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Wetlands

Wetlands are vitally important natural areas and the most biologically diverse of all ecosystems.

Some Belarusian wetlands are more than 10,000 years old and began to form when the last glaciers disappeared from the territory of modern Belarus.

Wetlands have a number of unique features that are important to the global biosphere. They maintain an optimal level of groundwater and store large quantities of carbon. They also provide a habitat for numerous plant and animal species, many of which are unable to live in other ecosystems. Most wetlands are classified as natural protected areas (NPAs).

There are three main types of wetlands: marshes, swamps and mires (peat bogs and fens).

Peat bogs, or peatlands, are fed by water that derives mainly from rain or snow, which is low in the nutrients that are necessary for the growth of many types of plants. However, sphagnum mosses thrive in such conditions. They grow in dense, compact clusters that form large carpets. The mosses grow faster in the middle of the bog than at the perimeter and can reach lengths of 5 to 7 m. Sphagnum leaves feature large numbers of dead cells containing pores that absorb huge amounts of water. According to scientists, sphagnum stores so much water that its mass is 30 to 37 times greater than its weight. The presence of these mosses contributes to the rapid development of peat bogs. Sphagnum stems are unique in that the upper part is growing while the bottom part is decaying, and it is the accumulation of this dead plant material that forms peat.

In addition to moss, bogs also provide a habitat for low pine and birch trees. The grass-shrub layer in bogs typically comprises different types of cottongrass, dwarf birch, carnivorous plants (sundews) and berry bushes (cranberries, blueberries and even cloudberries).

A raised bog is formed where the peat builds up to a level where groundwater and surface water can no longer reach the centre of the wetland, resulting in the creation of a rain-fed bog. As the peat continues to form, a shallow dome develops over time. The microclimate of raised bogs in Belarus is very similar to that of the tundra and forest tundra, due in part to their specific vegetation and proximity to several small and medium-sized lakes. Species of bird originating in the tundra, such as the willow grouse, golden plover, whimbrel, black-throated divers and greenshank, come to nest in the bogs of Belarus. Large bogs are important for birds not only during the nesting season, but also during migration. Every autumn up to 5,000 common cranes and nearly 10,000 geese arrive to rest and recuperate at the Yelnya peat bog in Belarus.


The Yelnya peat bog

Yelnya is the biggest and most famous peat bog in Belarus and is recognised under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance. Yelnya is situated in the Vitebsk region and occupies a total area of nearly 20,000 hectares. The total area of the Yelnya Reserve, including the surrounding swamp forest, is 25,300 hectares.

This typical Baltic-type wetland is rich in plant life. Its 192 plant species include three species of horsetails, one species of lycopod, eight species of ferns, three gymnosperms and 177 species of flowering plants (angiosperms). The reserve contains plant species typical of the raised bogs in the lake areas of Belarus: tussock cottongrass, bog rosemary, white beak-sedge, golden withy, black lilyturf, marsh pine and pubescent birch. The reserve is also home to 15 rare and endangered plant species that are included in the Red Data Book of the Republic of Belarus: dwarf birch, cloudberry, bog marshwort, soft sphagnum, dense-flowered mullein, bulbiferous coralwort, whortleberry, willow, wolf's-foot, twayblade, hollowroot, sword-grass lily, green-winged orchid, broad-leaved garlic and Siberian iris.

The digging of numerous ditches has significantly lowered the groundwater level and is one of the main reasons for regular fires in the bog. The last fire, in 2002, destroyed about 70 percent of the bog’s surface. It was only in 1999 that work was undertaken to dam the ditches in order to raise groundwater levels and reduce the risk of fire. This work is carried out every year, as the dams require regular maintenance.

Animal species in the Yelnya Reserve include seven species of amphibians, five species of reptiles and 31 species of mammals (most of these live in remote areas but seek food in the reserve). There are also many vipers living in the bog. Of the nearly 100 species of birds recorded here, 23 are listed in the Red Data Book of the Republic of Belarus.

As fens receive moisture mainly from groundwater, they are richer in minerals, thus the vegetation is richer and the species composition more diverse in this type of mire than in peat bogs. Different types of sedges, willows, bluegrass and other plants that are adapted to wet conditions flourish here. The largest fen mire in Europe is Zvanets, a Ramsar site situated in the Brest region of Belarus. It covers nearly 16,000 hectares and is home to 644 plant species. There were once larger fens but these were drained during the Soviet era for peat excavation.

Fen mires are also home to unique fauna. The most famous example is the aquatic warbler, a small passerine bird that has adapted to breeding exclusively in fens. According to scientists, fen drainage has reduced the aquatic warbler population by about 90 percent over the past 100 years. Once widespread across the continent, the bird now breeds in just 50 areas in Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Germany where sedge mires still exist that correspond in terms of size and the composition of vegetation. The small population of aquatic warblers — fewer than 50 birds — in Pomerania (northeastern Germany and northwestern Poland) is gradually disappearing, and the bird has not been seen in Hungary since 2007. Of the approximately 20,000 remaining birds of this species, almost half live in Belarusian mires. Numerous and expensive measures to maintain water levels and restore the damage done by draining the Belarusian mires, financed by the international community, have at least succeeded in halting the declining trend in the numbers of aquatic warblers. Since 1998, the bird has been used in the logo of the largest NGO in Belarus, APB-BirdLife Belarus.

