An Englishman in Latvia

On wetland bogs

May 18, 2023 Alan Anstead Season 1 Episode 14
On wetland bogs
An Englishman in Latvia
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An Englishman in Latvia
On wetland bogs
May 18, 2023 Season 1 Episode 14
Alan Anstead

Approximately 10% of Latvian territory is peatland, and 5% is wetland mires - bogs or fens. These mires act as carbon sinks and play a massive role in helping to reduce the impact of climate change. We explore two bogs and one wetland lake with fens to find out more about these beautiful wetland mires.

Thanks for listening!

Show Notes Transcript

Approximately 10% of Latvian territory is peatland, and 5% is wetland mires - bogs or fens. These mires act as carbon sinks and play a massive role in helping to reduce the impact of climate change. We explore two bogs and one wetland lake with fens to find out more about these beautiful wetland mires.

Thanks for listening!

On wetland bogs

Approximately 10% of Latvian territory is peatland, and 5% is wetland mires - bogs or fens. These mires act as carbon sinks, twice as effective as tropical forests in extracting carbon from the atmosphere. They play a massive role in helping to reduce the impact of climate change. Latvia, a small country, has 0.4% of the world’s peat resources and takes eighth place worldwide in the volume of peat resources per capita. The mires are also beautiful wildernesses. Let’s dig deep and find out more. And I’ll tell you how you can see and experience this wonderful natural phenomenon at three locations near Rīga.

The technical bit in one minute. A wetland is an area of land that is usually saturated with water. Mires are a unique kind of wetland where lush plant growth and the slow decay of dead plants result in organic peat accumulation. Peatland areas cover 10.7% of the territory of Latvia, or more than 691,000 hectares, of which peat is extracted only in slightly more than 3% of that area. We will talk about peat extraction later. Mires make up 4.9% of the total land area of Latvia. There are two types of mire in Latvia: bogs (ombrotrophic) and fens (minerotrophic). I’ll explain those terms. A bog is a mire that obtains most of its water from rainfall. A fen gets most of its water from the soil or groundwater. In addition to mires, there are wet forests growing on peatland in Latvia and peat extraction sites. Many wetland mires in Latvia are Natura 2000 listed and are protected areas. The UN Convention on Wetlands, Ramsar, has designated six sites in Latvia as wetlands of international importance.

Cena Mire

Cena Mire used to be the largest wetland in Latvia, covering 10,000 hectares. However, in Soviet times much of that area was drained, and peat was extracted as fuel bricks or agricultural fields were established in place of the bog. Two fragments of the original vast wetland have survived - Cena Mire and Melnais Lake Mire. Both are on the outskirts of Rīga. Both are now Natura 2000 listed and protected by law as nature reserves. 

Cena Mire started to develop 5,000 - 6,000 years ago with an accumulation of peat sediment. About 4,500 years ago, raised bog vegetation started to dominate in the mire, and the peat layer, which grows 1 mm a year, is now about 5 m in depth. You can see the raised dome of the bog. That’s why it is called a raised bog. It is nutrient poor and acidic, a limited habitat for some flora. The bog gets its nutrients from the air; thus, it is a massive carbon sink. As you might expect in a wetland bog, ponds and lakes are all around. A high water level is important to keep the peat-producing moss healthy. If the mire drains, as it did in Soviet times, the moss decreases, and heather, dwarf trees and bushes replace it. Small dams have been constructed in the irrigation ditches to reverse the drainage as far as possible. On the small islands and shore of Skaists Lake in the mire, many small pine and birch trees are dying while the water table rises and the mire slowly recovers its healthiness. That is natural in a well-managed wetland bog. Do not be alarmed!

Cena Mire is now a 2,133 hectare nature reserve. 

You can visit Cena Mire. It is signposted off the Rīga to Liepaja road. Then you must drive about 5 km along an unpaved road to a small car park by a log sign on the left of the road. Don’t miss it, as I have done before! Then the fun begins!  Walking along a 5.5 km boardwalk with a viewing tower halfway.  As you walk the route, plenty of information boards inform you about the bog, its flora and fauna, and its history, especially in peat extraction.

At the car park, I met Edmunds Račinskis, Environment Officer at Rīgas Meži.  In my humble opinion, Rīgas Meži expertly manages Cena Mire and all of Riga’s forests. We went for a hike on the boardwalk. It was lightly raining, which gave the walk such an atmosphere. The dense sphagnum moss, hare’s tail cotton grass, sundew, heather and small cranberries provide a colourful ground cover. On a sponge-like surface.

We had a chat under the watch tower.

