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Of wolves and eagles

There are many species in Polesia that have almost no habitat anywhere else in Europe. In recent years, the FZS and its partners have carried out a number of research and monitoring projects aimed at studying the populations of wolves, spotted eagles and bats.

By Viktar Fenchuk
In any discussion of wilderness, the spotted eagle (Clanga clanga) tends to head the list of wildlife species that serve as wilderness indicators. Worldwide there are probably now only between 5,000 and 13,000 spotted eagles. Eagles are migratory birds. Every autumn, they leave their breeding grounds and fly to their wintering areas in the south of Europe, in southeast Asia and northeast Africa. In the early spring they return. There are no exact figures because the spotted eagle is found mainly in large, untouched and therefore often inaccessible regions, in the border areas between mixed forests and wetlands such as moors. Counting them therefore poses a major logistical challenge.
Spotted eagle, Schelladler,  © Anna Trofimtchouk, Bielaviežskaja pušča conservation programme
Some spotted eagles received a transmitter to track their movements

Here in Belarus there are about 120 to 160 breeding pairs of spotted eagles, with about 80 per cent of them located in the Polesia region. But like everywhere in Europe, the numbers of these wonderful eagles are dwindling here, too. Monitoring of the known nests revealed that a quarter of the spotted eagle population disappeared in Belarus between 2000 and 2010 alone. First, the spotted eagles vanish from the smaller habitats or where their habitats are bisected by forest roads, for example. This is because, as a species, it tolerates no disturbance whatsoever. And it is why large wilderness areas such as Polesia are so very important for the spotted eagle. They represent its final retreats. The risk of hybridisation with lesser spotted eagles is also lower there.

Lesser Spotted Eagle. Turov area, Polesie, Belarus. © Daniel Rosengren
Lesser spotted eagle, also native to the Polesia

Europe's largest percolation mire

Viewing the Almany fen mire from the air, you could be forgiven for thinking you were above the Serengeti: a wide, almost treeless, green "savannah". Only Almany is not a savannah, it's a mire. Europe's largest percolation bog or mire currently has no drainage ditches and, at over 940 square kilometres, is larger than Berlin. Together with the neighbouring protected area of Stary Zadzine and the Pripyat National Park as well as protected areas in the Ukraine, it forms a large natural landscape of 3,000 square kilometres called "Pripyat Polesia". A third of all Belarusian spotted eagles live in this vast, wild landscape. The long-term monitoring data from studies of spotted eagles, lesser spotted eagles and other species conducted by the FZS and APB (the BirdLife partner in Belarus) is now available. This has provided arguments for enlarging some protected areas in Belarus. Now that the planned E 40 waterway is creating an additional threat to Polesia, we are restoring the nest cameras to monitor the population of the spotted eagles. The data will help us to underline the importance of the spotted eagle as a flagship species for Polesia.

Changing the image of wolves

In our opinion, the wolf should also become such a flagship. But we still have to work on changing the image of this species. In Belarus, wolves are still regarded as a "menace" and there is a long tradition of hunting them, which is still permitted here. Our goal is to change the image of the wolf and to move from hunting them to setting up targeted wolf management programmes.

There are very few areas where wolves can feel safe in Belarus. The large alluvial areas of Polesia offer such refuge. Even though wolves do not necessarily require pristine wilderness, the presence of an alpha predator is important for an ecosystem like Polesia. Hunting is forbidden in the border region between Belarus and Ukraine, meaning that they can live here undisturbed. In 2018 we fitted transmitter collars to two wolves there: a solitary male and a young female. These transmitters revealed, surprisingly, that the two crossed the border relatively frequently. They spent half the time in Ukraine, the other half in Belarus.

Wolf tracks, Chernobyl,  © Michael Brombacher
Wolf tracks in Belarus

Bats with transmitters

We are interested in identifying not only the territory of wolves, but also that of bats. The expansive fenland of Almany is relatively inaccessible, meaning that the only option we had was to equip bats with a GPS transmitter in order to track their movements. The greater noctule bat is the only suitable bat for such monitoring because, with a body weight of around 60 grams, it is the only species that is able to carry the GPS transmitter (which weighs around three grams). In 2016 we were surprised to be able to prove the species' presence in Belarus. That was a minor sensation because it was otherwise thought only to inhabit southern regions. For this reason we wanted to find out more about the greater noctule bat and also discover where it lives and hunts in Polesia.

We were somewhat surprised by the results of our monitoring. Bats need old forest, but not necessarily wilderness, for their habitat. It turned out, however, that the greater noctule bat was at home deep in the Stary Zadzine Reserve. The pug and bicoloured bat are also commonly found here. The bats carrying the transmitters led us to the structures they need for their colonies and sizable nurseries: large, old, dead trees. The greater noctule bats showed us that they like to hunt over the burned areas of the Almany fen mire. The bats benefit from the destruction caused by wildfires in dry summers. As soon as the insects return there in large numbers, there is plenty of food for them. Expansive natural landscapes with their diversity of structures are indispensable for the conservation of our European natural heritage. This is shown by the data on the occurrence of the greater noctule bat in Polesia.

Partner of the bat studies

The bat studies are carried out in cooperation with the Institut für Tierökologie und Naturbildung based in Laubach, Hesse, which also finances parts of the studies. Further support also comes from Eurobats and the Stefanie Koning Foundation (Gießen).

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