A Journey to Europe’s Eastern edge

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Study visit to Latvia

3rd to the 10th June 2011

By Shireen Chambers, ICF

Julia Galley, SNH

Ian Edwards, RBGE

John Adair, SNH

Patrick Robertson, FCS (report editor)

This study visit was part funded by the Forestry commission Scotland for the International Year of Forests

On our recent exchange to Latvia we were taken on a journey that not only allowed us a glimpse at some of the wonderful natural highlights fund in the country but also afforded us a view into the collective memory of the Latvian people – in the museums and cultural sites we visited but also more significantly through the tales and experiences that were passed on to us by our host and the range of locals that we met on our journey from the beavers chewing the trees in the charming capital Riga through former Soviet bunkers numerous stunning woodlands and lakes, to the very edge of Europe.

What follows is a series of essays from members of our group affording a glimpse into our thoughts following one gloriously sunny week in early June.

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Clockwise from top left – Beaver chewed tree in the centre of Riga, Riga sunset, sunset over Lubans lake, the edge of Europe (marked with yellow tape!), pinewood and bottom left – Latvian hospitality

Forestry in Latvia

Shireen Chambers

What a pleasure to travel through Latvia and see great swathes of Scots pine and birch, all managed on long rotations for timber, yet chock full of wildlife and with a rich undergrowth. There is still a forest culture in Latvia: 51% of land is covered in forest which is integral to Latvian lives – houses are built from wood and heated by it, cooking implements are made from it, and the population connects with it in a very obvious way. Their folklore is intimately bound up with their forests just as it is in Scotland but the similarity ends there. Here in Scotland we have lost our forest culture and with it an understanding of what sustainable management of our woodlands entails.

We were very fortunate in the choice of State Forest staff to accompany us on our trip; Baiba Rotberga, Director of Forest Management and Janis Ozolins Head of Game Management – both were incredibly knowledgeable not just on Latvian forestry but on forestry policy and conservation management throughout northern Europe.

Most of the timber grown in Latvia is pine and birch, on 100 and 60 year rotations respectively. Spruce, oak, lime and alder all also grow well. The dramatic political, social and economic change in central and eastern Europe in the 1990’s resulted in the transformation of forest ownership patterns. Land that was under private ownership in 1940 has been returned to former owners or their inheritors. Much of this is forest land and continues to be managed although in some cases not intensively. The average size of private forest holding is under 8ha which means that professional forest management is absent from all but the larger sites. Owners often face difficulties in paying for compulsory inventory plans and are obliged to reforest harvested and cleared forest areas. If they fail to comply, the State Forest Service undertakes this work at the owner’s expense.

Half of the total forest area is owned by the State and managed by a Forest Enterprise company. Tensions exist between this company and the regulatory body for whom our hosts worked. This is mainly due to Latvia recently exceeding its allowable cut to bring much needed income during a difficult economic period and to ensure jobs in downstream processing are protected. This has led to Latvia State forests losing their forest certification leading to international criticism.

During our tour of eastern Latvia we were able to visit the three categories of forests according to grade of protection and intensity of allowed forest management activities:

· protected forests 10% – includes strict nature reserves, national and nature parks, nature reserves, anti-erosion forests, suburban parks;

· restricted management forests 16% – includes protected landscape and suburban forests and those which serve to protect the environment; and

· commercial forests 74%.

We were shown many examples of where conservation plays a major role in forest management. This is easier to do in a country with only 34 people per km2 (Scotland has 66 km2 and the UK overall 244 km2) and land pressures are not a restriction. Nevertheless I came away with a distinct impression that Latvians had managed to retain a vital connection to their forests which we have not, to our loss.

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Left – Birch seed orchard grown in a poly tunnel

Right – Pine seed orchard outdoors

Both are pruned at a manageable height for harvesting seed

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Left – Pine

Right – Birch Logs

Land without fences

Ian Edwards

‘As you can see in the past the peasants were so poor they made everything out of wood’. This was how the guide began his presentation of the beautiful wooden, and wood-filled, buildings at the open air museum in Ludza, in Latvia. This is certainly one interpretation of the Latvians longstanding relationship with timber and dependence on wood products. The universal use of wood for everything, from the shingles on the roof to the bucket drawing water from the well, may be born out of necessity and hard times but it is nevertheless ingrained into the psyche of modern Latvians most of whom are unashamedly proud of their rural heritage.

A good example of how many urban Latvians continue to have one foot on the land was seen at the annual craft market that takes place in wooded parkland in another open-air museum, just outside the capital Riga. Hundreds of craftspeople from all over the country set up stalls beneath the trees in a colourful celebration of traditional craft-skills that include linen textiles, felt, embroidery, pottery, baskets, herbal and honey products, glass and the blacksmith’s art. The country has been hit hard by the downturn in the global economy yet 30,000 people descend on the market on the first Saturday in June to spend their hard-earned money on birch spoons and spatulas, coopered-oak pails, pine berry punnets, wicker baskets for mushroom gathering, ash foot stools and candy-coated cranberries – showing the genuine pride that Latvians have for their indigenous forest products.

