Grazing the birds back to coastal Estonia
In this part of northern Europe, natural coastal grasslands had for centuries been a haven for wildlife, attracting immense flocks of birds. Each spring and autumn, around two million waterfowl including Common Crane, Mute Swan and Golden Eye descended on the area as a stopover on their migration routes. The grasslands were maintained by farmers practising low-intensity, traditional grazing with local breeds of cattle, sheep and horses. Cattle were raised primarily for dairy products.
After the fall of communism in 1989, agriculture in the area nearly collapsed. Estonia’s joining the EU brought additional challenges. The 1990s proved extremely difficult economically for the dairy farmers as dairies went bankrupt, farmers lost money and many gave up farming. Over that decade, the area’s overall population decreased steadily by 12%. High unemployment was further combined with an ageing population, and many young people moved to the cities in search of work. Once the grazing stopped, the land soon became overgrown with reeds and scrub, and the species which depended on the grasslands began to disappear.
Agriculture alone began to look like a losing activity for local people. Perhaps, combined with rural tourism, nature conservation and the production of handicrafts from local products, it might lead to improved incomes for farmers and benefits for the environment at the same time. And the goal of raising cattle would need to switch from producing dairy products to producing high quality, nature-friendly, “green” beef? And it did.
Bring on the beef and the birds
“The farmers tell us more and more birds are now coming back including Dunlin, Black-tailed Godwit and Ruff,” says Lia Rosenberg, a member of the local NGO Arhipelaag. “That means the coasts are again able to provide habitat as they did before.”
Behind the positive change was a project begun in 1999 by Arhipelaag and WWF Sweden geared to restoring the coastal wet grasslands. “It was absolutely the last time we could save the farmers’ faith in agriculture and keep farming economical,” says Rosenberg. The project provided 30 cows to the farmers and the cows were soon eating nothing but the natural grasses periodically soaked by mineral-rich coastal tide waters. Soon after, the old coastal meadows slowly re-emerged from beneath the reeds -- about 20,000 ha of semi-natural areas with significant nature conservation value have now been restored and/or managed. Today there are 25 farmers raising over 2,000 cattle in the area.
Farmers gain income from the sale of meat. They receive government support from Estonia´s environment and agriculture ministries for preserving traditional agricultural practices and important environmental landscapes – especially as much of the area is part of a national protected area. The return of biodiversity is also strengthening the area´s growing eco-tourism sector.
“We have experienced incredible conservation results here,” says Charlie Avis, Manager for WWF´s `One Europe, More Nature´ project. “The next step is for the farmers to increase their incomes through the sale of higher-value green beef.”
Arhipelaag, the farmers and WWF have been trying to create a new market for the conservation-oriented green beef. Local campaigns held in 2007 found that summer tourists have high interest in the green beef, as do consumers in the Estonian capital city of Tallinn. “But locals find the higher price difficult,” says Rosenberg. “And we are still having trouble trying to find a slaughterhouse that can efficiently separate green beef from conventional beef.”
“What we are really aiming at here is a healthy, sustainable local economy based on eco-tourism and green beef sales,” says Avis. “Just as importantly, we can only make that happen if nature is healthy and protected, and that means these wonderful coastal grasslands and the millions of birds that depend on them each year.”
“Others have learnt from Vainameri and have started similar activities of their own, for example in Olonets in Russia,” adds Avis. “The next step is to apply this approach over a much wider region, possibly the entire Baltic. A sturdy new economy based on nature based on Baltic beef - that should now be the goal.”
WWF’s One Europe More Nature (OEMN) project uses an innovative approach to forge unusual partnerships so that business and nature can co-exist. Its mechanisms lead to win-win solutions for all, allowing Europe’s rural workers to make incomes from the countryside while protecting nature. OEMN, tested at many pilot rural locations throughout Europe, is now mainstreaming conservation into everyday European business life.