EuroMAB 2015 conference in Haapsalu, Estonia - Biosphere Reserves: from heritage to sustainable innovation

EuroMAB 2015 conference in Haapsalu, Estonia

About the Man and the Biosphere Programme

The MAB Programme develops the basis within the natural and social sciences for the rational and sustainable use and conservation of the resources of the biosphere and for the improvement of the overall relationship between people and their environment.

It predicts the consequences of today’s actions on tomorrow’s world and thereby increases people’s ability to efficiently manage natural resources for the well-being of both human populations and the environment.

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Physical characteristics of the West Estonian Archipelago Biosphere Reserve

The West-Estonian archipelago biosphere reserve belongs to the mixed forests zone of the world`s northern temperate zone. First and foremost the archipelago represents the ecosystems that have been formed on the coastal formations of different developmental phases of the Baltic Sea in the last ten thousand years.
The distinctive features and diversity of nature in the West Estonian islands is mainly influenced by the geographical position, young age of the area, lime-richness of soils and centuries of human activity. Long coastal line where we can find both low and dune beaches, low bays with small islets and holms and thousands of years of land use has formed the structure of the islands` forests, meadows, arable land and pastures, the result of which is a mosaic landscape and diverse nature of the islands.

Latitude and longitude

The biosphere reserve is located approximately inside the following bounds:
Northern point: 59º 15´ N
Southern point: 57º 35´ N
Western point 21º 30´ E
Eastern point 23º 30´ E

Biogeographical region

Temperate mixed woodlands / coastal marine zone

Topography of the region

West Estonian Archipelago Biosphere Reserve is situated in the eastern part of the Baltic Sea and comprises the islands of Saaremaa (2673 km²), Hiiumaa (989 km²), Muhu (200 km²) and Vormsi (93 km²), as well as numerous islets and extensive parts of the coastal sea.
The land surface is rather flat, with maximum of only 68 meters a.s.l. The sea depths within the limits of the biosphere reserve do not exceed 50m.


The West-Estonian Archipelago is a part of the Atlantic-continental region of the temperate climatic zone, which is characterised by warm summers and moderately cool winters. February's mean temperature is –3 : -4,5°C, while July's mean temperature is +16 : +17°C. Year mean temperature is +5,2 : +6°C. The mean annual precipitation is 550-750 mm. Snow cover is formed in November-December and lasts for 80-105 days. The ice cover in the sea forms usually in January, and stays until late March.
The prevailing winds in the archipelago southwesterly (about 25%), westerly and southerly. Wind velocity is on an average 5-6 m/sec, wit about 5 stormy days per year.
The amount of solar radiation varies widely during the year. There are about 1800-1900 hours of sunshine per year, whereas cloudy are about 150 days per year.

Geology, geomorphology, soils

The archipelago is located in the area of Ordovician (northern part) and Silurian (southern part) carbonate rocks. Bedrock is mostly covered with loose Quaternary deposits, which are presented by glacial till, glaciofluvial gravel, lacustrine clay and silt, marine sands, dunes and biogenic wetland sediments. In places, where the carbonaceus bedrock is exposed to the day surface, so-called alvar landscapes occur.
Landforms of the archipelago are formed under conditions of glacial and post-glacial processes, as well as the coastal dynamics of the retreating Baltic sea. Typical landforms are the accumulative marine plains; abrasional limestone plains; glacial and glaciofluvial hummocks and ridges; coastal terraces and ridges; dunes.

Habitats and characteristic species

The West Estonian Archipelago is located in the southern part of the Boreal forest zone of the Northern hemisphere, where the south-taiga forest subzone changes into spruce-hardwood subzone.
Terrestrial habitats contain pine forests, mixed spruce and deciduous woodlands, juniper and coastal meadows, swamps and peat bogs. The alvar forests (spruce, pine or birch forest on limestone plains with thin soils) are of particular interest. Parts of the area are designated as wetlands considered important according to Ramsar specifications.
The archipelago is a complex of marine and coastal habitats. Thousands of waterfowl and waders that migrate through, nest, rest or moult here are dependent on these habitats. Biodiversity here is closely connected to the historical land-use, especially mowing and grazing that has created semi-natural meadow communities characteristic of the area. Therefore both land-use intensification and abandonment cause problems here; nature conservation is inseparably connected to resource management. Active management is required to secure favourable conservation status of the coastal and semi-natural habitats and thus ecological functions of the whole site.

