The protection of all protected species and areas is organised on the initiative of the Ministry of the Environment according to a special plan, and an action plan must be prepared for each Natura habitat type (or group thereof). The action plans for habitats related to bogs and heritage communities have been completed earlier, although the action plans for forest habitats will be completed during the LIFE-IP ForEst&FarmLand project and an action plan for wet forest habitats and dry forest habitats is being prepared separately, as the problems and activities necessary for resolving them are somewhat different.
The action plan for wet forest habitats, which will reach a wider consultation round in the second half of 2022, analyses the reasons for the poor condition of wet forests and plans further actions. The plan proposes various conservation management activities, including the re-zoning of protected zones, new habitat inventories, the restoration of the natural water regime, the development of cutting rules, and the planning of an ecological network that allows for the distribution of species at the landscape level.
The action plan for dry forests will be created after the completion of the action plan for wet forests, and according to the action plans, RMK will restore 3,500 hectares of deciduous swamp woods and 500 hectares of dry forests by 2027.
Risk factors for wet forest habitats
The condition of a wet forest usually deteriorates due to the combined effects of several risk factors. Of these, forest drainage and logging have the greatest impact.
Drainage is extensive in Estonia: nearly one-third of the forest land has been drained. In Estonia, bog woodlands cover less than 7% of the area of the mainland, while drained peatland forests formed as a result of drainage account for 15%. A large portion of the current bog woodlands have been affected by drainage, including in protected areas. Peat begins to decompose as a result of the drainage, the moisture regime and habitat characteristics of the area change over time, and the area ceases to function as a mire.
Drainage also changes the vegetation. A reduction in moisture results in the shrinking of bog flora coverage as it is replaced by plants from drier areas. Trees grow faster and forest stands become denser as a result of drainage, with light-demanding bog species disappearing due to the resulting decrease in light.
The number of natural water bodies is also declining and floods are occurring less frequently, resulting in the loss of associated habitats.
In a large proportion of protected areas, cutting has been used to manage forests in the past and is often used today in limited management zones. However, it is known that regeneration cutting and subsequent reforestation usually alter the composition and structure of a forest stand, making it different from a natural one. Improvement cutting also harmonises the structure of the forest stand: trees that are as similar and regularly positioned as possible are left. Cutting also reduces the amount of dead wood and its generation in the future.
Sometimes, to improve the condition of a habitat in an ecological reserve, it is instead necessary to change the management around the protected area. The effects of drainage in particular are far-reaching. In Finland, for example, it is estimated that 80% of wetlands without ditches still have drainage effects.
Wet forest habitats are also threatened by the processes associated with global warming, peat extraction, and sporadic excessive visitor loads.
The action plan seeks to find solutions to the above problems. To this end, protection procedures may be amended, laws supplemented, or restoration activities implemented in certain areas.
Risk factors for dry forest habitats
The poor state of dry forests is mostly due to previous management activities. Cutting has been used to simplify the structure of forest stands, change their species composition, and the amount of dead timber in the forests is small. In most cases, however, the effects of these negative factors diminish over time and no human intervention is required. Natural recovery occurs faster in more fertile areas, and the type of forest habitat may change during the course of natural restoration (e.g. current grass-rich spruce stands develop into broad-leaved forests). This is not a problem, as the aim is to protect the natural values associated with the forest.
Dry forest habitats in limited management zones are threatened by regeneration cutting, which results in the loss of the value of the forest habitat. Intensive cutting activities in the vicinity of forest habitats are also a problem, as a result of which protected areas are transformed into isolated islands, with many species finding it very difficult to spread between these islands.