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Articles > Country and people

Nature and Environment in Latvia

Author: Jolanta Bara, Latvian Institute
Visited 4050 times
We can definitely assert that everyone who has visited Latvia will never forget it - not ancient Riga, which has stood on the banks of the River Daugava for 800 years; not the white, sandy beaches; not the green forests; not the many rivers and lakes, hardly touched by civilisation. Latvia is a beautiful, green land with clean air, water, and soil; many tourists from abroad and many environmental experts say that the entire country is one huge nature park.
Here are some basic facts about Latvia and its environment:
  • Its total area is 64.6 thousand square kilometres.
  • It has 2,256 lakes larger than 1 ha, whose total area is 1,000 square kilometres (only 35% of the rivers have been wholly or partially meliorated).
  • The Salaca River (length, 95 km; confluence basin, 3,420 square kilometres) is the largest spawning ground for salmon in the eastern Baltics. According to tests in 1998, the water quality in the Salaca and Venta rivers corresponds to the category of good quality salmonid waters. (The Venta River is 346 km long; its confluence basin is 17,600 square kilometres.)
  • According to tests in 1998, the water quality in the Daugava River (length, 1,005 km; confluence basin, 87,900 square kilometres) and the Lielupe River corresponds to the category of good quality cyprinid waters.
  • Agricultural land occupies 39% of Latvia's territory. In the last decade, with the dismantling of collective farms, the area devoted to farming decreased dramatically - now farms are predominantly small.
  • A typical Latvian landscape is a mosaic of vast forests alternating with fields, farmsteads, and pastures; amid arable land are birch groves and wooded clusters, which afford a habitat for numerous plants and animals.
  • Since 1990 the use of artificial fertiliser has decreased twelvefold to 22-34 kg/ha, and the use of pesticides has decreased tenfold (0.018 kg/ha).
  • The concentration of heavy metals both in the soil and in food products does not exceed allowed amounts; for example, the amount of mercury is less than can be measured.
  • Currently, approximately 200 farms, occupying 2,750 ha, are engaged in ecologically pure farming (i.e., using no artificial fertilisers or pesticides);
  • Forests cover 44.1% of Latvia's territory (by comparison, the "forest land" of Sweden has 54% forests; Finland, 59%; Canada, 27%; Denmark, 10%, China, 10%, Great Britain, 8%). Approximately half of the forests grow in mineral soil, and a fourth of them are moist forests; in most other European countries, the latter have been destroyed.
  • Mires occupy 9.9% of Latvia's territory. Of these, 42% are raised bogs; 49% are fens; and 9% are transitional mires. Seventy percent of the mires are untouched by civilisation, and they are a refuge for many rare species of plants and animals.
  • All together, approximately 27.7 thousand species of flora and fauna have been registered in Latvia.
  • Many species, which are endangered in Europe, constitute a large part of the total number of species in Latvia. These include the black stork (Ciconia nigra), the corncrake (Crex crex), the lesser spotted eagle (Aquila pomarina), the white-backed woodpecker (Picoides leucotos), the crane (Grus grus), the Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber), the Eurasian otter (Lutra lutra), the European wolf (Canis lupus), and the European lynx (Felis lynx).
  • Latvia is the habitat for many species of bat colonies and their site for hibernation.
  • Since 1990 the amount of pollution from stationary sources (factories, boiler houses) has decreased by 46%.
  • Since 1990 the amount of wastewater has decreased by 44%.
  • Latvia has 477 mechanical, 956 biological and 6 chemical wastewater treatment plants. The state program "Water Supply and Water Treatment in Latvia's Provincial Towns" has been implemented since 1995.
  • There are no atomic power plants in Latvia.
  • Financial resources that are allocated for the environment include funds from the state budget and from local governments, as well as donations by various organisations and private individuals. Supporters of Latvia's environmental projects include institutions such as the World Bank, North European Environment Financial Corporation, North European Investment Bank, European Investment Bank, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the EU PHARE program, as well as countries - Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Germany, the United States, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Switzerland.
  • The major portion of funds earmarked for the environment are devoted to the development of water and sewage treatment, protection of the environment, radiation protection, energy conservation, and regional development.

Latvia's natural landscape differs from the jungles of Africa, the mountains of Nepal or the deserts of Australia; its beauty emerges from subtlety rather than extremes. It is the right place for tourists if you

  • want to enjoy bird songs, flowery meadows, and wild animals in their natural habitat and even to catch sight of a pair of white storks in their nest right next to your house or, while fishing, to watch water fowl and dragonflies dancing;
  • enjoy hearing the whirr of bats' wings or the hooting of owls on moonlit nights;
  • enjoy hunting, picking mushrooms or berries, or simply walking in the woods.

In state forests (about half of all forests) and private forests, you may walk freely, pick berries or mushrooms; these forests are accessible by regular highways or country roads. For fishing you need a special license (for a modest fee), and for hunting you need a license for each animal to be hunted. Many country homes offer simple hospitality, but if you crave something more exotic, you can pitch a tent and build a campfire at specially designated places on the banks of rivers and lakes.

Latvia has a long tradition of conservation: the first laws and regulations were promulgated in the 16th and 17th centuries. From that time until our own day conservation principles are followed in forestry, and there are definite restrictions on hunting. In the 19th century, various projects were undertaken to strengthen the dunes along the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Riga. At the beginning of the 20th century, forested areas with cultural, historical, or natural value were set aside and protected. The first nature reserve was established in 1912 at Moricsala (an island in Lake Usmas). Currently, Latvia has 4 nature reserves, 3 national parks containing reserves and restricted areas, 1 biosphere reserve, 211 restricted nature areas, 22 nature parks, and 6 protected landscape areas. Forests contain microreserves (sanctuaries) for rare species of animals (chiefly birds), plants, lichen, and mushrooms. Latvia's Red Book (Endangered Species List of Latvia), which was established in 1977, contains 112 plant species and 119 animal species; this catalogue of rare and endangered species is regularly examined and updated. More and more plants, animals, invertebrates, fungi and lichens are protected by national legislation. Latvia has ratified the international Washington, Bern, and Ramsare conventions.

Considerable attention is still being devoted to nature conservancy, and that, combined with fortuitous circumstances, has yielded good results - Latvia is internationally acknowledged as a land with more biological diversity than most other European countries. Here one can find unpolluted rivers and lakes, which enclose forests and meadows, as well as secluded, sandy, clean beaches where one can meander for miles without seeing another human being or traces of civilisation. Among Latvia's greatest natural resources are its forests with more than 200-year-old pine trees, black alder mires, linden, oak and ash forests and forests on ravines and slopes which are home to rare species of plants and animals - black storks (Ciconia nigra); small, medium, sea, and cliff eagles; lady's slippers (Cypripedium calceolus), many rare lichens, mosses, insects, snails, etc.

Fortunately, plant and animal species that are protected and rare in Europe because of intensive farming and environmental pollution are still commonly found in Latvia. Thus, we can still hear a frogs' choir on summer nights, spot a hedgehog in our garden, hear the call of the corncrake, or find the nest of a white stork atop a post, old chimney, or broken tree - all of these attest to the good quality of the environment in Latvia. We take their presence for granted, but even they can become extinct; in the rest of Europe they are already on the list of endangered species.

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