Valuable ecosystems

The sea. Rare bottom-plant communities are present in the coastal sea. In the central part of the biosphere reserve, representative Zostera and Zannichellia meadows are extensive; rare and unique Furcellaria / Phyllophora beds occur. Rare are also the dwarf-form Fucus stands. It is an important fish breeding area, as well, where the spawning sites of garfish (Belone belone) represent the northern limit of garfish in the Baltic Sea. Important moulting, feeding and breeding areas for Ringed and Grey Seals are on shallows in several parts of the area. Shallow parts are also important stop-over and moulting sites of Long-tailed ducks, Scoters, Goldeneyes and other waterfowl. Significantly, parts of the area are becoming increasingly important for tourism.
Bays, lagoons and reed-beds. Thousands of migrating Whooper and Bewick’s swans, geese and dabbling ducks stop here. Here, also, are the important fish spawning areas—white-tailed eagles and other species come to catch them—that are also important for commercial fishing. Reed, used as thatching material, is a potentially significant source of renewable energy. An interesting resource is mud, which has medicinal properties. There are mammals, otter, for instance.
Rivers and ditches. Most of the rivers and creeks have been dredged, reducing their natural diversity and value. In addition the rivers and streams have transported a significant pollution load for years. However they still have importance as inflows of bays and lagoons, fish migration corridors and spawning sites, feeding sites of birds, otter and beaver habitats, and popular sport fishing sites. Fortunately, their value has been enhanced by the decrease in pollution load during this decade. Restoration of more natural flow patterns could further improve the value of the rivers, streams, bays and lagoons they flow into.
Grasslands (coastal, alvar, alluvial or marshy). These are valuable sites for many rare and endangered plant species, nesting and migrating waders like Dunlins, Ruffs, Black-tailed Godwits, Redshanks, migrating Barnacle Geese and other geese species including Lesser White-fronted Goose. The grasslands have been used as pastures and hay-meadows for millennia, and some have significant value for out-door recreation.
Woodlands. Most valuable are those wooded meadows that are regularly mowed, but wood-pastures and other old forests are valuable as well, the large ones providing nesting sites for eagles and black storks. The woods are characteristised by high plant diversity including an abundance of orchids, fungi connected to old trees, and a rich bird population.
Islets. Islets form compact systems of the above-listed communities. Most of the larger ones (Tauksi, Kumari, Papi, Saarnaki, Hanikatsi, Hobulaid, among others) have been inhabited at one time, whereas some of them have some population (e.g. Abruka, Vilsandi, Kessulaid). In fact, all islets except the very smallest ones have experienced some human impact: temporary dwellings of fishermen, grazing, mowing, etc. Summerhouses exist nowadays on many of them. Most of the islets have overgrown, some to a large extent, meadow flora has declined and meadow birds have almost vanished as a result of past human influence. Much of that is not realistic to restore.

Core areas

The forest areas of core areas have primeval and natural forests with high-valued nature preservation features. Due to the fact that the islands` forest areas are expansive and the bog areas between the drift lines that emerged centuries ago are inaccessible, then nearly one third of Estonian forests that are unaffected by human activity have been preserved in the island of Hiiumaa.
A primeval forest is a habitat that has been formed without human influence with trees of different ages and trunks in different stages of decay, which offer living environments to many organisms of different needs, including species that fear human beings. Traces of past human activity can be found, however, if the forests were left alone they would most likely evolve into a grove equal to a primeval forest during the same forest generation. Forests like these are preserved and renewed only if left to develop naturally. This includes the old fir forests of the islands, which are in their final development stage and are renewed naturally, also the pine groves of the sand dunes that are centuries old.
The bogs of the islands are mostly hidden between the woodlands and form a common representative landscape with the surrounding forests. It should be taken into account that the bog formations are influenced by clear-cutting of nearby forests or by amelioration.
The bogs of West Estonian islands are quite different depending on their developmental levels: calcareous spring fens, small fens, developing transition mires and moors. The best solution for the protection of bogs for both the diversity of nature as well as the preservation of the island`s water reserves is to leave them grow naturally and avoid or minimise human activity.
Semi-natural areas
Semi-natural habitats have been formed together with traditional land use and in order to preserve them, we must continue land use that has been formed during the history. Woodlands, coastal meadows and alvars are preserved only thanks to constant human activity: cutting, mowing and pasturage. These are areas of rich biota, where each of the species has its own place and even the slightest breach (e.g. not mowing) can break this balance. Long-term change would already cause a considerable depletion of the colony.
Wooded meadows
Wooded meadows with small groups of trees have been formed as a result of traditional land use. Due to their diversity these are one of the richest colonies in Estonia with regards to species. Different humidity and light conditions under the trees and on clearings enable many species to meet and live together here.
Alvars are limestone areas with very thin cover of topsoil, which is the habitat for calcicole plants that can endure extreme humidity conditions, lots of rare species can be found amongst them. Historically the alvars have been used for sheep faming, at present the land use has been reduced or stopped completely and the alvars are now facing a threat of being grown over by junipers and pines.
Coastal meadows
Coastal meadows are meadows that can be found on low coasts in the areas influenced by sea, which have historically been used for bovine farming. The low grass coastal areas with unique species and plant colonies are preserved thanks to pasturage. Coastal meadows are important feeding and halting areas for migratory birds.