Wetland and Coastal Management in the Odra Delta and Baltic Coast, Poland

9-16 June 2018

A report by Niall Corbet, Scottish Natural Heritage

Hosted by Kazimierz Rabski, The Society for the Coast

Organised by Libby Urquhart & Seona Anderson, Archnetwork

ERASMUS+ Structured Adult Education for Staff Course

NET4 Managing our Natural and Cultural Heritage Assets

Programme 9-16 June 2018:

9 June

  • Arrival of Participants.
  • Travel to Czarnocin (Stepnica Commune, West Pomerania Region).

10 June

  • Introductory lecture – an overview of nature conservation in Poland.
  • Visit to Odra Delta Nature Park (private area belonging to Society for the Coast, a NATURA 2000 site).

11 June

  • Visit to Viking village in Wolin.
  • Visit to Woliński National Park (coastal) and meeting with Park staff.

12 June

  • Visit to office of West Pomerania Landscape Park Management and meeting with staff.
  • Boat trip on Dąbskie Lake (a unique nature area of islands and water in close connection to Szczecin city).
  • Sightseeing in Szczecin.

13 June

  • Landscape Parks Complex of West-Pomerania Voivodship (Region).
  • Travel to Namyślin (near Kostrzyń).

14 June

  • Landscape Parks Complex of West Pomerania Voivodship.
  • Visit to National Park Unteres Odertal, Brandenburg, Germany and meeting with Park staff.

15 June

  • Ringing greylag geese with Park staff in Ujście Warty (Mouth of Warta River) National Park (south).
  • Visit to Ujście Warty National Park (north).

16 June

  • Bird watching on the area created by Green Valley of Odra and Warta Rivers (NGO).
  • Visit to heathland reserve within Cedynski Landscape Park.
  • Visit to Moryn Pleistocene heritage park and old town.
  • Travel back to Szczecin-Goleniów Airport and departure of Participants.

West Pomerania – geographical and historical background

West Pomerania is situated in north west Poland on the Baltic Sea coast. The region’s western boundary forms the frontier with Germany along the Odra River (Oder in German) which starts its life over 1,000km to the south in the Czech Republic. Our study tour was centred on the western side of West Pomerania, around the city of Szczecin (pop. 400,000).

The northern part of our study area comprised the coast and the huge freshwater lagoons and associated wetlands at the mouth of the River Odra. Further south along the Lower Odra River Valley is a largely flat, post-glacial landscape of farmland and forests with extensive wetlands along the Odra River and its tributary the River Warta.

From around the 14th century until the end of the Second World War in 1945 the region of West Pomerania was part of Prussia and then Germany. After the war the region was incorporated into Soviet occupied Poland, its border with East Germany being formed by the Odra River (although the border was never formally agreed until 1992 after the collapse of the Communist regime).

The surviving German population of the region mostly fled to the newly created East Germany and were replaced by refugees and migrants from eastern Poland, the Baltic states, Ukraine, etc. These incomers had no historical or cultural attachment to the region or its land. As one of the eastern European Communist countries dominated by the Soviet Union, Poland was subject to Soviet style heavy industrial development which resulted in significant environmental pollution. The Odra River has now largely recovered from the serious degradation suffered during this period.

Pre-war agriculture was traditional with rich biodiversity. Communist era agriculture was in the form of intensively managed state owned collective farms resulting in environmental degradation, water pollution and loss of biodiversity.

When the Communist regime collapsed in 1989 so too did much of the industry and collective agriculture of the region. Due to the population having no historical ties to the land there was no easy reversion to more traditional agricultural practices. As a result much of the land was abandoned. Gradually much of this land is being returned to cultivation but some areas remain abandoned with no clear ownership. This has had both benefits and negative effects on the biodiversity of the area.

Much of west Pomerania is forested, with some ancient and semi-natural forests but largely dominated by plantations of Scots pine. Over 90% of this forest is state owned.

Odra River with Szczecin Landscape Park wetlands on the far bank and a coal-fired power station (taken from Germany)

Nature Conservation in Poland today – an overview

As with most countries Poland has a hierarchy of protected nature conservation sites:

National Parks

First created in 1932 by the Ministry of Religion and Public Education! There are 23 in Poland, largely owned by the state and managed by the Ministry of the Environment. Most incorporate some strict core nature conservation areas where no public access is permitted. We visited Woliński National Park in north west Western Pomerania, a series of coastal habitats, wetlands and forests, and Ujście Warty National Park in south west Western Pomerania, a complex of wetlands along the Warta River. Most National Parks are also protected as Natura 2000 sites (see below).

Landscape Parks

Designated by regional authorities (Voivodships) from the 1970’s as areas where people could enjoy nature as well as for the protection of nature. They aim to conserve nature and landscapes as well as cultural and historical features. They also try to promote environmental education (from nursery to university) and tourism. A mix of state and private ownership with a lower level of protection than National Parks. Similar in concept to Scotland’s Regional Parks. There are six Landscape Parks in West Pomerania.

Areas of Protected Landscapes

Covering 27% of Poland but with a lower level of protection than Landscape Parks.

Nature Reserves

1,481 of these smaller local reserves in Poland with 118 in Western Pomerania.

Natural Monuments

2,900 in Western Pomerania – very small protected sites.

