The training programme (available as Appendix 1 of this report) has covered a wide variety of subjects, from the Latvian Forest Sector governance, nature protection systems and practice in Latvia, management and protection of selected species (e.g. capercaillie, lynx, wolf), continuous cover forestry in privately owned forests; to Latvian cultural heritage, berry plantations and nature reserve on sites of commercial peat extraction, and remote sensing applications for environmental assessments.
Beyond some basic historical facts, my knowledge of Latvia prior to participating in the Erasmus+ programme was close to none. As a forester, I was particularly looking forward to the topics relating to forestry which were to be covered by presentations and site visits scheduled for the first few days of the training. My main interest was comparison between Scottish and Latvian forestry sector. I was interested how forests in Latvia are managed where nature conservation is one of the main objectives. The first day of the programme was dedicated to Latvian Forestry Sector and it’s governance, and it was introduced to us by Baiba Rotberga and Andis Purs from State Forest Service. It was followed by a visit to continuous forestry demonstration farm Kalna Gaviesi, owned and managed by Ziedonis Vilcins and to North Vidzeme Biosphere Reserve and Gauja National Park, where forest management was discussed along nature conservation.
Forest sector is very prominent in Latvia, being worth 5.2% of GDP and making serious contribution to the country economy (in 2014 various forest exports constituted 19% of total Latvian exports). Forest industry (forestry, timber processing and furniture industry) supports 53,000 jobs – a serious number in a country of population below 2,000,000. As a comparison, in financial year 2012/13 Scottish forestry and timber processing was supporting 19,555 jobs.
The State Forest Service (SFS) is governed by Forest Department of Ministry of Agriculture. It’s role is similar to the one played in Scotland by Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS), and it is to control and supervise forest management activities irrespective of the ownership. Stock Company ‘Latvian State Forests’ (LSF), established in 1999, manages the state-owned forests, with the aim to preserve and enhance their value – which corresponds to the role played in Scotland by Forest Enterprise Scotland (FES). State Forest Service currently employs 670 people (as a comparison, in financial year 2012/13 Forestry Commission Scotland was directly employing 1,224 people – this number covers FCS, FES and Forest Research staff). The LSF is divided into 10 head forestries, 29 regional offices and 360 management areas. The average area managed by a forester (ranger) is 10,000ha. The state-owned forests managed by LSF belong to the Ministry of Agriculture (not the State Treasury), while some areas belong to Ministry of Environment (e.g. national parks), Ministry of Defence (e.g. military restricted areas) and Ministry of Education (circa 29,000ha of research forests, exempt from some of the State regulations, and acting as a base for educational and research purposes.
80-years old SP, boreal forest, North Vidzeme Biosphere Reserve. Photo: A. Baranska
The forest cover in Latvia has increased significantly over the last 70 years: from 24% in 1930s, to 38% in 1973, 50% in 2009, 52% in 2015 (3.38 million ha) and is constantly increasing, due to afforestation of abandoned poor agricultural land, by both natural regeneration and active planting. As a comparison, in 2015 18% of Scotland was covered by woodland – 1,43 million ha. The forest cover percentage varies across Latvia, from above 29% in areas to the south of Riga (main agricultural areas), 30% to 39% in eastern regions, about 50% in central part of the country, to above 66% in Ventspils (north-western part of Latvia). Some local authorities are finding themselves in situation where increasing area of forest has negative impact on other land uses and businesses. It is therefore quite controversial that even in areas where forest cover exceeds 86% it is still possible to qualify for a government grant for woodland expansion. The availability of grants for afforestation is by some people seen as impediment to rural development and a contributing factor to depopulation of more remote rural areas.
The ownership structure of forests is: 49% state-owned, 50% privately owned and 1% belongs to local governments. In comparison, in Scotland 33% of afforested area is State owned. There are approximately 144,000 private woodland owners in Latvia. Majority of them own relatively small areas of forest (60% owning less than 5 ha, 37% – between 5 and 50 ha) and only 2% of the owners managing areas of more than 50 ha. It is worth noting, however, that there are few owners managing area of more than 500 ha. In comparison, in Scotland almost 92% of privately owned woodlands belong to traditional landed estates and forestry investors. This leads to very different ownership structure: 17% of landowners owns less than 5ha of woodland, 29% owns between 5 and 50 ha, 11% between 50 and 100 ha and 43% owns more than 100 ha, making the average size of privately owned woodland c. 230 ha (in Latvia the average size of private forest is c. 8 ha). It reflects the historical differences in land ownership structure, and sets Scotland (and UK) apart from continental Europe, where forest ownership is much more common in society (in Latvia 2.2% of population owns parcel of woodland, while in Scotland – only 0.1%).
