Sorrows of the marshes

After the ferry crossing over Lake Sporovskoye, you can stand on an observation platform from which an amazing view of reed ‘woods’ is offered

When rows of reeds close over your head, so that the pathway narrows, the marshes and the inhabitants no longer benefit: no other plant can exist there. The reeds choke all other life. After the ferry crossing over Lake Sporovskoye, you can stand on an observation platform from which an amazing view of reed ‘woods’ is offered.

Peatland research in the Volozhin District’s Bortenikha

The marshes are home to thousands of insects, animals, plants and birds; many live only in this habitat and 50 are already under threat of extinction in Belarus. About 100 species listed in our national Red Book live in Sporovsky and Zvanets reserves, including the great raft spider. Living only in lowland marshes, it is rarer than the aquatic warbler. Some species are known only to dedicated experts, such as Davall’s sedge, found in Zvanets. Globally, it is almost extinct. Meanwhile, Sporovsky is home to a quarter of the world’s swampy nettle.

If we fail to intervene, as has been the case over the last seven years, rare inhabitants will become even more endangered. “Until 1997, Zvanets reserve was dominated by open sedge bogs, overgrown with reeds for 15 years,” notes the scientific co-ordinator of the EU/UNDP Clima-East project, Mikhail Maximenkov. He tells us, “Huge deposits of biomass have accumulated there, chocking habitats, so that they are unsuitable for life. If we fail to solve this problem, 35 species from the Red Book may be lost.”

Pessimistic forecasts are that Zvanets may lose most of its aquatic warbler population: from 3,000 to just 400 birds. The number living in Sporovsky could fall from 500 to 150 by 2030.

Besides being overgrown with tall grasses and bushes, marshes can be affected by rising water levels, which not only destroy nesting sites but rare plants. When immersed for more than 3-5 days, they simply die. Another problem is the burning of vegetation. “Local people burn dry reeds in April and May, which means that we lose valuable plants alongside useless vegetation. It can take 2-4 years for the ecosystem to recover,” Mr. Maximenkov explains.

The solution may be the use of machinery for cutting reeds and bushes. Already being used in Sporovsky, they are proving effective. Nearly $650,000 has been set aside by the international project for the purchase of more such equipment. Cut reeds will then be sold as thatching material and for insulation. Drogichin is already piloting the move and Valentin Zavadsky, from Biobriket enterprise, is optimistic about the prospects. He explains that about 300 hectares of reeds (20 bales) will be harvested daily and that new ways will be sought to make the venture profitable, even after the project ends.

Neighbouring Poland is setting a good example in tackling its own marsh habitat problems. Darius Katkowski, the Manager of a Polish project to protect the aquatic warbler, tells us, “Without farmers, there are no birds. One programme allowed farmers to receive money for mowing marshlands but we are looking ahead, to see how best to proceed once the project ends. We want to study Belarusian experience on ‘controlled burning’ of marsh vegetation.”

Lithuania is keen to learn from Belarusian experience in restoring its marshes: also home to the aquatic warbler. Žymantas Morkvėnas, of Lithuania’s Žuvinto Biosphere Reserve, notes that work has been done to create a sympathetic environment. Now, only resettlement is necessary. Preliminary approval has been granted from Belarusian ecologists.

By Veronika Artemieva
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