Private nature reserves

For example, the Odra Delta Nature Park belonging to the Society for the Coast. The Nature Park itself has no formal status or legal protection, although there is interest from NGOs in trying to change this. However, all of its land is designated as a Natura 2000 site, the highest level of nature conservation protection in Europe.

Non-Government Organisations (NGOs)

Although there are a number of nature conservation NGOs in Poland they tend to be fairly small organisations. There are no equivalents of the UK’s RSPB or Wildlife Trusts with hundreds of thousands of members, including many thousands of active volunteers. In fact NGOs were banned during the Communist era and so there is no long history of such public activism and volunteering. This limits the effectiveness of the NGOs who also struggle to obtain funding. Polish NGOs are blocked by the government from applying for EU LIFE+ funding unlike their UK counterparts.

Water regulation

Due to ongoing changes within the Polish government there is lack of clarity over roles and responsibilities for the regulation and protection of the countries water environment.

Natura 2000

An EU-wide network of internationally important nature conservation sites given the highest level of legislative protection (in theory). When Poland joined the EU in 2004 there was a rush to designate a series of Natura 2000 sites in accordance with EU legislation. However, this was handled very clumsily with no consultation with local farmers, foresters, etc. which resulted in a lot of opposition to the designations. This wasn’t helped by some overzealous nature conservationists who tried to take a strict nature conservation only approach – a situation sadly mirrored in many countries around the world where nature conservation is imposed on local populations rather than through education, negotiation and agreement.

Sites visited (north to south)

Woliński National Park (Natura 2000)

The National Park protects the northern part of coastal Wolin Island, the delta of the Swina River, the inner saline waters of Szczecin Bay, plus a 1 nautical mile belt of Baltic coastal waters. Woliński National Park is the first maritime park in Poland. The 10,937 ha terrestrial part of the Park is approximately half wetlands, such as saltmarsh and reedbeds, and half forest, with smaller areas of wet meadows and dry dune grasslands and heath. Part of the coast is composed of a 95m high terminal glacial moraine, the remnant of a vast 3km thick glacier that once flowed south across what is now the Baltic Sea – this now forms densely vegetated coastal cliffs, complete with the remains of German fortifications from the Second World War.

The saltmarshes are grazed by cattle from May to October. Rotational grazing is used to maintain different stages of succession which creates greater floristic diversity and benefits the extremely rare aquatic warbler which favours newly regenerating reedbeds. Some areas are also cut mechanically but this results in poorer botanical diversity.

The wet meadows are mown in late summer with some natural grazing by deer and wild boar, and a very small number of elk. The dry dune grasslands and heath are mown and scrub is controlled to prevent their succession to pine forest. Those areas on the edge of the Park are threatened by agriculture, built development and increasing recreational pressure.

Inland areas of the Park consist mainly of post-glacial moraine hills covered with beech-pine-oak forests. Beech is the dominant tree species with several different types of beech forest present, depending on the underlying geomorphology and historical land use. There are some areas of ancient beech forest with nine species of associated orchids, including some rare species, parts of which are protected as strict nature conservation zones with no public access. Other areas of beech forest have a dense understorey, some dominated by violets, whilst some are very bare, with wind erosion preventing the growth of a ground layer or tree regeneration.

Over 230 bird species have been recorded within the Park, including breeding white-tailed sea eagle, aquatic warbler, dunlin, black woodpecker, eagle owl and red-breasted flycatcher. In extreme weather conditions (northerly storms) water levels can rise by 1m, flooding the nests of many ground-nesting birds. In some years this can occur several times in a season, in other years not at all. Over 100,000 wintering birds have been recorded in a single day, including bean geese, long-tailed duck, scoters and smew.

The popular seaside tourist resort of Miedzyzdroje lies within the National Park; its population of 5,500 hosting around 1.5 million visitors annually, mainly in the summer. Such visitor numbers naturally create pressures on some areas of the Park, e.g. disturbance to breeding birds by walkers, predation and disturbance by increasing numbers of cats and dogs, invasive species escaping from gardens, and erosion of sensitive grassland and heath habitats. High levels of tourism also result in increasing pressures for built development, e.g. hotels and apartments, on the boundary of, or even within, the National Park. Compliance with legislation to protect the Park can be difficult to enforce, particularly given the economic importance of tourism to the town.

Odra Delta Nature Park (Natura 2000)

At 1,000 hectares this is the largest private protected area in Poland, owned and managed by the Society for the Coast (NGO) and purchased with assistance from the Dutch government. It also includes a 400 ha forest reserve managed by the National Forestry service, and 2,600 ha of the Szczecin Lagoon managed by the Maritime Office in Szczecin. There is now a jointly owned 20 year management plan for the Nature Park.

A return to traditional farming methods, i.e. extensive grazing and mowing, is being used to restore the previous floristic and ornithological biodiversity of the wet grasslands. To achieve this the Society for the Coast maintain the largest group of Konik horses in Poland, an ancient Polish breed, currently numbering about 230 animals. They also have around 130 Scottish Highland cattle. Between them these hardy animals graze an area of 450 ha. They are left virtually unmanaged and are increasing in numbers. Some will therefore be sold or transferred to other nature reserves in Poland or elsewhere, including the Netherlands, for use in similar conservation grazing projects. Some areas are also mown annually, including parts of the extensive Phragmites reedbeds which are used for high quality traditional thatching of house roofs.