There are significant differences in species composition between forests in state and private ownership – please see below.
There are also differences in species used for forest regeneration (restocking), both planting/seeding and natural regeneration between state-owned and privately owned forests:
State owned forests in Latvia are managed by a ‘clearfell and restock’ system, which is similar to Scottish approach. The difference is that in Latvia the size of a clearfell site is restricted to 5ha, while in Scotland there are no legal requirements regarding the size of felling coupes. The shape and size of area to be cleared is determined in Land Management Plan (MNP) or it’s older equivalent – Forest Design Plan (FDP), and depends on the landform, landscape character and crop structure. There is also a big difference in approach to restocking: is Scotland, commercial conifer areas are being established by replanting and natural regeneration is mainly used to establish native woodland and in areas managed by continuous cover systems. In Latvia majority of felled areas are restocked using natural regeneration. In 2014 almost 66% of previously felled areas were restocked by means of natural regeneration (c. 25,100 ha). As different tree species have different requirement for regenerating (e.g. level of light, open versus sheltered conditions etc.), achieving natural regeneration at required density is easier for some species than for other. It is reflected in ratio for planting and seeding versus natural regeneration for main species.
Chart 2: Areas restocked with main forest species, per regeneration type – data for 2014.
Private forest owners prefer the use of natural regeneration as more cost-effective, and increasing areas of private forests are managed by continuous cover systems. Four private forest owners from Cesis, Valka, Limbazi and Liepaja regions, with support from Latvian Environmental Protection Fund, Forest Development Fund, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and IKEA Co-operation on Forest Projects has established forest management demonstration territories. Their aim is to show how selective cutting and thinning is delivered on the ground, providing a link between forest management theory and practice. The continuous cover approach to management provides a steady and (as the felling volume should not exceed the annual increment) sustainable income from the forest, as opposite to one-off income from clearfelling, followed by expenditure necessary to establish the next generation of forest. Wide choice of native tree species in their natural ranges, mineral soils and more continental climate with relatively rare catastrophic weather events, mean that the scope for continuous cover forestry in Latvia is much bigger than is Scotland, where majority of NFE forest were planted with non-native conifer species, in exposed upland locations and often on peat, in many areas exceeding the depth of 50cm.
The visit to Kalna Gaviesi demonstration farm in Cesis region, owned and managed by Ziedonis Vilcins proved to be very informative. Mr Vilcins has no formal forestry education, but being since an early age interested in all matters related to forestry, has quickly developed impressive knowledge and skills. Having acquired considerable size of forested area (c. 650 ha) and making a few attempts at clearfell management, he decided that things should and can be done better. Mr Vilcins explained that ‘the sight (of clearfelled areas) was preposterous – part of the useless timber remained in the forest. Then the idea struck me – maybe we could do it differently and not to fell trees needlessly but simply to let them grow’.
Continuous cover forestry at Kalna Gaviesi demonstration farm. Photo: A.Baranska.
As a result, Mr Vilcins is able to have a steady and sustainable income from his forest (annual felling volume is 1,000 – 1,500 m3), while ensuring that the total value of his property is constantly increasing, because he is felling less volume per annum than the annual increment. The main species in Kalna Gaviesi property is Norway spruce, with Birch, Aspen, Scots pine and Grey alder. The main productive species is Norway spruce, grown for quality logs, with Birch also providing valuable timber. Other species are of lesser commercial value, but as Mr Vilcins noted, knowing his forest well and being able to respond quickly to buyer’s demands means that he is able to sell his timber at good prices and make the most of the niche market.
All felling is done manually, while extraction is carried out using forwarders. Great care is taken while selecting tress to be felled. The idea is to use every intervention to secure multiple benefits: to harvest mature trees ready for felling, open the canopy to regulate amount of light, which allows to create conditions suitable to regeneration of desired species and /or to increase amount of light reaching groups of young trees, and to selectively thin the young tress to improve quality. The benefits of such approach is obvious: the habitat conditions are maintained, favouring more shade-tolerant species (in this case – Norway spruce), ground flora is relatively supressed, and as a result minor soil disturbance caused by timber extraction is sufficient to ensure that seeds are reaching mineral soil and are able to germinate and get established. The costs of harvesting per m3 of timber might be higher than for clearfelling operation, but it is more than off-set by lack of costs associated with post-harvesting restocking. The continuous cover management requires well developed network of forest roads and tracks, allowing for efficient timber extraction and minimising damage to young trees.
