Ķemeri National Park – Bogs, Wetlands, and Re-meanderings
Author: Richard Cooper – Peatland ACTION Project Officer, Loch Lomond & the Trossachs National Park Authority
Leader: Janis Kuze of the Nature Conservation Agency (Latvia)
Ķemeri National Park (Latvian: Ķemeru nacionālais parks) lies 30 miles west of Riga, and west of the city of Jūrmala. Designated in 1997, Ķemeri is Latvia’s third largest national park covering an area over 380km² with diverse habitats including a number of European importance such as bog woodland, black alder swamps, intermediate and raised bogs, rich fens, and coastal dunes.
The park is mostly occupied by forests (57%) and mires (24%), the most significant of these being The Great Ķemeri Bog (Latvian: Lielais Ķemeru tīrelis). Forestry activity (e.g. thinning) no longer takes place in the National Park in order to reduce disturbance, although some conservation management such as fell-to-waste still takes place.
The Great Ķemeri Bog
Ķemeri Bog is a large area of raised mire (6,192ha) with varying degrees of woodland cover. From the air, and tourist observation towers, the spectacular bog patterning of a large intact “wet” bog can be seen, but there are parts of the bog that have had damaging activities and recent positive interventions.
Formation of bogs in Latvia started in the postglacial period, approximately 10,000 – 7,000 years ago as the climate became warmer and more humid.
The landscape was created by a combination of sands and gravels being dumped as glaciers retreated, and the formation of raised beaches as the land level rose in isostatic readjustment. This created an area inland with dunes and occasional cone shaped gravel hills. Subsequent climactic change allowed fen then bog formation to slowly engulfed large parts of the low-lying landscape. There are still refuges of the original heathland vegetation remaining on the old gravel cones that now form islands poking through the bog: heather and older pine trees. It is these areas that are home to mammals such as pine marten and fox, as well as birds including waders, Capercaillie, Black Grouse, Crane, owls, Golden Eagle, Osprey, and White-tailed Sea Eagle. Nesting platforms are constructed on these “islands” for Golden Eagle although perhaps only 1 in 10 are occupied with less than half of these being productive pairs. Unlike Scotland there are virtually no natural cliffs in Latvia which could provide alternative nest sites.
Photo: Relic dune within Ķemeri Bog
The Jurmala area was important during the Soviet period as Ķemeri was a Spa town frequented by locals and soviet officials. The spa waters were a result of the area’s bogs overlying Dolomitic Sandstones and resulting in many natural sulphur springs: a sublayer of gypsum and soil bacteria form H2S gas which easily dissolves in water. The therapeutic mineral waters and muds found in Ķemeri are used in health resorts to treat mostly digestive system and skin problems.
However, a decline in the area’s water quality coincided with a decline in the Spa’s fortunes.
Although the bog has not experienced large-scale economic exploitation as other bogs in Latvia, it was nevertheless affected by the peat extraction carried out in the second half of the 20th century, lasting up to the 1980’s. The ditch network was created in order to drain the exploitation area. These ditches not only affected the exploitation area, but also the adjacent bog by causing enhanced tree growth, the decline in Sphagnum, and an increase in heather and other dwarf shrub cover.
Peat milling operations, especially close to the edge of the mire, have removed the top 2m of peat. At the time these operations were approved as “bog was considered a disease of nature”.
During the Soviet era large “bog quarries” had been promoted where some of the areas of the deepest peat were removed down to the base of the mire. This was so deep it caused contamination of the water table. It was these waters that fed the Spa industry of the adjacent town and so the Soviet administration stopped the extraction due to the adverse effect it had on the Sulphur Waters that were so important to the spring. (Restoration of these particular deep extraction sites is still proving problematical and has not taken place.)
An EU funded programme of restoration began in on the more peripheral area of the mire where peat milling had taken place. Peat dams had been used to stem the flow of water along the 1-2m wide ditches previously put in place to drain the peat before the commercial peat extraction.
The peat dams are substantially bigger (wider and more robust) than Scottish ones. The reason: beaver have colonised the artificial ditches as broadleaved trees fringe these. As beaver burrow into banks the peat dams need to be over-engineered, to ensure they do not collapse should the beavers burrow into them.
Photo: Wide dam (foreground) blocking drainage ditch.
Photo: Evidence of beaver.
It was said that if the blocking of ditches were to be done now they would use surface peat to completely fill the ditch, and not leave it open – possibly in a response to the arrival of beavers.
Setbacks in restoration occurred in 2005 including storms and a 300ha wildfire.
“Conservation of Wetlands in Kemeri National Park”. (LIFE02NAT/LV/8496)
The former peat extraction area was still dominated by bare peat fields where the bog vegetation did not recover due to excessively dry conditions. Using EU funding these fields were rewetted. In the surrounding ditch at the edge of the peat fields an excavator built 50 peat dams from locally won peat. Additionally, three large dams were built in the marginal area. The former extraction road was increased in height to form a central dam in a 1.4 km stretch, and three culverts installed.
