Reviving the fen: therapy for Europe's lungs in Belarus
Do you know what fens are? They are one of the main types of wetlands, and usually have peaty alkaline soil and characteristic flora. Fens are natural habitats: a precious home to nature. Unfortunately, some fens are at risk of being drained for farming, threatening both biodiversity and the climate. Our partner, APB-BirdLife Belarus, is taking action to protect fens. This is their story.
Dzikoje sedge fen (23,145 ha) is part of Bielaviežskaja Pušča National Park. It is also one of the high-profile wetlands of Belarus, and one of the first protected areas in the country.
Since 1999, its area is included in the national park. As such, the Dzikoje fen complex has now the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. It is an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA) and one of Belarus's 26 wetlands protected under the Ramsar Convention. The Dzikoje Fen is significant for the conservation of biodiversity not only in Belarus, but also globally. It holds one of the three largest populations of Aquatic Warbler in Belarus. There are only a few such fens left in Europe, as most of them were drained for farming.
The natural water regime of the Dzikoje Fen was disturbed by large-scale reclamation – also known as land fill. One half of the fen - the upper reaches of the Jaselda River - was drained and today is used for agriculture. However, 330 ha of land on the edge of the ameliorative system, which was drained without an engineering project, is not used today in any way and is overgrown with bushes.
In 2018, this area was included in the national park through APB assistance.
The academic Institute of Experimental Botany identified this land as an important place for fen conservation. It was decided to rewet it to create a buffer zone between the natural fen and the farmland. In this way, natural fen vegetation and rare animal species, such as the Aquatic Warbler and the Greater Spotted Eagle may return.
In April 2019, dams were built in channels to restore the hydrological regime as part of the "Conservation Project for the Bielaviežskaja Pušča" implemented by ABP-BirdLife Belarus and Bielaviežskaja Pušča National Park with the support from Frankfurt Zoological Society (Germany).
Alexandre Vintchevski, Director of APB-BirdLife Belarus says, "In 1999, we were pleased to learn that the national park was granted the permission to add the zakaznik Dzikoje to its territory. However, the national park did not have enough funds for that, so we stepped in and we raised the necessary money. Onno de Bruijn – a Dutch amateur ornithologist – funded the inclusion of the fen in the national park through APB Birdlife Belarus assistance with his own money. Since then, the fen has its master – the national park. The management plan was developed jointly. Now works are beginning to optimize the hydrological regime of the fen's edge, and we are very grateful to the conservation authorities, executive bodies, the national park, and our friends from Germany - FZS – because we can now realize our lifelong dream."
In the Pushcha, groundwater level has been declining steadily, and it has had a strong impact on the local ecosystems - spruce and ash forests are drying, greenhouse gas emissions are increasing.
Vasil Arnolbik, Deputy Director General of the national park speaks out: "In the past, the Bielaviežskaja Pušča was highly waterlogged. There were 41,000 ha of bogs and fens just in the Belarus part of the famous forest, and we lost half of them - they were drained about half a century back. This resulted in the disturbance of the ecological balance; we lost the structure of the natural complexes and began to lose species. All conservation activities are written down in the Bielaviežskaja Pušča management plan, and the restoration of the hydrological regime is viewed in the document as top priority. Therefore, we are implementing the plan on a step-by-step basis thanks to the cooperation with the German FZS and Belarus BirdLife APB, which started in 2013. We began with the optimization of the hydrological regime of small water streams, after that we implemented large-scale works on the Dziki Nikar and Papialiova Bogs."
Twenty-five dams were built on the project site with 30 cm elevation difference. They will hold the water that would otherwise leave the fen and form a buffer between the wetland and the ameliorated areas. In this way, we are shifting the amelioration impact zone away from the fen. These 300 ha will now take the main weight of the attack from the farmland adjoining the living fen.
For the habitats of Belarus, water is the most essential element. Our fens and bogs are often called the lungs of Europe. However, many of them are in a sad state. We will continue the re-wetting until their situation improves.
Translated into English by Tatyana Korzhitskaya