Me: We’re sitting here in the wooden viewing tower, having walked about two kilometres along a wooden board path and through beautiful scenery, and it's very atmospheric because it's raining, and it just gives that feeling of wetlands. My first question is why wetlands are important.

Edmunds: As the name suggests, wetlands are areas of land that have excessive levels of moisture. These are areas where precipitation exceeds evaporation and discharge. So you have anything from lakes and streams to peatlands. Today we are in a beautiful natural peatland not far from Riga, the capital of Latvia. Cena mire is a natural raised bog right now. These are highly unique ecosystems. These are living systems which accumulate from the atmosphere by the living layer of mostly sphagnum moss but also other specialised plant species - many of them are found nowhere else than bogs. 

Edmunds: So it's a growing system. It accumulates peat, carbon in the form of peat, it accumulates water, it regulates water circulation, so acting as flood prevention. It is basically a sponge. It collects water and slows discharge, so the streams that have their headwaters around this peatland, they get moderate amounts of discharge rather than rapid peaks during rain and storms. Of course, peatland acts as a cleaning system. It filters water. It provides shelter. It provides habitats for biodiversity. It hosts a range of species of plants and animals that are very rare or sometimes not found anywhere else than the peatland. Of course, it provides resources for people. Historically, and we're still in transition away from this, but historically peatlands provided peat for fuel and for gardening these days. These are landscapes that are visited by people for recreation, for nature, for cultural experience. People collect cranberries. It's very widespread still. It's very traditional to collect cranberries. Wild cranberries, not plantation grown ones, but wild berries in the raised bog in the autumn. It's really a complex and unique ecosystem.

Me: As we were walking along, you mentioned that Latvia used to have 10% of its land area used to be wetland bog, but now reduced to 5%, which is still a significant amount of the territory of the country. Why is that? Is that just nature and the way the world has happened? Why has Latvia got a significant area of wetland?

Edmunds: Well, Latvia sits in that part of northern Europe where all the conditions meet in a favourable way for peatlands. It's geography, it's climate, it's geology. So basically, precipitation exceeds evaporation and discharge. These areas collect moisture, they collect water, and they have suitable plants that can join the circulation and start producing peat. It's common for northern latitudes to have elevated areas of peatlands and of course relatively less people in these parts of the world, compared to Europe in general, it's less inhabited so it has had less pressure from farming, from forestry than elsewhere in, for example, Central and Western Europe where peatlands have also been found, but they have been exploited more intensively.

Me: Are there any threats to Cena Mire or other wetlands in Latvia?

Edmunds: I would say the best examples of peatlands in Latvia have already been mostly included in protected area networks. They don't have direct threats like they had a few decades ago, for example, by peat extraction and by drainage. Nevertheless, they still have their own particular conditions where some improvements could be made, their quality could be increased, their discharge could be slowed, their peat formation be improved and the gas balance emissions levels could be brought down. So yes, some restoration is still needed even to protect the bogs, bit lengths.

Me: You mentioned earlier that Cena Mire is only a short distance from Riga, the capital Latvia. I think it took me 20 minutes drive to get here. How can people experience Cena Mire and the wetland bog? What's the best way to do it?

Edmunds: Well, for a start, if people haven't been actively going out to peatlands and it's something new to them, then, of course, the best advice would be to come to this Cena Mire pathway, this wooden pathway that we used to get here. So it's very convenient, it's easily accessible by car and people can walk and use even wheelchairs and baby carriages on parts of this pathway without disturbing the natural habitat and without actually needing rubber boots even. So it's very safe. It's a safe way to come here to see the landscape, to see the plant species.

Edmunds: You can see we're sitting here and we see the cotton grass right behind us and we saw lots of cranberry stems and leaves on the moss, that's sphagnum moss, which is the forming agent of this natural system. But then the next level would be to actually go off-road, to go off-path. Then you need some rubber boats, some knowledge, some maps, perhaps with a guide. And then you can really experience, you can see and feel it first hand.

Me: What’s the best time to visit Cena Mire?

Edmunds: Actually, you can come here any time of year. It will look different, it will sound different. Here we are in the middle of May, and birds are singing despite the rain. If you came in winter, even in the wintertime, especially if it's been freezing for some time, you can walk easily across the otherwise softened and somewhat treacherous terrain. You can walk across when it's frozen solid. So it looks different at different times of the year and autumn is a nice time. I mentioned cranberries. You can come and it's carpeted by red berries in good spots. You can collect a handful from just one single spot. So yeah, it has, like any natural place, its own details at any time.

Me: You mentioned that we could hear birds singing. You mentioned as we were walking along, some quite rare birds that use the mire as their habitat. Tell me more about them.

