Neil Bucknell
Neil Bucknell

By Neil Bucknell Belarus is probably not top of most British birders' list of places to visit in Europe. Some may know it as an anomalous, post-Soviet state run by an eccentric ruler, or as a country still suffering the after-effects of the Chernobyl accident in neighbouring Ukraine, in 1986. Its best-known birding highlights are the presence of the nearest population of Azure Tits Cyanistes cyanus to the UK, its world-class wetlands, and for being the site of the greater part of Europe's largest-surviving primeval forest, the Belavezhskaya Pushcha, shared with Poland (where it is known as the Bialowieza Forest). Last spring I had the privilege of spending a week birdwatching in the company of Alexandre Vintchevski, director of the local BirdLife partner organisation APB, which gave me a fascinating insight into the challenges for birdlife, and BirdLife, in this little-known country. Belarus is a landlocked country, bounded in the north by Lithuania and Latvia, to the west by Poland, to the south by Ukraine and to the east by Russia. Despite being by far the smallest of the three core Soviet countries that finally dissolved the Soviet Union in 1991, it is still some 200,000 km2 in extent - about 80% of the size of the UK. It is generally relatively flat, with a maximum elevation of just 345 m above sea level, about 40% forested and has substantial areas of marsh, mire and wetland. It lies in similar latitudes to England, but inevitably has a more continental climate, colder in winter, warmer in summer and has an average annual rainfall of 600-700 mm per year. The northern part lies in the taiga zone, but it is the wetlands of the south that hold most of interest to ecologists and birdwatchers. There are about nine million human inhabitants, some two million of those in the capital, Minsk. The population has been declining, and rural depopulation is evident, with abandoned houses in many villages. It is an old-fashioned, Soviet-style command economy, the last in Europe, with most economic enterprises under state control. The largest single source of GDP is derived from the refining of petroleum products, but foodstuffs and machinery (in both cases mostly exported to former Soviet states) and forestry products are important. APB BirdLife Belarus was established in 1985, and is now the largest environmental NGO in the country, with 3,000 members and an encouragingly large proportion of young members. It has a team of 15 staff, and has an impressive list of achievements to its credit. It has helped to secure local reserve status for the Turau Meadows, an important wetland in the Prypyats floodplain in the south of the country, which holds significant breeding populations of waders, including Great Snipe Gallinago media and a few Terek Sandpipers Xenus cinereus, and marsh terns Chlidonias. It has worked with overseas and international partners, including BirdLife International, the RSPB, BTO and Frankfurt Zoological Society. One of the challenges it faces is the lack of a decent, up-to-date field guide in Russian, the most recent still being A Field Guide to the Birds of the USSR (Flint et al.) - the 1968 version, which lacks the superior plates used in the English-language edition published by Princeton in the 1980s.

Alexandre Vintchevski, APB-BirdLife Belarus
Alexandre Vintchevski, Director of APB-BirdLife Belarus

There are about 150 members active in carrying out surveys, although an attempt to establish a breeding bird survey failed. A national breeding bird atlas is being undertaken at the same time as the current European Atlas, using 50-km grid squares, jointly supported by APB and the National Academy of Science. It has a budget of only £10,000, and the academy is seeking scientific credibility by including intensive counts in typical habitats, and extrapolating the results by reference to national habitat data to generate national population estimates. When you compare this with (for example) the recent Berkshire local atlas project, with 500 observers covering 400 tetrads, the magnitude of this task is clear. So what are the prospects for the birdlife of Belarus? At first sight, the state-run collective farms provide a more attractive habitat than our own arable areas. This is not due to any active agri-environmental policy, simply because salaried managers of collective farms have little incentive to intensify production, as they personally have little to gain. Northern Lapwings Vanellus vanellus and Skylarks Alauda arvensis are still widespread. Many species lost (or almost lost) to Britain in the last 100 years are still commonly encountered, including the Corn Crake Crex crex, Wryneck Jynx torquilla and Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio. However, substantial land drainage took place in the Soviet era. Rural depopulation is indirectly having an impact on the remaining wet areas and mires, as maintenance of these areas in a favourable condition is dependent upon continued grazing. Extensive grazing is labour-intensive, so as people have left the land it has been abandoned, leading to the encroachment of scrub. APB has acquired a German-built wide-tracked cutting and mulching machine to help keep the scrub at bay, which is currently on loan to the National Reserve service to help maintain the important mires at Sporava. One species for which this is a particular threat is the Aquatic Warbler Acrocephalus paludicola. Until the 1990s, little was known of its range outside Poland, Hungary and Germany. The main reason was that no-one thought to survey for this relatively discrete warbler in the evening, when it sings its short song from among grass tussocks, quite unlike the prolonged and showy displays of the Sedge Warbler A. schoenobaenus. It soon became clear that Belarus held a substantial population of Aquatic Warblers, with up to 60% of the world population of Europe's most threatened migrant songbird in the marshes and mires of the south. One site, Sporava Mire, holds 9% of the world population alone. The species now features on APB's logo.

Neil Bucknell on Pripyat Bridge, Belarus, in May 2015
Neil Bucknell on Prypyats Bridge, Belarus, in May 2015

The economic situation in Belarus could pose a threat. The country is living beyond its means, as the government tries to prop up living standards, and has run up substantial external debts. The pressure is on to boost external earnings by increasing food and forestry exports. Peat extraction is being promoted as a domestic source of power and for sale abroad for garden and horticultural use. When I was there, the position of Minister of Environment had remained unfilled for some months. However there are also helpful factors. Wildlife stories are welcomed by the country's state-controlled media, as providing popular but apolitical subjects for television. Live pictures from a Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus nest in the southwestern city of Brest were streamed on the internet in 2015. ABP is attempting to raise funds for rewetting drained peatlands (which are mineralising, releasing CO2 into the atmosphere) by selling carbon credits abroad. With a recession forecast for the next two years, Belarus's wildlife needs all the help it can get. Belarus is not the most straightforward country to visit. A visa is required, and if you are not travelling as part of an organised group, you will need a written invitation from someone in Belarus. Once there, accommodation is generally good and reasonably priced, although finding food on the road can be hit and miss, and Soviet-era standards of service can still be encountered, but you will also be welcomed and smiled at too! It makes a rewarding birding destination, and you will see some interesting birds and habitats, as well as conservation achievements derived from slender resources. Neil Bucknell

Issue 8
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