Mr Zedonis Vilcins (1st on right) explaining the selective felling approach to forest management, Kalna Gaviesi demonstration farm. Photo: A.Baranska
Continuous cover management is not currently used by Latvian State Forests, as the Latvian Forest Policy (1998) makes no provisions for such approach. It is worth noting, however, that extensive areas of protective forests along Baltic coast, along rivers, lakes and mires and ‘city’ forests are managed less intensively, avoiding clearfelling – their major management objective is to protect sensitive soils, water courses, water bodies and wetlands, rather than producing timber. There are other requirement of sustainable forest management, like earlier mentioned restricting area of clearfell sites to 5 ha, leaving at least 5 standing tress per ha of felled area (ecological tress), not felling trees around big nests, badger setts, wetland springs etc., and maintaining at least 4 dead trees per ha of forest. There are 2228 microreserves (established to preserve protected species and habitats) within Latvian State Forests boundaries, covering total area of 40,600 ha. Majority of them was established to benefit 3 species: 52% for the protection of Capercaillie, 12% for Black stork, and 10% for Lesser spotted eagle. In total, over 865,000 ha of forest have ‘protected’ status, and that number covers nature protection areas, protective belts, microreserves, buffer zones etc.
Latvian State Forest Service (SFS) is also responsible for control of forest fire safety measures, detection and suppressing of fires (irrespectively of ownership) and for keeping and updating of forest fire information system. All costs of detecting of forest fires (including the erecting, maintaining and manning of network of 179 watch towers), and of firefighting are covered by SFS. Private forest owners are responsible for observation of required protective measures, and for monitoring of the site of forest fire after it was supressed. Majority of the fires are caused by people, and are located mainly along public roads and around cities. Average size of forest fire is 0.5 ha. In comparison, in Scotland responsibility for fire protection and fire suppression belongs to the landowner. Main forest season in Scotland is in spring, and majority of fires are hill fires, rarely reaching forests.
SFS is also responsible for supervision of hunters and game management (FCS has no corresponding responsibilities; FES manages game on NFE strictly to reduce damage levels) and for keeping and updating of State Register of Forests, necessary to monitor and enforce legal acts relevant to forestry, establish forest tax (dependant on the age of forest), set the maximum annual felling volume for state-owned forests, and provide statistics for forests of all types of ownership.
Forestry sector in Latvia is much bigger economical player then it is a case in Scotland. The number of work places supported by forestry and timber processing industry, high level of export and contribution to country’s economy means that forests are regarded as a high value asset. Wide selection of native tree species growing within their natural ranges and more sympathetic soil and climate conditions, mean the forestry is an integral part of Latvian landscape. Even though the forest area has significantly increased since 1970s, that increase was more acceptable to the society, (in many cases happened as a result of natural succession process), than the big woodland creation schemes delivered at about the same time in Scotland. As the trees are growing on sites suitable to their requirements, are maintained and thinned, the quality and volumes achieved are higher than in Scotland. As the forestry is using trees native to Latvia, all forest can be treated as ‘native’, from the start having higher ecological value than non-native plantations in Scotland. Obviously, the ecological potential of the forests depends very much on management practice, and there is growing pressure from environmental organisations to influence forestry practice. As there are potential benefits from looking at day to day business practices from a different perspective, and there probably is some room for improvement, there is also a danger to condemning tried and tested management methods. As it happens in Scotland (and from personal experience – in Poland), foresters in Latvia are now being portrayed by some environmentalists as being profit-focused and indifferent towards ecology, nature protection and climate change. I hope that Latvian foresters will be able to engage in discussion and keep the society on their side. There is lot of reasons to be proud of forestry in Latvia.
I would like to take the opportunity to thank once more Libby Urquhart from Archnetwork for organising the trip to Latvia, our host – Latvian State Forest Service, all the experts who shared their knowledge with us, and especially to Baiba Rotberga and Andis Purs from State Forest Service, who gave their time, expertise, local knowledge and who went the extra mile to make our time in Latvia special. Thank you.
Appendix 1: Training course programme
Nature Exchange Three – managing our natural and cultural assets
The Firm of Arch (Archnetwork), Scotland
Appendix 2: Sources
Latvian Forest Sector and the State Forest Service – presentation from Baiba Rotberga, Director of Forest Resource Management, State Forest Service;
Nature Protection System and Practices in Latvia – presentation from Andis Purs, Head of Environmental and Forest Protection Division, State Forest Service;
Latvian forest sector in facts and figures (2015) – informative leaflet, Zalas majas, Riga;
Forest Ownership in Scotland, A Scoping Study – Andy Wightman, published by Forest Policy Group, 2012;
Forestry Facts and Figures – Forestry Commission, 2016;
The economic contribution of the forestry sector in Scotland – final report by CJC Consulting, in association with Steve Westbrook Economist and Neil Chalmers, 2015;
Private Forest Management Demonstration Territories – informative leaflet, Pasaules Dabas Fonds with association with WWF.