Edmunds: Peatlands are used by many species of birds for different stages of their life. Migratory birds use them as resting places in autumn, for example, and sometimes in spring like passing geese and cranes and swans and other waterfowl. But now in the summertime, we have these rare and specially protected breeding bird species, some of which are only found breeding in peatlands and raised bogs in Latvia. Examples are golden plover, wood sandpiper. These are relatively small wader species. We don't see them anywhere outside peatlands in Latvia. They breed only here, so they are very sporadically distributed. You only find them in these special places. And the more natural these areas, which these peatlands are, the more open, wet and rich in small pools and lakes, the better for these species. And of course we have other birds like common crane, black grouse, that are found not only in peatlands, but it's one of their core habitats.

Me: When I came here with my family a month ago, it was a bright sunny day. We noticed so many small lizards that were basking in the sun and butterflies flying around. Tell me more about some of the animals that habitat this area.

Edmunds: The peatlands are relatively poor in nutrients and the vegetation may seem sparse and not many species grow here. So it's somewhat similar with animal life, with other wildlife. So there are not many species but those who live here, they are rather specialised. And sometimes these butterflies you will see, they may be very rare species of butterflies that only live in mires and bogs. The lizard species, we don't have many reptiles in Latvia, it's rather too high up north. So they are found in many different habitats, not just the peatlands and are just rather generalist species. They explore all possible niches, including these wooden pathways. So speaking of mammals, not many species occur here. You’ll hardly see any or even not many signs and tracks of them. But we know for sure that species like these relatively remote areas. We have some wolves here in the area. Some elk used to cross this place and find some refuge from the forest when they get disturbed. So a few nice species can be seen.

Me: Thank you very much.

As we started the walk, it was very noticeable that the peat extraction area to the side of the nature reserve was bare of any flora or fauna. Just a massive field of dark brown peat. Edmunds said it had operated since Soviet times before Cena Mire became a nature reserve in 1999. He described the mire as a carbon sink and the peat extraction site as a carbon source, as the process of peat extraction releases carbon into the atmosphere. Basically, carbon sinks absorb more carbon than they release, while carbon sources release more carbon than they absorb. The comparison between the two areas is visually stark, let alone knowing that the mire greatly helps reduce climate change - twice as effective as tropical forests, Edmunds said - yet peat extraction accelerates the climate emergency. Peat extraction is limited by law in Latvia. Peat bricks are no longer used as a heat source since their popularity in the 1960s and 70s, but consumers still have a strong appetite across Europe and the UK to buy bags of peat in their local gardening centres. 95% of Latvian peat is exported for horticultural use. Please check the contents of the bag of earth you find in the shop and buy non-peat-based products. Every small action will make a difference in our fragile world.

Great Kemeri Bog Walk

The Great Kemeri Bog Walk is better known than Cena Mire, so expect a few more people on summer weekends to be hiking the boardwalk. Take a signposted left turn off the Riga to Ventspils road, past a cemetery to a pay car park.

The Great Ķemeri mire is one of the largest raised moss bogs in the coastal lowland of Latvia. Its area is 5000 hectares. The bog is around 8000 years old. The mosses have formed a peat layer up to 8 m thick, the top of which is still alive and growing. The bog is characterised by a labyrinth of elongated lakes, giving it special scenery.

The boardwalk will take you to the kingdom of moss, bog pines, acacias and dark lakes. If you look carefully, you can find the carnivorous plant, sundew. And see many birds, like wood sandpipers, marsh warblers, white wagtails and tree pipits.

The boardwalk is built of wooden planks with a total length of about 5 km. it is partly built on a Soviet-era path leading to a meteorological station that stopped operating in the mid-1990s. Due to a very intense load, the boardwalk became worn out and could no longer be patched up. It was closed for safety reasons in 2008. The boardwalk was reconstructed as part of a project funded by the European Union and officially opened in 2013. Two loops have been created, arranged in a figure of eight - a big loop with a length of 3.4 km and a small loop with a length of 1.4 km. An observation tower has been built within the big loop, from which you can see the vastness of the mire and the hundreds of elongated lakes.

Well worth a visit.

Lake Kanieris

I will recommend a half-day road trip that takes in Lake Kanieris, recognised by the UN as a wetland of international importance, and Kemeri nature reserve with its forested peatland fens. If you travel from Riga, take the Ventspils road that skirts around Jūrmala. After crossing the bridge over the Lielupe River, turn right before the petrol station, then right again. After about 500m, you need to turn left. You can only legally do this by turning into a lay-by and doing a U-turn. Backtracking for a short distance. Really weird traffic construction! Go straight until the signs for the main road to Kolka, where you turn left. A slow journey follows through many rather drab villages, then turn left at Lapmežciems, signposted direction Antinciems. The paved road will end, but keep going. You will see Lake Kanieris on your right. Park on the side of the unpaved road by the information board and wooden sign.