The aquatic warbler is of interest not only because it is the rarest species of continental European passerine, but also because of its unique habits. The female warbler builds the nest alone, then incubates the eggs and raises the chicks herself. This is possible only where the birds are able to find large quantities of food such as insects, arachnids and small molluscs — conditions found only in fen or sedge mires.

Transitional bogs occupy an intermediate position between raised bogs, with their short, mossy vegetation, and fen mires, with their taller vegetation. They are typically located at the perimeters of raised bogs or on separate sites with poor, sandy soils in the middle of fens. They provide sufficient groundwater for plants that require few nutrients, but not enough to sustain the structure of vegetation characteristic of fens. For this reason, these types of bogs are also known as poor fens or sedge mires.

Any human activity that involves the use or alteration of wetlands poses a direct threat to them.

  • The first large-scale land-improvement efforts in Belarus were made towards the middle of the 16th century at the initiative of Bona Sforza, queen of Poland and grand duchess of Lithuania. However, her efforts fade into insignificance compared with the vigour with which the Soviet authorities began draining wetlands after the Second World War. A total of 2.939 million hectares of wetlands were drained in Belarus, amounting to more than 14 percent of the country’s territory. The industrial development of peatlands, along with the reclamation of wetlands for agriculture and forestry, led to the destruction of the valuable natural ecosystems of many of these wetlands. Only 863,000 hectares of wetlands in Belarus remain in their natural condition, representing just 4 percent of the country’s territory.
  • People have been aware for centuries that the peat formed from decaying plants in bogs can be used as fuel. In recent decades, the chemical industry has taken advantage of the rich mineral and organic content of peat to produce fertilisers. However, it should be borne in mind that, in the current climatic conditions, it takes a thousand years to form just a single metre of peat.
  • In the Soviet era alone, 295,000 hectares of wetlands were drained in Belarus solely for peat extraction and most of this area no longer contains peat. The remaining land is unsuitable for household purposes, agriculture or forestry. In addition, between 2,000 and 8,000 fires have to be extinguished on these sites each year, according to the Ministry of Emergency Situations. While a total of 2.7 million tonnes of peat were produced in 2008, the state plans to nearly double peat production — up to 4.4 million tonnes — by 2020.
  • Peat extraction has increased in order to provide an alternative fuel to replace imported gas and electricity. Finland uses a complex processing technology in which the peat is not burned at all. Finland also has peatlands that were drained in the past for planting forests. In Western European countries, peat is extracted only from previously drained areas.

Belarus has no legislation that fully protects wetlands from drainage. Although it is illegal to drain wetlands for agricultural purposes, this ban does not apply to peat extraction.

Some initiatives currently being implemented, such as the Peat Programme, are actually aimed at the destruction of wetlands:

  • The programme involves the draining of natural wetlands, including the Zhada Reserve (one of the country’s largest raised bogs) and the Dokudovskoye National Biological Reserve. Decision No. 794 of the Council of Ministers of June 17, 2011, on Questions of Peat Extraction and the Optimisation of the System of Protected Areas, specifically allows peat extraction in eight wetlands, seven of which have been classified as protected reserves, while the other has been designated for protection in the future.
  • Minimal environmental damage would be caused if peat were extracted from areas already drained for agriculture or forestry, rather than wetlands. There are approximately 520,000 hectares of previously drained land in Belarus that are currently unused. These areas are overgrown with shrubs and weeds and are vulnerable to peat fires, which the state has spent huge amounts of money extinguishing. According to the Ministry of Emergency Situations, around USD 1.5 million were spent putting out these fires in the dry year 2002. Restoring these wetlands would solve environmental problems while at the same time reducing the risk of fire.


Other programmes focus on wetland restoration:

  • Since 2000, Belarus has carried out several large international projects for the restoration of over 40,000 hectares of degraded peatlands. These areas, which had suffered losses of biodiversity, were also regularly affected by fires.
  • According to international studies, it will be over 100 years before restored wetlands are fully able to fulfil their natural functions. The recovery of their natural biodiversity, if it is even possible, will take centuries. Following the restoration of a favourable hydrological regime in these areas, they are able to grow less than 26 percent of the plant species and consume 23 percent less carbon dioxide than undisturbed wetlands of the same area and type. A study of more than 600 restored peatlands has shown that the recovery of ecosystem functions requires far more time in cold climates than in warm climates.


Unfortunately, it is far more time-consuming and difficult to restore wetlands than to drain them. 

Further information on the protection of Belarusian wetlands can be found on the website of the local initiative group Bezbolot: bezbolot.net.