Almany

Endangered Mires. Belsat's Special Project

The Almany mires are part of Europe's largest cross-border complex of intact natural bogs. The unique landscape is home to a number of rare European species of birds and animals. These wetlands are of great international importance, but local authorities are gradually destroying them. Belsat.eu set out to the mysterious place with wolf researchers to explore the unique nature and culture of the region.






It took us over four hours to get to the village of Bukcha. Here, in the heart of the Belarusian Polesse had settled a group of scientists.

The biologists and wolf experts had been tracking the wolf in the Almany mires already for a week. The wolf bypassed the traps the scientists set up for several times. Only a single animal got trapped there within a week. The experts' mood began to sink. They were sullenly eating their dinner when we entered the house.

"How is our Malaya doing?" asks Maksim from the couch, the only volunteer in the team.

"Great, she walked for about 30 kilometers," answers biologist Mikalai raising his dreamy eyes from the computer.



The monitor showed the female wolf's route. She has not been given a proper name yet, and the scientists refer to her as Malaya meaning "small" due to her age and size.


We get up at 6:30, have a quick breakfast and prepare some food for the journey. Experts get divided into three teams and leave to check the wolf-traps. There are over two dozen. It would be nice to get to the first trap before dawn. Together with the Mikalai Cherkas from 'APB BirdLife Belarus' we leave the dark village and head into the forest. The traps are located in the "Almany mires" and "Stary Zhadzen" reserves.



Photo: Team of four biologists living in a small log house
This area is of great importance for all of the European wildlife. The Almany mires are situated on the Belarusian-Ukrainian border, they are part of the largest cross-border wetland complex, which has been preserved in an almost natural state. Scientists say it is a kind of mosaic of fen, raised and transitional bogs, with no similar landscapes anywhere else in Europe. To preserve the uniqueness of the place, the Academy of Sciences even offered to give the Almany the status of a "biosphere zapavednik" (type of nature reserve), i.e. to limit peoples' access to the territory and ban economic activity. At the moment there are only two such reserves in Belarus: the Berezinsky Biosphere Reserve and the Polesse Radioecological Reserve.



The Almany mires have great biodiversity: there are lynx, which are rare in Belarus, smooth snakes, and pond turtles. The mires play special role in preserving greater spotted eagles - large birds of prey of the Accipitridae family, which are recognized globally as vulnerable species. Around 15% of the European population of these predators nest in Belarus, mainly on the Polesse marshes. The nearby nature reserve "Stary Zhadzen", which received the status of a specially protected area as recently as 2015, has also rich species diversity. It is home to bats from the National Red List: the northern bat and Brandt's bat. Three years ago, scientists found here the greater noctule bat, which had not been seen in Belarus since 1930!

Throughout this article you will come across Ivan, an old Polesse man, who will explain some of the local phenomena and processes. We did not meet Ivan Ryhoravich by chance: in Bukcha everybody knows him as a hereditary beekeeper. The 83-year-old Ivan Haikevich had worked his whole life as a driver. He remembers the swamp when it was impossible to get out of it by car.
"Every year the climate gets warmer. The dry area is now everywhere you go, swamps are not the swamps they used to be, rivers have dried out," sighs Ivan.
"The forest is not like the city, here you can see everything," Mikalai leads us through a forest trail. He has been living in the depths of the Belavezha Forest for 26 years, so he knows exactly what he is talking about.

The scientist teaches us to distinguish the footprints of wolves, dogs, and deer.


The animal traps are very well hidden, it is difficult to find them even at close range. Scientists made sure that nothing would seem strange to wolves. They carefully masked the trap under the brushwood and put special bait there. Biologists use traps that cause minimum damage to the animal.





We barely had time to see the traps, when suddenly the phone rang. The second team had a wolf caught in a trap.


"Let's go!" Mikalai screamed joyfully, and we hurried to meet a wild wolf for the first time. It was extremely important to get to the place as quickly as possible so that the wolf stayed trapped for a minimum amount of time.




Driving on forest roads in Almany is a peculiar pleasure: it feels like traveling on a boat during a sea storm. Winding trails with lots of bumps and branches don't allow the driver to relax. "Damn this road," he exclaims from time to time.
We pull up to a place where biologist Anastasia Kuzmiankova and volunteer Maksim are already waiting for us. They are lucky with wolves: it was the second predator trapped in their district. While experts are preparing all the necessary tools, we breathlessly watch the gray beast from a distance.

