This report covers an Erasmus + Structured Training Course to Latvia 4th-11th September 2016. There were six participants and this report relates only to my experience.
Firstly I would like to thank Libby Urquhart from the ARCH (Archnetwork), The Latvian State Forest Service and in particular Baiba Rotberga and Andis Purs who led the trip and were excellent hosts, guides and travelling companions. Thanks also to Elmars Peterhofs, Martins Lukins, Janis Ozolins, Janis Ence, Viesturs Larmanis and Gatis Erins with apologies to any of the experts/guides who I may have missed.
We were initially given an overview of the Latvian Forestry Sector, Nature protection system and practices in Latvia and the Integration of capercaillie management. The group then travelled to the Cesis region for the remainder of the training course and journeyed from there out to other sites relevant to the course programme. These included – Latvian Forest Sector governance, Nature protection system and practices in Latvia, Integration of Capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus) Protection in Forest Management, Continuous cover forestry and private forestry, Population ecology and sustainable use of large carnivores in Latvia considering conservation policy and legislation at EU scale, Visit to Natura 2000 site “Sedas purvs”, Cultural heritage as green infrastructure in rural areas of Northern part of Latvia, Visit to re-cultivated peat bog and cranberry fields, Remote sensing applications for environmental resource assessment and management planning
As noted above there was a very full programme of training, information and site visits but for this report I would like to focus primarily upon the site visit to Ligatnes upes krasts and presentation given by Dr Janis Ozolins on the “Population ecology and sustainable use of large carnivores in Latvia considering conservation policy and legislation at EU scale” and how this relates to the situation in Scotland.
I was particularly interested in this topic as it relates directly to one of the delivery goals in the next Scottish Wildlife Trust 5 year plan 2017 – 2022 Evidence and knowledge developed to champion the case for lynx re-introduction to Scotland
The SWT policy on Reintroduction, translocation and introduction of species states that SWT believes – that there is both a moral and ecological imperative for reintroducing species lost from Scotland due to human persecution or anthropogenic habitat loss. We believe that when reintroductions are being considered, priority must be given to those species for which suitable habitat is already available and which play a keystone, functional role in a habitat or ecosystem (for example wood ants, European beaver and Eurasian lynx).
It is within the last few centuries that humans have brought about the loss of some of the country’s most notable species. Of these first went the lynx (200 A.D.), then the brown bear (500 A.D.), beaver (1300 A.D.), wild boar (1500 A.D) and lastly wolf around 1700 A.D.
Scottish Wildlife Trust, (in partnership with the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and Forestry Commission Scotland), undertook the first formal reintroduction of a native mammal species in Scotland (and the UK) in May 2009 when the first beavers to live in Scotland in over 400 years were released at Knapdale in Argyll. I was part of the project team involved in this reintroduction and would anticipate being involved in work involving the lynx.
© dogrando (CC BY-SA 2.0) 1
Prior to the visit to Latvia I had read the blog of Gordon Buchan (Ambassador for the Scottish Wildlife Trust for the last 2 years and an award-winning wildlife cameraman, presenter and public speaker) which contained the following paragraph relating to lynx –
“To many, the wild seems a luxury with little relevance in the present and no firm place in the future. Our existence, as it always has been, is founded in the natural world and we need it now more than ever. More broken than nature is our relationship with it. So much needs fixing. I dream of and hope for, a Scotland where everyone could walk through healthy, flourishing forests in the knowledge that these incredible cats were again an integral part of our native fauna. People would see that the bold decisions that were made were sound, sensible steps towards righting wrongs of the past, helping solve problems of the present and avoiding those of the future”. Gordon Buchanan.
I knew that it was highly unlikely that I would see lynx in the wild during the visit to Latvia but nonetheless hoped that I may catch a glimpse or possibly see some tracks or scat. As it turned out the lynx remained elusive but being present in the forest where it was known that they lived had a powerful effect on how I felt. Being present in a forest environment where lynx (and bear, wolf and moose) were present made for a much richer experience. During this field visit and others during the week we came across evidence of large mammals mostly footprints and droppings and the frequency of this made me fully appreciate the lack/scarcity of these animals in the forests back in Scotland.
Dr Janis Ozolins who was leading this field trip to Ligatnes upes krasts has previously seen lynx in this area and the photograph above shows a sandy beach where he previously he had seen lynx hunt a roe deer.
Scotland has a very low percentage of woodland cover compared to Latvia at around 20% (mainland) compared to Latvia with over 50%. Despite this it has been estimated (A potential habitat network for the Eurasian lynx. David A Hetherington et al, 2008) that Scotland has over 20,000 km of suitable lynx habitat split into two main networks of interconnected patches the Highlands (c. 15,000 km and the Southern Uplands (c. 5,000 km) and that Scotland could support around 400 adult and sub adult lynx in the Highlands and 50 in the Southern Uplands. This is in comparison to Latvia where Dr Ozolins estimates that there are currently between 500 -700 animals.
Dr Ozolins noted that lynx in Latvia specialise in specific prey (with some animals hunting roe deer almost exclusively while others mainly target hares) and he thinks that specialisation and the relevant hunting techniques involved is passed from mother to kits. This specialisation could be of significance in selecting lynx for any future reintroduction programme – for example selecting animals who mainly target roe deer. Particularly important in a Scottish context where there is a great imbalance between large numbers of deer and heavily overgrazed vegetation communities.
During the field trips we also saw significant evidence of beaver activity such as feeding stations and felled trees along many of the water courses.
As noted previously there was a trial reintroduction of beavers in Scotland from 2009 – 2014. In June 2015, Scottish Natural Heritage published the Beavers in Scotland Report. The Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, Roseanna Cunningham, is now considering the future of beavers in Scotland with a decision anticipated at some point in 2016.
Beavers were first reintroduced to Latvia in 1947 with further supplementary animals released in following years. Beavers have also moved between the Baltic countries. It is estimated that there are currently in the region of 100,000 beavers in Latvia (this is estimated to be close to the carrying capacity). Beavers are a keystone species and provide a wide range of ecosystem services but they also have an impact upon the area where their activities take place and a range of measures need to be undertaken to mitigate against damage which may be caused. During the field trips we talked to a number of different individuals about beavers and their impact upon the landscape, there was however no consensus with a range of differing opinions given. In Latvia hunting is one method used to control beaver numbers/activity and it will be interesting to see what control methods are proposed in Scotland if the beavers currently living wild are to be allowed to stay.
We were told by Baiba and Andis beavers that were living in the waterways in Riga and if we went looking for them after dusk there was a high probability that we would see them. This proved to be the case and the beavers seemed little affected by the loud noise and human activity surrounding the waterways. At one point a kit emerged from the water and made its way up the embankment and sat feeding in front of us seemingly unconcerned by our presence. This seemed a very fitting end to the visit.
Dr Ozolins shows the group otter spraint
© Petr Kratochvil 1