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Nature in the wetlands

Not everyone wants to go to wetlands, as it can cause wet feet or even the loss of a shoe. But precisely these places where land and water meet are the true oases of life. They are one of the richest ecosystems in terms of biodiversity, where life arises, grows and changes. Wetlands can be warm, cool, wet or dry, and that’s why there’s so much potential for different life forms.

What lives in the wetlands?

  • Birds;
  • Fish;
  • Reptiles and amphibians;
  • Mammals;
  • Invertebrates;
  • Free-floating, partially or fully submerged aquatic plants;
  • Various terrestrial plants adapted to periodic flooding;
  • Great diversity of moss species.

Floodplain meadows or marsh meadows

There are many types of wetlands, but one of the most common in Latvia is floodplain meadows. Currently, about 0.3% of Latvia’s territory is covered by them. In the past, this percentage has been higher, but in the 20th century, at least 90 percent of all the floodplain meadows have been drained to be converted into arable land. Great biodiversity, as well as untouched floodplain landscape and relief has been preserved in the floodplain meadows of Stende and Rinda, Sita and Pededze and the upper course of the river Gauja between Strenči and Gaujiena. The floodplain of the river Dviete, although heavily changed by drainage systems in the past, has largely recovered thanks to a number of nature restoration projects.

Floodplain grassland in one of LIFE MarshMeadows project partner teritories

Photo: K. