An Englishman in Latvia

On beaches and forests

March 31, 2023 Alan Anstead Season 1 Episode 10
On beaches and forests
An Englishman in Latvia
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An Englishman in Latvia
On beaches and forests
Mar 31, 2023 Season 1 Episode 10
Alan Anstead

Latvia’s natural landscape is characterised by its forests and seascape. Nearly 53% of Latvia is forested and it has 504 km of sandy coastline. I tell a few stories about these natural features and recommend my favourite beaches and forests to visit. I also interview a hunter about forest management and conservation.

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Show Notes Transcript

Latvia’s natural landscape is characterised by its forests and seascape. Nearly 53% of Latvia is forested and it has 504 km of sandy coastline. I tell a few stories about these natural features and recommend my favourite beaches and forests to visit. I also interview a hunter about forest management and conservation.

Thanks for listening!

On beaches and forests

Latvia’s natural landscape is characterised by its forests and seascape. Yes, it has excellent wetlands and lots of rivers. But a visitor to the country will be captivated by its forests and beaches. Nearly 53% of Latvia is forested – the fifth-largest proportion of total land area in the EU after Finland, Sweden, Slovenia and neighbouring Estonia. Latvia also has 504 km (313 miles) of sandy coastline. In this episode, I will explore Latvia’s close relationship with its forests and beaches - imagine, a beach over 500km long! I tell a few stories about these natural features and give my recommendations on favourite beaches and forests to visit.



Latvia’s coastline winds its way north from the border with Lithuania, past the warm sea ports of Liepaja and Ventspils to the Kolka peninsular. Then around the Bay of Riga all the way to the border with Estonia. 504 km of mostly sandy beaches.

The Soviet occupation left behind a treasure for naturalists. The Latvian western seacoast was a carefully guarded border region in those times. Russian military bases and radar stations looked out across the Baltic Sea at the NATO countries in Western Europe. The Russians destroyed or evacuated many houses near the sea along the coast, especially between the port city of Ventspils and the Kolka peninsular. As a result, the undeveloped seashore is graced only by pine and spruce forests and ecologically unique sand dunes. One of the last remaining wild shorelines in Europe.


My favourite stretch of beach in Latvia is around the Liv village of Mazirbe. In the middle of the western coast between Kolka and Ventspils. Beautiful creamy-coloured sand with the sea gently lapping the coast. With pine trees behind the beach and dunes. An idealistic vast expanse of sand with hardly a sole.

After passing the Liv museum and the one and only supermarket in the village, head straight towards the sound of the sea. In the tree border just before the sand dunes, turn right and follow a track for about 500m. Then you will find yourself in the middle of a long, wooden boat graveyard. Just the wooden skeletons remain, like the ribs and bones of dinosaurs. Eerie but also beautiful. When I first visited the site in the 1990s, I was told that the boats were hidden there by villagers back in the 1960s, as the Soviet forces did not allow fishing from boats. And there they remained, unmoved for more than 50 years. Trees are growing through the boat carcasses, and nature is slowly reclaiming its own. Lovely story, lovely place to visit.


The Kolka peninsular is the northwestern tip of Latvia at the point where the Baltic Sea meets the Bay of Riga. It has a strange phenomenon. Waves come from two directions and clash with each other at this point. From the left side, the waves come from the Baltic. From the right side from the Bay. The sea in front of the peninsular is shallow for about six km. Then there is a small artificial island with a lighthouse. It was originally a wooden lighthouse, first lit in 1876. This was replaced a few years later with a metal lighthouse built in St. Petersburg. This has operated automatically since 1979. Watching and listening to the waves as they roll into each other is fascinating. It can get a bit busy in Summer, and the car park has the tacky air of the Soviet era. But the waves rather than the car park are worth seeing if you are on a tour of that part of the Latvian coast. The best time to visit is in the Spring to see the thousands of migratory birds that use the peninsular for navigation. If you go, keep your eyes open for pieces of amber washed up on the sandy shore after a storm. 


A half-hour train or car ride from Rīga lies the spa town of Jūrmala. The name translated into English means seaside. Jūrmala is, in fact, a series of villages, connected to each other in the long strip of land between the sea and the Lielupe river. It gained fame during the Soviet occupation as a favourite holiday destination, spa and sanatorium for Soviet generals and Communist bureaucrats. Leonid Brezhnev and Nikita Khrushchev were frequent visitors. Although the resort was named Rīgas Jūrmalas in 1920, it had already gained a good reputation from the rich landowners and Soviet military officers that visited from the end of the 18th Century.  The peak of Jūrmala’s early development was the opening of the Riga - Tukums railway in 1877, which passed through Jūrmala and boosted the number of visitors and the development of the town as a resort. Jūrmala was also gaining a reputation as a health spa, with its sea breeze, pine aroma, mineral spring, and sandy beach.

Jūrmala was heavily developed during the Russian occupation with imposing Soviet-style concrete architecture looking out over the long 33km beach. One can still see some of these concrete shells.  A significant amount of very expensive apartment buildings have replaced these. Holiday homes aimed at rich people from Russia. Jūrmala still has a large Russian population, although I suspect that many have been unable to visit their investments since that country invaded Ukraine in February 2022. One certainly sees far fewer Russian-registered vehicles on the streets. Beautiful old wooden villas, many built by Baltic Germans, can still be found. Most have been renovated, and it makes for a lovely walk admiring these elaborate gingerbread house villas.

Strolling along Jūrmala’s beach is a thing to do in all seasons. One Sunday in February, we went for our favourite walk. Park the vehicle in Bulluciems near Jūrmala’s small ethnographic museum. Then walk along the wonderful boardwalk up over the hills and across the light-density forest to the beach. In fact, my map says it is a nudist beach, but I have never seen anyone naked there. Certainly not in February! Turn left and walk along the beach for about a kilometre to a car park. Head straight through the car park, and you will find another elevated boardwalk to your left that will eventually take you back to where you started. A bracing - especially in winter - walk, good exercise, and something about walking through forests and along beaches uplifts the soul.

In summer, the beach is busy with sunbathers, children building sand castles in the soft yellow sand, and bars and cafes set up in marques with wooden decking outside for seats and tables. Despite the throng of people - traffic jams build up at the entrance to Jūrmala from the Riga highway, as car drivers need to pay a tax to enter - it is always clean. Beaches are blue flag rated. And not packed with lilos for hire as you see in Spain, Italy or Germany.


I read an interesting story in the Latvian media recently. A new law will force coastal municipalities to develop additional pedestrian pathways leading to the sea in populated areas. In this new draft law, cities and villages must have at least two pedestrian paths to the sea per kilometre. The present law says one path per kilometre in areas with habitation. All good for greater public access to the beach, but often the land between a village or town and the beach will be privately owned. Some arguments between local authorities and landowners are imminent! A battle between public and private interests. But the government does not want toilets, parking places, cafes and other amenities to be built. As these are not necessary in nature. Apparently. 



Over the last 100 years, the forested area in Latvia has doubled. Forests continue to expand naturally and through human re-wilding - planting trees on barren land or areas that cannot be used for agriculture. Over 50% of the territory of Latvia is forested. The most common trees are Scots Pine and Norway Spruce. But many other species of trees are found. I can see the beautiful white barks of birch trees from our home’s window.

The public can access nearly all forests in Latvia. A widespread pastime is foraging for bilberries, cranberries and mushrooms. One can often see cars parked up by the side of the road near popular forests. Although cover up if you are in the forest, as ticks also like to be there. My wife’s middle son went mushroom picking one autumn day last year. He came back with one large mushroom and tick-borne encephalitis. It took a couple of weeks of antibiotics to cure.

Latvian forestry legislation is among Europe's strictest in regulating timber harvesting. The forests produce 25 million cubic meters of timber yearly, while only about half can be felled. However, thanks to this significant amount of forest resources, Latvia has a well-developed wood processing industry. Timber and wood products are among the country's most important exports. Latvian wood processing companies are well-known in many European markets.

The traditional Latvian approach to forestry with small clear-cut areas rather than mass felling, a network of forest territories that have seen little human interference, and the migration of people from rural areas to urban ones have facilitated the emergence of a unique biological diversity in forests. A home for a rich variety of animal and bird species, many of which have become very rare elsewhere in Europe.


The crucial role that Latvia's extensive forests play in the national economy is demonstrated by Eurostat data on employment in forest-related industries.

Across the European Union, the bloc’s 159 million hectares of forest were the source of employment for 3.6 million people in 2021. The activity that employed the most people was the manufacture of furniture, with the manufacture of other wood products, cork, straw and plaiting materials in second place. Manufacturing paper and paper products came third, with forestry and logging recording the smallest number of workers.

For Latvia, 5,900 people were employed in manufacturing furniture, 19,700 people were employed in manufacturing other wood products, and 14,100 in forestry and logging. No figure for paper manufacture is recorded, but the three combined figures represent around 40,000 jobs and do not include other employment provided by forests, such as tourism and recreation.

In 2020 in Latvia, the relative contribution to the economy of forestry and logging increased from 1.4% of GDP to 1.6% of GDP, the second-highest ratio in the EU behind Finland's 1.7% of GDP.. 

By the way, March 21st was the International Day of Forests.


My favourite forest is Tērvete Nature Park. This 1,200-hectare area is filled with centuries-old pine trees, more than 70 endangered plants, and various birds, reptiles and amphibians. The best thing, especially for children, are the guided walks. Pick up a map at the entrance and choose between the walk that goes through dwarf villages made of wood, with mines, sawmills and various houses and buildings. All are accessible if you are under one metre tall. Another walk goes past fairytale characters. Another past witches and ghouls. At one end of the park is a massive wooden tower to climb, safe but not for those who fear heights. At the other end are a wooden castle, maze and climbing frames. At the northern end is a smaller-scale wooden village with the most wonderful flower displays in summer. Over a hundred wooden sculptures and statues can be found in the park: little Annele with her friends, the Forest King, Sprīdītis (Tom Thumb), giant Lutausis and others. Most of the sculptures have been created after the fairytale plays by the popular Latvian writer Anna Brigadere. There are also a few cafes dotted around as you will need to sit down and have refreshments at some stage. Tērvete is about 80km to the southwest of Rīga. We go there at least yearly and have done so for many years.


If you are planning a trip to a forest, I have a recommendation for you. Download the LVM Geo app to your phone. It is a free mapping application developed by Latvia’s State Forests organisation (LVM). The app provides a variety of maps with geospatial information and rich functionality. It was developed for forestry workers and forest owners to send and receive work orders, but it is much more than that. Toggle on the tourism places and sites data layers, and you will have detailed walking maps, pop-up information with beautiful imagery on nature trails and walks, locations to visit in nature, and even safe swimming places. A friend told me about the app. He loves taking his family on hikes, often including a lake swim in summer. Available on the various app stores. There is also a desktop version at


As spring approaches, deer shed their antlers. Hunters and scientists head to the forests to look for them. For some people, searching for antlers is a hobby. For some, it is to study the deer population, while others hope to sell the antlers they find.

Latvia has 71,000 red deer, according to data from the State Forest Service, with the greatest concentration in the Kurzeme region, particularly near the Lithuanian border. It is, therefore, more likely that one will find antlers in Kurzeme than in Vidzeme or Latgale. Weather conditions also play a part, as Kurzeme in Spring has a thinner layer of snow, making the antlers easier to find.

This was confirmed by Jānis Opmanis, who has been antler-hunting near Valmiera since 2009: He said, “We’ve had much snow. I don't want to wade in half a metre of snow, and the antlers are buried. Now that the snow has finally melted In Kurzeme, some people find 5, 6 or even ten sets of antlers per day. Whereas here in Vidzeme, you're lucky if you can find two in one day.”

Opmanis said that it is important to understand what animals live in the area. He said, “Start by looking at where the males are, where and how they live. The deer are around if the females live there, but the females don't drop antlers. Cereal fields where rapeseed is present are the best place to find antlers. Then more difficult places – like ditches, young forests, and other places where the deer live." 

For some, going into nature with the possibility of finding antlers is a hobby where activity in the fresh air is the most important thing. However, antler hunters like Opmanis are more driven to observe the population of deer. This gives them a better understanding of what animals live in their hunting areas. 

“Finding or failing to find antlers is not the most important thing, but it does help to understand the situation. Of course, when you or your colleague finds antlers, there can arise different interests, a kind of competition,” explained Opmanis.

Aivis Magnets, owner of 'Magnet Antlers', one of the biggest antler buyers in Latvia, has observed that many antler hunters have differing interests. According to him, around 80% of those who bring antlers to him are enthusiasts, but 20% are hunters.

Magnets' experience in the purchase of antlers is that plenty of people treat it like a job – from early in the morning to late in the evening, searching for antlers. Some use jeeps, quad bikes, and even drones.

