|Land abandonment and land use changes in Estonia
During the Soviet period (1940-1991), the main land-use trends in Estonia have shown a decrease in amount of agricultural land and an increase in the share of forests. The most important driving factors of this shift have been the land reforms of 1940, 1949 and 1989 and the urbanization and concentration of agricultural production (Mander 1994).
Decrease of meadow habitats and associated bird species:
There has been a considerable decrease of meadow habitats in Estonia caused by the disappearance of traditional agricultural methods such as mowing and moderate grazing. Moderate grazing is partly associated with traditional small farms and raising of local and indigenous breeds. The reduction of agricultural activity, areas may become overgrown with weeds and shrubs and turn into forests in the long run.
There has been a prominent abandonment of extensively managed semi-natural habitats such as wooded meadows (ca 1000-fold decline of the managed area within the century), wooded pastures, alvars, coastal meadows and alluvial (floodplain) meadows. The abandonment of semi-natural communities has led to the overgrowth of brushes, young forests and/or reedbeds that has negatively influenced biodiversity, including populations of meadow birds. Ruff (Philomachus pugnax) is nearly extinct from Estonia as a breeding bird, the numbers are estimated to be only 10-30 breeding females left (Mägi & Pehlak 2012). Dunlin (Calidris alpina schinzii) and Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa) have also undergone dramatic declines. Matsalu Nature Reserve is one of the best sites for waders where management changes have been less dramatic than elsewhere, the steep declines of coastal meadow birds are observed there as well (Fig 1).
In the 1990s approximately 200-300 thousand hectars of agricultural land was abandoned due to the transformation of agriculture. Changes in land cover of Estonia in 1990–2000 had primarily an effect on the four land cover categories — the percentage of pastures and forest areas decreased and heterogeneous agricultural and transitional woodland-scrub areas increased. Changes in the rest of the land cover categories were minimal. This could be attributed to the fact that coastal pastureland has decreased, forests have been replaced by clear-cut areas and arable land has become partly overgrown (Oja 2010). In the period of 2000–2006, land cover changes experienced a partial continuation of the same trends seen in past years, but the process of arable land becoming overgrown has slowed compared to the 1990s (op cit.).
Antso & Oja (2010) have summarised trends in past and present as follows:
According to the land use data from the Agricultural Registers and Information Board (ARIB), the relative importance of crops has grown slightly since 2004 (Fig. 2). About 54,000 hectares more land was under crops in 2008 compared to 2004. The area under natural grasslands has decreased by 14,000 hectares since 2005.
Impact of intensification and the agri-environmental support scheme:
The intensification of agriculture has negative effects on Corncrake (Crex crex), Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) and other ground-nesting bird species. Intensification mainly means an early mowing for silage and cultivation of large monocultural fields of oilseed rape (Brassica napus).
An agri-environmental support scheme is available for farmers/agricultural enterprises under the Estonian Rural Development Plan. Environmentally-friendly and organic farming schemes are applied to promote environmentally-friendly farming and to enhance the producers’ environmental awareness. It can be said on the basis of monitoring results that both the environmentally-friendly and organic production have had a positive impact on the biodiversity.
Restoration and management of the semi-natural communities:
The maintenance of the semi-natural habitats is of ﬁrst-level priority from the point of view of the biodiversity. The maintenance of the semi-natural habitats is supported by the Estonian Agricultural Registers and Information Board (EARIB). Area of restored and maintained semi-natural communities in Estonia (2002-2008) is presented by Figure 3. The objective of the support for their restoration and maintenance is to ensure the favourable conservation status of the semi-natural habitats located in Natura 2000 areas. There are several other EARIB supports outside of Natura 2000 areas, which fund the maintenance of grasslands, including the seminatural grasslands.
Within the last years the restoration and maintenance have increased notably. Annually ca 1500 hectares of valuable communities are restored and in 2011 the total area of maintained semi-natural communities exceeded 25 000 hectares. Populations of the coastal meadow birds show stabilisation or slight increase.
EOS (BirdLife partner in Estonia)
Andres Kalamees, andres.kalamees(at)eoy.ee