The Museum of Occupation in Riga presents the long and sometimes brutal succession of occupations the Latvians have endured from neighbouring regimes, most recently the Germans and Russians, and how adversity has shaped the national spirit. Traditional dress and celebrations like the midsummer festival of St Janis have survived even the blackest days of Latvia’s chequered history. We were told that Riga and the other towns are deserted on 23rd June when everyone goes to their family home in the countryside where bonfires are lit and couples wander hand-in-hand into the forest in search of the elusive (and botanically improbable) ‘fern flowers’!

The most recent period of occupation ended only in 1992 after the break-up of the Soviet Union and the legacy of this period is still very evident. Food shortages and the notorious queues for basic necessities have kept home-grown, hand-made and wild-gathered alive, at least in the rural areas. School holidays start at the beginning of June and despite unseasonal high temperatures in the 30s, everywhere children were out in the gardens helping parents and grandparents weed the vegetable patches. Old apple and pear trees are kept well-pruned and new cherry orchards are being planted. Many families keep a pig or two, pastel-painted beehives are lined up in the fields and neat rows of five-litre, milk churns containing the produce of perhaps a single family cow are lined up along the road.

The rejection of the collective farms after the Soviet era and migration from rural to urban areas has resulted in areas of farmland that appear under-utilised, there is a flourishing of biologically diverse wildflower meadows, wetlands and scrub regeneration. A range of soil types, including sandy, calcareous and floodplain soils were observed with a wealth of associated plant and animal communities. The Daugava River Valley, alone has 1113 flowering plant species. The overall impression of a ‘lightly-tamed’ landscape is further enhanced by the absence of hedges, walls or fences. Fields are not divided and meadow merges with woodland or rye field without any physical boundary.

Possibly the most obvious difference between the landscape in Latvia and Scotland is in the choice of building material. Although Soviet-style brick-built apartments are still widespread it is the abundance of traditional wooden architecture that makes the greatest impression. Log-built houses have been lovingly maintained in heritage parks, showing the endurance of carefully selected logs, cut in February and orientated with the more durable, slower-growing northern-facing side of the logs on the exterior facing the elements. Log buildings are still being built and are the preferred option for new lodges, hotels and resorts where both solid machined logs and massive laminate timbers are employed.

Unparalleled access to local building materials, energy, seasonal fruit and vegetables, wild fungi, milk, meat and honey make Latvian rural communities more self sufficient than most equivalent farming communities in Western Europe, and gives them an enviably low carbon footprint. However, despite their low contribution to climate change Latvians can’t escape the global consequences and the very warm temperatures we experienced are part of an increasingly unpredictable weather pattern. Other changes that may have an impact on the future of the countryside include foreign businesses buying up land to plant with fast growing hybrid biomass crops. But meanwhile Latvia has a lot to teach other nations of the world, including the esteem they have for their indigenous culture and lightness with which they live on the land.

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So many ways to make a beautiful house from wood

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No Fences.

Habitat and landscape protection in Latvia

Julia Galley

Latvia has a wealth of unaltered natural heritage assets, from vast forests to unspoilt coastline to natural raised bog habitats. Overarching policy, ‘Environmental Protection Policy Plan’ (1995) sets down Latvia’s long term strategy (25-30 years) in terms of environmental protection. One of the main aims being to preserve the present biological diversity and the landscape character of Latvia. Subsequent legislation sets out general environment protection objectives and opportunity to designate land to protect and preserve the genetic basis of nature, diversity of biotopes and landscape. These designations consist of :

National Parks; Biosphere Reserves; Natural Monuments; Nature Reserves; Protected Landscape Territories;

State Nature Reserves

A visit to Teici Nature Reserve was included in our itinerary which is located in the east Latvian lowlands. Teici bog is one of the largest near-natural sphagnum bogs in the Baltic states and is included in the Ramsar Convention of wetlands of international importance, and in the database of important Bird Areas in Europe. The reserve comprises 19657 ha, 14000 ha of which are covered by the Teici bog which includes numerous pools and depressions and has a 9 m deep layer of peat. The bog has experienced a reduction in water level in recent years and to combat this man-made natural dams have been built which have been utilised widely by the native beaver population. Whilst visiting Teici Nature reserve we were also informed of a conservation project on the Lesser Spotted Eagle (Aquila pomarina), led by the Latvian lesser spotted eagle specialist Ugis Bergmanis. This project is also in collaboration with Germany in which the second egg from a Latvian pairs’ brood has been translocated to nests in Germany where the population has suffered from poor egg shell creation resulting in very few broods surviving. This is not of any detriment to the Latvian pair as it is normally only the first chick that will survive and fledge, unless there is a breeding season when prey items are particularly abundant.