Lake Kaņieris is a lagoon-type lake formed after the retreat of the sea and is a protected natural reserve within Ķemeri National Park. With some 1,122 hectares in water surface size, there are 14 islands on the lake, populated by water birds. More than 200 bird species have been identified in Lake Kaņieris (out of a total of 342 bird species registered throughout Latvia). During migration, more than 10,000 water birds seek shelter here. A bird watcher's dream! Since 1995, Kaņieris has been recognised by the UN Convention on Wetlands as a wetland of international importance. The lake is shallow, with an average depth of less than one metre. The best time for bird watching at Lake Kaņieris is spring and from the second half of summer to the first half of autumn. When birds are migrating. You can see and hear great bitterns, reed warblers and grasshopper warblers. Sometimes spotted cranes and little bitterns. Maybe even see a sea eagle hunting over the lake.

Take a short walk to the shore of the lake. Look out for the junipers. On your left is a wooden viewing tower. You can get a great view of the lake from the top of the tower. In the opposite direction, you will see the reed trail. This is a 2.5 km loop trail. The first part is the most fun! A 600m wooden boardwalk is installed on pontoons that link two islands through the reeds on both sides. You are literally walking on water! The boardwalk moves a bit - it is floating but is safe. At the end of the boardwalk, keep going in the same direction through a light forest. The first metres may be a bit muddy, but it soon becomes a paved path. You will reach a boating centre. Turn right by the barrier and walk back to the main road. Then right again along the unpaved road to your parked vehicle.

To continue the road trip, keep on driving along the unpaved road alongside the lake to the village of Antinciems. Slow down, there are beautiful views. Turn right in the village and take the unpaved road through the wetland fen forest. Eight kilometres later is a small car park at the hill fort. Another wooden boardwalk to another wooden viewing tower. This time the boardwalk goes through the fen forest, and you can see the wet peatland that the trees are growing on. The 1.6km trail is a lovely circular route. Mind the snake if it is still there! And you will get an impressive vista of another side of the lake from the tower.

Historians are undecided about the age of the Kaņieris Hillfort and its settlers. Some believe that it was a very ancient tribal settlement, while others think that sea pillagers used it to attack ships. The Kaņieris Lake Hillfort was discovered by V. Dērings in 1867. Although much has been written about it, no archaeological studies have been done. E. Brastiņš has recognised this as an unusual hillfort because it is the only one that is this close to the sea in a boggy uninhabited area.

Back to the vehicle and continue driving on the unpaved road through the wonderfully protected Kemeri Nature Reserve to Jānkrogs. This narrower part of the unpaved road forces you to slow down. Relax; you will enjoy the scenery along the sometimes twisting road through the beautiful fen forest. There will be few other vehicles on the road. It literally goes slowly through the wetland, forested wilderness that is Kemeri Nature Park. At the first sign of habitation, breathe a sigh of relief. A paved road! Turn left onto this paved road to Smārde. The shaking and rattling will stop! Onwards to the main Ventspils to Rīga highway, where you turn left for Rīga.

If you do the road trip, pack refreshments with you. I didn’t see anywhere to buy food or drink after passing the villages near Jūrmala at the trip's start.

Without some history and tradition, this would not be An Englishman in Latvia episode.

So a Latvian folk tale about Tirel bog, otherwise known as the Great Kemeri Bog that we described earlier.

When Napoleon came to Riga, he was accompanied by soldiers of many nations, including a regiment of Prussian black hussars in black uniforms with skulls on their hats. Whenever the regiment encountered Russian soldiers, they killed them. The black hussars never surrendered. They were particularly ruthless and killed Latvian farmers as well. When frost came, the farmers hiding in the bogs were visible to the hussars. In desperation, Latvian farmers gathered, armed themselves with spears, farm equipment and axes and attacked the hussars between Olaine and Ķekava in a narrow place where the hussars' horses were stuck in the snow. After a long battle, the Latvian peasants destroyed the entire hussar regiment. 

It is also told differently, that the hussar regiment rode towards the farmers on the frozen Tirel bog. The devil woke up from the clatter of horseshoes on the frozen bog and dragged all the hussars of the regiment into the mire. I rather like the second version!

In conclusion, Latvian mires, the country’s wetland bogs and fens, are important in reducing climate change. They are carbon sinks, in the words of my interviewee Edmunds. They are also wonderful and beautiful places to visit. Accessible to all, hiking along the boardwalks is such fun for young and adults. The road trip is a great adventure too. They are right on Riga’s doorstep. Go visit!

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