Polesia: Protecting one of Europe’s most unique landscapes

For most Europeans, the name ‘Polesia’ will be unfamiliar. This was also the case for Elleni Vendras when she first applied for a Belarus Project Assistant role at Frankfurt Zoological Society almost two years ago. Unsure what to expect from this landscape, Elleni says that the first time she stood on the bank of Pripyat River felt like going back in time. She imagined that the Rhine must have looked like this hundreds of years ago, when the river flowed freely and untamed. With its countless meanders, tributaries and cut-offs, the Pripyat continues to shape the region in its unique way, creating a labyrinth of waters, islands, mires, wetlands and floodplain forests.

The Pripyat River in Polesia has, and to this day continues to create a truly unique landscape – one that is of breathtaking beauty as well as ecological importance. Photo credit: Viktar Malyshchyc.

Covering an expanse of over 186,000 km2, half the size of Germany, Polesia is one of the largest natural landscapes in Europe. At its widest point, it stretches roughly 300 km from north to south. It also transcends borders, spreading across Belarus, Poland, Russia and Ukraine. The vast majority of Polesia, however – around 85 per cent – lies within Ukraine and Belarus.

Polesia is a flat landscape; the ground smoothed and levelled by glaciation, where the maximum height difference across the region is just 150 m. Yet it is precisely this feature that makes Polesia so special, with the low gradient allowing the Pripyat to flow very slowly for more than 700 km. In spring, countless wetlands form along the river as snow melts; during high water the Pripyat looks more like a large lake than a river.

In many ways, this is a landscape of superlatives. Hundreds of thousands of migratory birds pass through Polesia, including 350,000 wigeon, 200,000 ruff and 30,000 black-tailed godwit– the highest concentrations of ruffs and black-tailed godwits in Central and Eastern Europe. The Pripyat floodplains are also an important resting place for waterfowl, whose migratory route runs through Polesia in spring and autumn.

Ruffs arrive in enormous numbers during their migration to the River Pripyat. Photo credit: Daniel Rosengren / FZS.

Many bird species breed here, including globally endangered species such as the greater spotted eagle, and the Zvaniec fen mire in Polesia is a critical breeding ground for aquatic warblers – home to the majority of their global population. Major populations of great snipes, Terek sandpipers, ringed plovers and other water birds such as little terns, whiskered terns, little gulls, common gulls and pintails also depend on Polesia’s floodplains.

Many parts of this region are of international importance for nature conservation and are recognised as UNESCO biosphere reserves or Ramsar sites. A fascinating part of this landscape can be found in the Chernobyl exclusion zone on both sides of the border between Belarus and Ukraine. The return of bears, wolves and lynx and an increase in the number of other wild animals have been observed here in recent years.

Last winter Elleni was in a helicopter over the Chernobyl area conducting a moose count. In the snow she suddenly saw a dense maze of tracks; deer, moose and roe deer, wolves, foxes as well as hares. The elusive wolf seems to feel particularly home in this abandoned area; there are now seven times more of them found here than in any other protected area of Belarus.

Great snipes depend heavily on the River Pripyat floodplains for safe breeding grounds. Photo credit: Daniel Rosengren.

Unfortunately, anthropogenic pressures have also been felt in Polesia. Over the last few decades, wetlands have been drained, large intact floodplain landscapes bisected by road construction, and agroforestry has continued to expand.

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

Since January 2019, this project has been using a $4.4 million (€3.9 million) grant from the Endangered Landscapes Programme to expand this work by creating a “wilderness without borders”; a contiguous network of protected areas covering nearly 1.4 million hectares of ecologically functioning landscape.

This funding has paved the way for a collaboration with the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), who will direct the scientific research underpinning this challenging project. This research aims to quantify the importance of Polesia for charismatic and endangered species, including the greater spotted eagle, great snipe, Eurasian lynx and greater noctule bat.

Human pressures from large industries, for example the creation of large cucumber plantations as seen in this aerial photograph, have led to fragmentation of Polesia’s landscape. Photo credit: Daniel Rosengren.

In addition, this collaboration will investigate how human disturbance is affecting these species, and map the most important areas for threatened wildlife. Furthermore, the project will assess the carbon storage capacity that the Polesia region holds in its globally important carbon rich peat soils. These data will give a much better ecological understanding of Polesia’s incredible habitat and the species that depend upon it.

Ultimately this knowledge will be used to inform policy that enhances protection and increases the size of protected areas within Polesia. It will also help build evidence of the likely damaging environmental impacts of the planned E40 waterway, a 2,000 km shipping route which would further fragment key habitats.

This article is an edited version of an existing article from Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS), with kind contribution from Elleni Vendras (Project Assistant at FZS) and Adham Ashton-Butt (Senior Ecologist at BTO).

To find out more about this project’s activities, visit their project page here.