Photo: Former extraction road – now central dam
EU LIFE project “Sustainable and Responsible Management and Re-use of Degraded Peatlands in Latvia” (LIFE14 CCM/LV/001103, LIFE REstore)
In some areas of the former peat extraction fields, natural bog vegetation was still not restoring even after raising the water level. As part of a €1.8 million LIFE REstore project, re-naturalisation took place in a 4.3ha area by way of profiling the territory and sphagnum planting (a method unprecedented in Latvia on such a scale). In order to evaluate the most effective sphagnum planting strategy for natural conditions, various species of Sphagnum were planted in different combinations in differently prepared areas. The results of this are yet to be published.
Photo: Rewetted bog (although after 2 dry summers the water table is low)
Project dates: 01 September 2015 – 31 August 2019
|Administration of Latvian Nature protection fund||554,288|
Areas of undamaged bog receive no management input or grazing as their water levels are sufficient to maintain equilibrium.
Typical bog species of Ķemeri Bog
Photo: Round-leaved sundew (Drosera rotundifolia)
Photo: Wild Rosemary (Andromeda polifolia)
Photo: Marsh Labrador Tea (Ledum Paulstre)
Photo: Cowberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea)
The restoration works undertaken so far are led by the fact that this is a natural habitat (now designated under European law, as well as the country’s own designations – see elsewhere in this report). The principal driver was therefore nature conservation. Only in passing was any mention of a carbon store made. The size of Ķemeri Bog makes it a key habitat in the mitigation of climate change.
Notably the Latvians take pride in restoring their “Natura 2000” sites. However, commercial cutting of peat still continues outside these areas. At a visit to the tree nursery (see elsewhere in this report) the growing medium used was 30% peat – obviously a locally harvested product for the forest industry!
The Meadows of Dunduri (Melnragi Meadows)
On the western flanks of the Ķemeri National Park flows the River Slampe. The flood plain forms the boundary to the raised mire. This river was canalised in 1974 to take drains cut into the forest and bog to the east and then flow southwards ultimately to drain into the River Lielupe. In the early years of the new millennium threats had emerged to the conservation status of the habitats and species around the river. These were linked to land use changes which had drained wetland environments and many of the hay meadows were becoming increasingly overgrown following the abandonment of traditional agricultural practices by local farmers. Urbanisation and visitor pressure were also noted as representing ongoing.
In 2005 the first river restoration project in the country secured LIFE funding to prepare a management plan, acquire the land, restore the river, and identify mechanisms for maintaining the site on a long-term basis.
Restoration works implemented by the Administration of Ķemeri National Park with around 730 ha of meadows purchased and 450 ha restored to natural flood plain meadows. An 8-year LIFE project ensued involving a great deal of time communicating with the locals to get their buy-in to the project. Their opinion on such matters makes a project work, or not as there can be unforeseen consequences of planned actions:
Photo: Downstream – Man-made dam
Photo: Upstream – beaver dam
A man-made dam constructed to hold water back in the north of the project area helped attract a beaver which constructed a more effective dam slightly upstream and resulted in the seasonal flooding of the adjacent meadows – greater than the planned area. A local farmer has subsequently lost an area of land he uses for production. However, the percentage of his landholding lost is small and he tolerates this loss. Vegetation has reacted quickly to the changed management (as visible in the photo below).
Photo: Water backed-up from beaver dam – great vegetation regrowth
To the south of the project area a 2.1km section of the canalised river was realigned to a more natural riverbed again, with the total length of meanders now reaching 4.6 km.
The restoration used historical data to pin-point the shape of river meanders prior to being straightened. Excavators were then used to reinstate the river to its old course. Fen habitats developed on the floodplain which quickly became home to a variety of bird species including many species of warblers, water rail, Marsh Harrier and Lesser Spotted Eagle.
Photos: Views from the observation tower – showing the canalised river now cut off and the meanders recreated.
The meadows themselves are now grazed by a mixture of Konik Ponies and Hex Cattle. These are left out all year and have no intervention. Dead animals are left in-situ acting as a carrion source for the many carrion feeders natural to the area: wolf, eagles, buzzards, and wild boar, amongst the many other vertebrates and invertebrates that help remove and recycle the carcasses. Grazing of the stock into the mire edge is not restricted and it is hoped that in the longer term this will aid a more graduated and natural edge between floodplain and mire to develop.
Photo: The observation tower overseeing the Melnragi Meadows
Public viewing towers have been built using LIFE funding and the floodplain can support 5000 waterfowl during the period of flooding that follows the snow melt.
Further reading is available at http://www.kemerunacionalaisparks.lv/images/files/DunduriENw.pdf
The project provided a useful capacity building experience for the Latvian authorities involved in nature conservation work. Introducing livestock to graze the meadows by river Slampe was a first step in shifting to away from mechanised hay-making methods towards self-sustainable meadow management.
Also, many useful lessons have been learnt during the forging of closer cooperation between landowners, farmers and local communities in the planning and implementation of these projects. Outcomes here led to more land in the park being managed from a conservation perspective.
An interactive map of the locations by the author can be found at:
The above is an account following field visit as part of a course developed by ARCH, funded through the -Erasmus+ programme and hosted by Andis Purs of the Latvian State Forest Service.