At the end of June four members of the CCRI (Janet Dwyer, Dan Keech, Katarina Kubinakova and Chris Short) visited Estonia as part of the H2020 project PEGASUS. Estonia has come a long way in the 25 years that it has been free from the Soviet Union. The work started in the capital Tallinn, which for some is the best preserved Medieval city in northern Europe. However the work really began when we headed for Lahemaa National Park, which was founded in 1971 and is 72,500 ha and includes over 20,000 ha of marine reserves.
Since Estonia is made up of nearly 50% forest, and there are far more trees than people with a population of 1.3 million, one of the key issues is isolation and maintaining the vitality of rural communities. There has been considerable investment in helping agriculture develop and it was interesting to discuss grass-fed beef production with a local farmer who farms within a Laheema National Park. Here the conservation of semi-natural grassland is enhanced through the extensive grazing of cattle where worming is controlled so the nature processes help the ecosystem thrive. During the visit we saw fritillary butterflies and a wide range of flora and close to midnight we heard the magical sound of the corncrake. Interestingly the market for these products is currently outside the EU with the choice beef cuts heading to Switzerland and the male calves to Turkey. However, our hosts the NGO Centre for Ecological Engineering (OTK)are working hard to support local producers sell their produce within Estonia. . A key part of this venture is to get local niche products into the increasing number of supermarkets. In the corner of one such supermarket on the outskirts of Tallinn can be found Talu Toidab (literal meaning ‘Cottage Powers’) shop-in-shop selling area where a wide variety of local farm, artisan and organic food products are available from bread, dried fruit, drinks and healthy snacks.
The natural beauty of Estonia is there for all to see and the visit highlighted the role of the State Forest Management Centre in building up the tourist infrastructure. The campsites are well equipped and full of a range of activities because a proportion of the profits from the sale of timber are directed into the tourist sector. The aspects we saw were museums and displays of forestry over the past century, camping huts, nature walks and other recreational facilities. The scenery is quite spectacular, none more so when walking across the middle of a raised bog. Over thousands of years these natural bowls fill with rainwater and the sphagnum moss increases, and gradually, about by 1 millimetre a year the peat grows, locking in Carbon. The wildlife is very specialized and includes sundew with its sticky pads that trap insects, multitudes of tadpoles and the magnificent Eurasian Crane, common here but only recently re-introduced into the UK.
To me it seemed clear that clear that Estonia is on a dramatically changing path and is trying hard to maximize the benefits that can be derived from its considerable beauty through recreation and tourism. These are vital to the overall economy but also bringing jobs to rural areas outside of agriculture and forestry. Hopefully they succeed as the lure of the city is strong and lack of housing in rural areas is acute. This is a real challenge and one that PEGASUS is seeking to tackle, how can the social and environmental benefits be combined so that both are enhanced for future generations?