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The Amazonia of Europe

Polesia is one of the largest and most impressive wilderness areas in Europe. With its gigantic mires, floodplains and wet meadows, Polesia is a paradise for birds, amphibians and many other animals.

By Elleni Vendras
Polesie panorama
An aerial photo of the river Pripyat
Most Germans are probably unfamiliar with the name Polesia. I, too, had no idea what to expect when I applied to FZS a year and a half ago for the position of Belarus project assistant. Except, maybe, swarms of mosquitoes. The first time I stood on the bank of Pripyat river, I felt as if I had gone back in time. The Rhine must have looked like this hundreds of years ago, when the mighty river was still allowed to flow freely and untamed. The Pripyat does so to this day. With its countless meanders, tributaries and cut-offs, it shapes the region in a unique way: the landscape is a veritable labyrinth of waters, islands, mires, wetlands and floodplain forests. This is why the Pripyat is often also called the "Amazon of Europe".

Polesia is flat. There are no mountains. Ground smooth and levelled by glaciation, the maximum height difference is just 150 metres. And it is precisely this feature that makes Polesia so special. The Pripyat flows very slowly for more than 700 kilometres due to the low gradient. In spring, countless wetlands form along the river; the Pripyat looks more like a large lake during high water. Over a length of several hundred kilometres the river overflows its banks and reaches an impressive width of up to 30 kilometres.

The FZS project office is in Minsk, a good 200 kilometres north of Polesia. The journey there takes about four hours. So I rarely get the chance to visit this wilderness, which is half the size of Germany. Occupying over 186,000 square kilometres, Polesia is one of the largest natural landscapes in Europe – extending 900 kilometres from east to west. At its widest point it stretches roughly 300 kilometres from north to south. And Polesia literally transcends borders, spread as it is across Belarusian, Polish, Russian and Ukrainian territory. About 85 per cent of Polesia is located in Ukraine and Belarus.

Mires, meadows and floodplain forest

Canoe on the Pripyat
Scientists collect data on bird populations on the Pripyat
I think that nature can actually be "nature" in Polesia because there are still large intact habitats that are either very rare or that no longer exist in most other parts of our continent. Huge marshes (mainly fens and percolation mires, among the largest intact areas of moorland in Europe), swampy floodplains, rivers, countless lakes and oxbow lakes, flooded meadows and floodplain forests, but also sand dunes form this unique landscape.

Despite major intervention in the natural landscape during the Soviet era, large areas still remain completely untouched by human hand. The extensive forests provide a refuge for large mammal species such as wolf, lynx, moose and bison, and recently brown bears have also been seen more frequently, probably coming down from the large forests in the east of Polesia. The Pripyat floodplains are an important resting place for waterfowl, whose migratory route runs through Polesia in spring and autumn.

In many ways, this is a landscape of superlatives: hundreds of thousands of migratory birds pass through Polesia. These include up to 350,000 wigeons, up to 200,000 ruffs and up to 30,000 black-tailed godwits. Nowhere else in central and eastern Europe are there such large concentrations of ruffs and black-tailed godwits as in the floodplains of the Pripyat. The Pripyat is as still as a lake. Numerous bird species breed in the wetlands, including globally endangered species such as the spotted eagle and the sedge warbler. The majority of the global population of sedge warblers lives in Polesia, on the Zvaniec fen mire. It is the most important breeding ground in the world for this species. There are also major populations of great snipes, Terek sandsnipers, ringed plovers and other water birds such as little terns, whiskered terns, little gulls, common gulls and pintails. The list of birds that make the river floodplains and wet meadows of Polesia their home, at least part of the year, is long. Polesia also accommodates large populations of the European terrapin and even the extremely rare desman lives in or by the rivers of Polesia.

Outstanding international significance

Sandpiper
A Wood Sandpiper on the floodplains of the river Pripyat
Many parts of Polesia are of international importance for nature conservation and are recognised e.g. as UNESCO biosphere reserves or Ramsar areas. There is a special area on both sides of the border between Belarus and Ukraine which is also the exclusion zone that had to be set up due to the Chernobyl reactor disaster. I can well believe reports of the return of bears, wolves and lynx and the increase in the number of other wild animals which have been observed here in recent years. Last winter I was in a helicopter over the Chernobyl area for a moose count. In the snow I suddenly saw a dense maze of tracks. Deer, moose and roe deer, wolves, foxes and hares – just about everything was there. Wolves in particular seem to feel very much at home in this abandoned area. There are now seven times more of them here than in other protected areas of Belarus.

Unfortunately, humans are also making their presence felt in Polesia: wetlands have been drained in recent decades, large intact floodplain landscapes have been bisected by the construction of roads and paths, and agroforestry is continuing to expand. The planned construction of a 2,000 kilometre long waterway entitled "E 40" will have devastating effects.

Since 2015, FZS has been working with the nature conservation organisations APB-Birdlife Belarus and the Ukrainian Society for the Protection of Birds (USPB) to preserve Polesia. Both of these are members of the BirdLife International network. FZS and its project partners are concentrating on the core area of Polesia in the Central Pripyat region.

Since January 2019 we have been receiving funding for our work in Polesia by Arcadia - a charitable fund of Peter Baldwin and Lisbet Rausing. Within the framework of the Endangered Landscape Programme they will support our project with a total of 3.9 million Euros over the next years.

Elleni Vendras is FZS project assistant in Belarus.



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