"It's a grown-up male, 3-4 years old," says a well-known Belarusian wolf researcher Dzmitry Shamovich, pulling on his gloves.


He and his colleagues take the necessary tools and go to collar the wolf. These device helps the scientists study the predator. The GPS-collar sends its coordinates to the scientists who follow the animal. This way, they learn what the animal eats and how it spends time. After 9 months the collar will automatically fall off. By the way, you can track wolves at vouk.by.


Having done all the necessary procedures we move away from the beast and observe. He gets up and quickly runs away from us.



Everybody in the village already knows the biologists. Bukcha is located almost on the border, so the new people in the village are always in the spotlight.



"Aren't you guys cold, running around the forest like that?" Village women asked us, laughing when they saw the researchers. "Did you catch the wolf or not?"
"We caught two," says Anastasia Kuzmiankova.
"Last winter we had lots of wolves. They came and went, so often that we were afraid for our dogs."
"Just don't tie the dogs up. When you put them on a chain, you sentence them to certain death", explains the biologist.




The villagers did not immediately realize that the experts didn't kill wolves but caught and let them go. However now almost every Bukcha villager knows about the wolf's role in the ecosystem.








On checking all existing traps the scientists put new ones if necessary. Sometimes other animals like lynx, raccoon dogs, or hares get caught in the traps. The scientists immediately release them.



Closer to lunch time we check all the traps and go to see the swamp and its beauty. Leaving the paved highway we get onto the new still unfinished road. We see mountains of sand and dump trucks full of it passing us on the way.




We drive on: foresters are burning twigs and tree stumps. This is how they fight the bark beetle.




"As soon as the road is built, there will be no nature left", the local men comments on the nearby construction.

Схема дарог
This summer environmentalists raised a red flag: a new road construction began at the Almany mires. Experts argue that the construction will harm a minimum of five rare habitats and four protected species of plants and animals. The site, which will host the road, is the favorite feeding place for Red List birds like crane, short-toed snake eagle, black stork and the globally vulnerable species – the greater spotted eagle.


Public hearings within the framework of the environmental impact assessment (the document more commonly known by the abbreviation EIA is mandatory under the planned construction that may harm the environment) were conducted as far back as 2012, 2014, and 2016. But environmentalists and the interested public missed the hearing. Therefore, the assessment was approved, and the construction began soon after that.


Now the forest group of the NGO "APB BirdLife Belarus" highlight the law violations during the road construction. Experts have found illegal quarries where the builders are taking sand from. The Regional Committee of Natural Resources reported that a criminal investigation into unauthorized quarrying was launched back in 2017. Moreover, due to the position of the reserve, it is prohibited to conduct activities there that may alter the natural landscape and existing hydrological regime (except when such activities are spelled out in terms of the reserve management plan). According to environmentalists, the road will certainly change the landscape and its hydrological regime. In this case, the reserve management plan makes no mention of its construction, so it is a direct violation of the reserve provisions.


We look sadly at the marsh where mounds of sand are being dumped. We only see dump trucks with sand on the new road.

"It is a pity that the mires will die," says Mikalai while driving. "The road will act as a dam. One side of the marsh will be overflowing and the other side it will be drying up".

Cranberry gatherers have a totally different opinion of the road. The Almany mires are a well-known treasure trove of these berries.

"It will be better now because there was no road before, and it was hard to get to cranberries. And now that the road is here, we will go further into the swamp to take them," Uladzimir told us, we met him on the road. He was standing on a forest trail with a bag of berries waiting for other gatherers to arrive. They are brought here in the morning by a minivan from Lelchytsy (the town almost 60 km away) and taken back at twilight. Today the man has collected only 4 kg of berries. Usually he gathers 17-20 kg a day.



"As the season starts in September we come here because we do not have mires where we live. And if we do, we can gather all the berries there within a week. And the swamps here are huge," indicates Uladzimir.
"If it was 50 years ago, I would have gathered 500 kg. My hands are not like they used to be. But the young girls gather 20-25 kg daily," tells us Mr Haikevich.
Locals sell cranberries at 4-5 Belarusian rubles per kilogram (about 2 euro). For the villagers it is a very substantial income. But even the cranberries are now not the same as before.

This year our old friend Ivan has collected 100 kg.



Wearing our backpacks, we go deeper into the cranberry-rich places. On the way there we come across very strange things: we constantly see a tin on the trees, then a bottle or a piece of cloth.

