The Nature Conservation Department of the Environmental Board works to preserve the diversity of nature, to protect natural habitats and to ensure favourable conditions for different species. We also maintain natural environments and elements of them which are of value in terms of aesthetics or cultural history, and help those interested in culture and nature to discover these values in protected areas.
In our operations we are first and foremost guided by the Nature Conservation Act, but we are also bound by a number of other legal acts.
The activities we undertake are primarily designed to maintain and protect Estonia’s natural balance. As an agency within the area of governance of the Ministry of the Environment, our everyday work in achieving this involves establishing and monitoring endangered species, protected areas and individual sites. For example, if the ministry receives a proposal to place a species, site or area under protection, the Environmental Board provides its expertise, prepares regulations and draws up a management plan.
Europe’s most valuable habitats and endangered species were mapped as part of Natura 2000. In the framework of this project the Environmental Board organises the protection of these areas and species, which in some cases involves the regulation of very endangered species at the European level within Estonia.
Nature conservation is a very inclusive thing. We have to preserve habitats as integral communities; we have to guarantee nature’s ability to renew itself; and we have to protect individual natural sites and objects such as trees, rivers, springs and rocks. For example, a challenge was issued as early as the late 19th century to map out and preserve the boulders deposited in Estonia by the ice. This was designed to preserve the giant rocks, which were important in terms of both cultural and natural history, and to make sure that they were not exploited as building material.
Nature conservation is closely interwoven with the maintenance of cultural heritage and traditions. This can be most clearly seen in our national parks – Lahemaa, Matsalu, Soomaa, Karula and Vilsandi – and in other places where architecture and traditional ways of life that have emerged over time are protected along with the natural environment. Preserving ancient woodworking skills and the houses the woodworkers once lived in is as much a part of the work of nature conservationists as preserving the views over the surrounding countryside the woodworkers enjoyed from those houses. The fact that the greatest diversity of species at our latitude can be found in the wooded meadows that have been maintained by locals for hundreds of years speaks volumes about the harmony that exists here between nature conservation and human tradition.
What exactly do we do?
One of the Environmental Board’s most important tasks in the field of nature conservation is gathering the data it needs to make decision, including for the organisation of inventories and monitoring. Our nature conservation biologists carry out periodic observations of natural communities and different species and analyse any changes. We also assess general and detailed construction plans and applications for building permits on the basis of whether and how the planned activity could affect the condition of habitats or the position of particular species.
Our nature usage specialists make sure that construction work does not compromise the objectives of building exclusion zones protecting beaches and shorelines. Our l specialists who work to preserve semi-natural biotic communities monitor, amongst others, land owners who receive support from the Estonian Agricultural Registers and Information Board for the maintenance of meadows in order to ascertain whether they are fulfilling their obligations as required and in an environmentally friendly manner.
The Environmental Board is also required to assess and compensate damage caused to private and corporate property by protected species. We also focus on the natural environment in Estonia and dealing with the alienspecies in it which are threatening native species (such as hogweed, which can affect people’s health).
Our staff also includes aquatic specialists, who issue fishing cards for recreational fishing and provide advice on how to reduce the negative impact of water-based structures on aquatic life.
Practical activities related to nature conservation largely take place in Estonia thanks to the support allocated to the country from the European Union’s structural funds. That is why many of the staff from the Environmental Board are involved in providing advice on projects, carrying out preliminary and follow-up checks and dealing with other parts of such processes, ensuring that the EU money we receive is put to the best possible use in nature conservation.
What we do sustains diversity
There are quite a number of habitats and protected areas in Estonia where preserving the status quo in nature depends upon human intervention and activity.
Matsalu national park boasts possibly the greatest diversity of species in the country: in addition to its large numbers of plants, animals and fish, it is a nesting site and migratory stopover for around 275 species of birds. Some years ago conservationists became concerned about the local land owners allowing their cattle to graze in these nesting areas – all too often the animals would trample the nests and the eggs they contained under foot. As a result, cattle grazing in the area was outlawed.
However, removing the cattle from the coastal pastures and meadows had something of an opposite effect to the one intended: the area eventually became so overgrown that the birds were no longer able to nest there, and their numbers in Matsalu decreased drastically. Today cattle grazing once again plays an integral part in preserving the natural environment of the national park, which remains one of the most important nesting and migratory sites in Europe.
Männikjärve bog in Endla Nature Reserve. Photo: Elo Raspel