Magnets says that people's interest in searching for antlers has not dwindled, “I think the search for antlers is becoming more popular. Covid helped here. At a time when many didn't have a job and income, people tried to find other sources of income. It's a chance to earn and be out in the fresh air.” 

The profits of the most successful antler hunters in one season could be thousands of Euros.

Magnets shared a recent example: “This, for me, is one of the greatest records: in 2-3 weeks, one man in the municipality of Aizpute collected 200 kilograms of antlers. What is the secret of his success? He told me he was going slowly, not running down the woods but checking every corner. Consequently, more antlers were found. They weren’t all good-quality antlers. He had also found those that many people had missed, those had lain there for several years.”

From the collectors in Latvia, the antlers are sold all over the world. Buttons, dog toys, furniture, interior items and various other objects are produced from the antlers. The antlers are also sold in China, where they are ground to a powder for medicine. “It is true that the antlers may be sent to China for this purpose with special permission from the Food and Veterinary Services”, Magnets said. This authorisation certifies the exact origin of the antlers: those for which a precise location cannot be demonstrated must not be exported.


Another pursuit in forests is hunting. Fairly popular in Latvia. I spoke to Jānis Spīla about his love of hunting.

Me: What is the role of hunting in wildlife conservation?

Jānis: I think the main thing is about controlling the animal population, managing and controlling forestry, agriculture and natural resources such as trees, and maintaining the balance in nature.

Me: What sort of animals would be hunted because they're destroying that ecosystem?

Jānis: I think moose and deer, mammals in the forest that are destroying the young trees, eating bark and just damaging the trees, and in the future the tree grows not so healthy and that's why they are dying - damaging the ecosystem of the forest.

Me: What about wild boar - they are pretty aggressive animals.

Jānis: Yeah, pretty aggressive animals and many hunters have had serious injuries because of angry wild boar. And also, wild boar barking. They are very angry and easily become very dangerous for everyone in the forest, even if you are just walking around. So there are too many elk, deer, and wild boar for the ecosystem to cope with that; therefore, they need to be culled, but with correct numbers to keep that balance. Managing the animal population, yes. It's very important because every year they become more and more because the number of licenses that are given to hunters to regulate this population is less than it is growing, and that's why they are becoming more and more. Of course, diseases are cutting the numbers of animals, but it's not even.

Me: How is hunting regulated in Latvia?

Jānis: Hunting is regulated by laws and restrictions. Mostly it is forestry institutions that regulate the number of animals that can be hunted, giving licenses to every hunting group in Latvia. Licenses are given dependent on the damage that animals are making in a specific location. 

Me: How easy is it to get a license? Do you have to pass an exam or test? 

Jānis: Getting a hunter's license is not so easy. You need to pass a test. The test has 900 questions, and although you have only 60 questions in the test, you need to learn the answers to all 900. You don't know what questions will appear in the test. And then, you need to be tested on a shooting range and two different types of guns. The first is a rifle, and the second is a shotgun. And then you need to go to your municipality police station, and then you get a license.

Me: Police will do a check that you haven't got a criminal record or any other circumstances that would mean you would be a danger to give a license to.

Jānis: Then you get the license to keep the weapons at your place, and you need to buy a safe gun, with different restrictions about those, but not so hard.

Me: How often do you go hunting?

Jānis: Usually, I go hunting on weekends. It depends on the time of the year, but the main season is from September to January, which is the season for almost all licenses for almost every animal for hunting. Those are the months that I try to go hunting every weekend.

Me: Could you describe a typical hunting trip? What time of the day do you go out hunting, and how does it progress?

Jānis: It’s very different because it depends on whether you are interested in going hunting for boar, moose or deer. For deer and moose, it’s daytime. For boar, it's nighttime or evening. But usually, I get ready and drive the car near the place. A little walk from the car to the place because of the smell of the car scares the animals a little bit because boars have a very good smell. If they smell you, then we are done; there’s no reason to sit there and wait anymore.

Me: How many hours would you be spending in the forest?

Jānis: Usually, it's about five-six hours in the evening. For daytime, it can be from morning to evening, walking around the forest and looking at nature and many different animals that are not for hunting.


In conclusion, Latvia’s beaches and forests are for exploring. Of course, respect nature. Most Latvians truly do. In today’s age of mindfulness - attention to what is going on inside and outside ourselves with the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of the present moment - plays an important part in good mental health. Latvia is wonderfully positioned to create harmony between nature and a pleasant, peaceful environment. Go, see and enjoy! 

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