"This is how berry gatherers mark their way not to get lost," explains Anastasia Kuzmiankova.



Following the signs, we get to a camp showing unmistakable signs of being recently inhabited by people: there was some leftover salad on the table, beside it a mattress was carefully rolled up and hidden in plastic bag and a bag of raw potatoes was hanging on the tree.

"It's the Ukrainians. They come to pick berries and mushrooms living in such camps for several days and leaving the garbage behind," the locals explained. The Rubrynsk forestry staff had the same explanation.

In neighboring Polesse forestry Ukrainians have a simplified seasonal pass for gathering berries and mushrooms. Residents of the Ukrainian border villages can use this pass twice a year, from July the 1st to August the 10th and from September the 1st to November the 15th. According to the Border Committee, last summer this system was used over 7,500 times to cross the border. To take advantage of the pass the Ukrainians have to pay 10 basic units (255 BYN, about 120 euro) for a visit to the Almany mires reserve.
Turn two videos at a time:
While this story was being written the Rubrynsk forestry employees cleaned the camp.

Almost every man in Bukcha is a beekeeper. Forest beekeeping is a popular hobby here. It is passed on from generation to generation.

But despite all this, the villagers modestly refuse to acknowledge it:
"I am not really a beekeeper. Yes, a couple of times a year, I get inside, clean there and take honey. Just a little bit, for personal use," says Leanid Sushchyk. His grandfather left as many as 15 beehouses behind, he later installed two more on his own. However, he says he does not check all of them every year.
How to become a beekeeper. Instructions for beginners :
  1. 1. Find a pine tree and use a chisel to make a chump (bee tree).
  2. Buy a honeycomb.
  3. Sprinkle the bee tree with a special bait to lure the bees (marsh Labrador tea is often used for this).
  4. Hang the bee tree in the forest (the place is selected depending on the number of flowering plants).
  5. Study the Beekeeper's Charter and take Beekeeper's Oath (if you wish):
I (name), the beekeeper from (name of the locality or region), Islands (the name of the forest and so on.) I swear allegiance to the Beekeeper's Charter and swear that I have the firm intention to follow the beekeepers' traditions and best practices, to develop them. I swear that I will not introduce anything new and break the beekeepers' traditions and customs.

I beekeeper (name) will take care of and protect bees, the tree where they live, and the forest where they fly, to work for the enrichment of the local nature. And in three years I want to get the position of the White Beekeeper (who protects and takes care of his bee forest).

And if I, beekeeper (name), violate my oath, I will not be able to use the Beekeepers' Charter and thus will be accursed from beekeepers' traditions and lose the position of the White Beekeeper.

6. Clean the bee-tree every once in a while and protect it from pests (woodpeckers, martens, and people who want to steal your honey).
"From beginning of April we come here to see whether they fly. If they are working there, we let them go. If not, we clean it inside, throw away the rotten stuff."

Ivan is the most famous beekeeper in the village. He happily takes us to his back-yard to show his bee-trees. They look like a large pine tree stumps covered with tin. This protects the hives against martens and black woodpeckers. The old man has about 50 bee-trees in the forest, a few more are located near his house. Typically the season begins late April and lasts until October.
Ivan proudly treats us to his honey and adds that forest honey is most delicious. He has been eating it since childhood: Ivan's grandfathers were also beekeepers. They made bee-trees just with axes, saws did not exist then. And with the help of a leather rope with a wooden seat, they climbed up to collect honey. Now you can easily use a ladder, however, Ivan's ancestors put the bee-trees up as high as 25 meters.
Over the years, not only the set of necessary beekeepers' tools has changed, but also the natural conditions.
"There's no water, no flowers... Nature, climate, it's very dry now. It's hot in June, July, August, and it's cold in April and May. In May they would already start working, and it's still cold. And if there is a severe drought, 28-30 degrees, the bees do not work, they stay in the beehouse and do not work."


This year he was not very lucky with honey: he managed to get no more than 10 kg from the bee-tree. And there were times when he managed to gather 20 kg from each of them.


While this story was being written, the wolf we had seen trapped walked dozens of kilometers through the swamps, had time to eat an elk, but did not yet manage to start a family.

"The wolf remained where wildlife was preserved," Mikalai told us. His aim is to conserve Polesse for future generations.
Unfortunately, this has proven to be quite a difficult task so far.


We thank "APB Birdlife Belarus" for help
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