Estonia - where the European natural heritage lies
The Estonian territory (45,215.4 sq. km.) is about the same size as Denmark's or Holland's, but its population is only 1.4 million, more than three times smaller than Denmark's and more than ten times smaller than Holland's. Therefore, in Estonia one should find ten times fewer human footprints per average square foot of land than in Holland. Also, with far fewer cattle, sheep and pigs per human than in many other western European countries, even more space is available for Estonian wildlife such as wolves, bears, lynx, otters, beavers, elk, eagles, storks and their less conspicuous relatives. The average human ecological footprint in Estonia could be considerably smaller than that in countries with high consumption rates as well, but unfortunately it is not quite so - e.g. our energy production alone, based almost exclusively upon oil-shale, is quite wasteful.
The twentieth century was dramatic for Estonia and has left its mark on the nature. Estonians gained, lost and regained independence and endured almost half a century of Soviet occupation. After World War II, many resistance groups remained hidden in the forests, and the KGB uprooted many remote villages because of suspected support to these "forest brothers." The Soviet kolkhoz system was highly centralized. Some regions were intensively used for high-input low-output farming; in other regions, the land was abandoned. In addition, for almost half a century, both the Soviet army and the border guard closed large areas of Estonia to civilian use. For the most part, the environmental legacy of the Soviet army is poor; however, the worst degradation was confined to relatively small areas. However, because much of Estonia is flat, wet, and unsuitable for agriculture and permanent habitation, with peat bogs covering about one-fifth of its surface, large tracts of forest and bog remain in their natural state. In fact, many of the
villages indicated on the map are not villages at all but small cottages or farms in the middle of the forest.
Estonia has a long, indented and diverse coastline of 3,794 km (2,540 km on more than 1,000 islands). In western Estonia, rising land slowly and steadily creates new coastal wetlands, which appear as shallow bays and inlets, coastal lagoons and marshes, or coastal meadows and mud flats. The Estonian coast differs from the rough granite seaboard of its northern neighbor Finland and the straight sand beaches of Latvia to the south. The Estonian coast changes from sheer limestone cliffs in the north to sandy beaches and shelving coastal meadows in the west. Formerly, these coastal meadows were extensive; today only a few are grazed, the rest having become overgrown with juniper or reed. Migrating birds find this long diverse coastline extremely attractive.
During the period when the Estonian coastline coincided with part of the western Soviet border, most of the coastline was carefully guarded. People were unwelcome, and settlements vanished under harsh Soviet restrictions. This preserved the coastal area from extensive development. Presently, the Shores and Banks Protection Act, adopted by the Estonian Parliament in 1995, prohibits building in a 100 -200 meter coastal zone, thus restricting summer-cottage building and other unwelcome development along the Estonian shoreline.
The gray seals love these undisturbed coasts. Roughly one fifth of the estimated 7500 Baltic gray seals tend to keep close to Estonian coasts. On mild and ice-free winters, many Baltic gray seals give birth to their pups on small islets in Estonian waters.
Estonia is a cross-point for Arctic waterfowl migrating along the East Atlantic Flyway. According to some estimates, up to 50 million water and coastal birds are attracted by the abundant Estonian coastal wetlands. Many of these birds stop to prepare for the long journey to their Russian Arctic breeding grounds. At the peak time, usually the first two weeks of May, every small inlet swarms with coots, grebes, ducks, geese and swans.
The largest coastal wetland in Estonia is Matsalu, a large bay surrounded by various coastal habitats -- coastal, alluvial and wooded meadows, reed-beds and islets--all offering favorable habitats for migrating and breeding waterfowl. During the spring migration, more than two million waterfowl pass Matsalu, primarily long-tailed and other Arctic diving ducks. In addition, nearly the entire population of Bewick's swans - ten to twentythousand - passes Estonia, most of them staying around Matsalu along with about 20,000 barnacle geese, more than 10,000 bean and white-fronted geese, and thousands of wading birds.
Although during the autumn migration, fewer waterfowl appear at Matsalu, more than 300,000 do pass by. Spectacular flocks of common cranes feed on area fields and gather to overnight in sheltered wetland areas. In the 1980's, up to 21,000 cranes were counted in Matsalu, although since then their numbers have decreased significantly. The main threat to Estonian coastal wetlands does not come from overexploitation but from abandonment and undermanagement. The Estonian government recently launched a program to subsidize the management of semi-natural habitats, including coastal wetlands, and many efforts by conservation organisations including ELF are aimed to draw attention to and restore these valuable coastal habitats.
FORESTS FAVORABLE FOR WILDLIFE
Estonia is situated on a boreo-nemoral zone, a transitional area where the coniferous Euro-Siberian taiga opens onto a European zone of deciduous forest. Forests and woodlands cover almost half of the Estonian territory; the forest area has more than doubled during the last half of the past century and continues to grow. Historically, most forests were owned by German landlords and churches; today, nearly half the forested land belongs to the state, easing conservation efforts. In early 2002, the Estonian State Forest Management Company (RMK) received FSC certification, a sign of responsibility and commitment to sustainable forestry practices. This important step was largely a fruit of efforts of ELF and other conservation organisations in Estonia. On the other hand, private forests in Estonia today face extremely strong felling pressure, and ecologically valuable forests can rarely be saved unless they are in protected areas.
The financial rules of world markets are now applied to Estonian forests. In the late Soviet era, three to four times less timber was harvested than is now and forest operations ceased in spring and early summer. To be credit-worthy in today's market economy, forestry has to operate year-round. Modern foresters can cut off old stands with incredible speed, endangering hibernating bears and destroying bird nests during the breeding season.
The great numbers of large carnivores, such as bears, lynx and wolves, indicate the natural ecological condition of Estonian forest ecosystems. Although perhaps not as many as 1000, as estimated by over-enthusiastic hunters, hundreds of lynx dwell in Estonia's large forests, together with up to 200 wolves and more than 500 brown bears. In addition, these big forest tracts are home to the flying squirrel, an animal seldom found elsewhere in Europe.