There is a live web cam fixed on a Lesser Spotted Eagle nest in Latvia which you can view at: http://www.pomarina.lv/

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Nature Parks – represent both natural and cultural historical values of a certain area.

Another site of extraordinary beauty was Daugava river, of which the “Augšdaugava” (the Upper Daugava) is a nationally protected nature area and “Daugavas loki” (Meanders of Daugava) is classified internationally a NATURA 2000 site and nationally as a Nature Park. There are nine meanders that represent a unique and extremely rare feature of the landscape. They also support a vast number of plants and animals, including a delightful little and common ternery which has only been so successful because local farmers have grazed their goats around the ternery ensuring vegetation is kept under control, which is ideal for a tern breeding colony. Surprisingly it is all thanks to a proposed hydroelectric power station that prompted a study to prove the floristic and natural value of the last undisturbed part of the Daugava river valley. This work proved its unique value and subsequently prevented the proposal from ever going ahead, and this year the park is now being proposed as a UNESCO World heritage site.

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One of our hosts – Janis Ozolins by a meander in the Daugava river

The abandoned farmland of Latvia

John Adair

During our stay we were driven east from the capital, Riga, as far as the borders with Russia and Belaruss, turning south west from there towards the Lithuanian border before returning north westwards to Riga. A round trip of about 700 kilometres mostly through what is officially classed as rural Latvia, where tiny villages crop up every four or five kilometres but towns are very few and far between.

With the two dominant habitat types in rural Latvia being forests and farmland, present in roughly equal measure, what is lingering longest in my mind, is the extent to which the farmland is currently abandoned.

The scale of the abandonment is difficult to describe. Imagine travelling from Thurso to the Mull of Galloway, a similar distance to our journey round eastern Latvia, through large and intermingled patches of forest and farmland. Then try to imagine that the majority of the farmland you are passing through is abandoned, some of it for the past twenty years, with no livestock, no fences, the buildings collapsing and the fields dense with tall grasses, dandelions, creeping buttercups and umbellifers.

Despite the abandonment, and in some cases because of it, the wildlife on much of the farmland is highly impressive and rich in species protected at a European level, particularly birds. Marsh harrier, corn crake, nightjar and black stork appear to be common, with black grouse utilising hay meadows (a sight which we have almost completely lost in the UK). Other species, such as lesser eagle, white stork, spotted crake, knot, black-tailed godwit, ruff and great snipe are not so common but nonetheless are present in numbers of European importance.

It is not all good, of course, because as well as the human tragedy of depopulation, unemployment, local and regional cultural losses and lower land values, the abandonment has seen a significant decline in numbers of wildlife species which depend to some degree on managed farmland, such as passerines, crow, buzzard, kestrel, lapwing, wading birds and migrating cranes and geese. In addition, this detrimental effect is aggravated by the recent intensification of the farmland which is still managed, through the use of modern techniques, equipment and chemicals.

As discussed with our Latvian guides, the challenge for the administration there is to develop sustainable economic growth for its people and at the same time protect its extraordinary natural heritage. Latvia has many designated sites, including Natura 2000 sites, but a few of the speakers we met during our trip expressed lingering doubt and concern over how much protection from inappropriate development the designations really hold.

The will is certainly there, if not the funds as yet. I was deeply impressed and often moved by all of the many people we met, their knowledge of, and passion for their country’s history, its traditions and its natural heritage. The best thing we could do to help, we were told, is to encourage people to visit Latvia, to bring their ideas, knowledge and experience, but most importantly to bring their support.

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Meadows showing no signs of intensive farming and a stork in it’s nest

Final word

Patrick Robertson

From my own perspective, I was impressed by the Latvian stance of only planting native trees for timber production and in particular the way their native species list and climate allows for timber production and native woodland habitats to coexist under the same canopy over such vast tracts of land.

I certainly felt very lucky to be able to learn about the effects of the fall of the iron curtain from people that were there when it fell, and of the management issues of such a massive land border, and even occasional visiting Bears in a way that no documentary or lecture could ever match.

To attempt to conclude or summarise the places, experiences and conversations that were in such grand supply on our trip would be to attempt to summarise the entire cultural and natural history of a proud and fascinating nation, such was the breadth of topics that were explored along the way.

I will reserve the final words to thank the people who made the experience so interesting and undeniably valuable – Libby, Janis and Biba as well as my fellow students for the week.

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So much blue sky and every night a delightful sunset

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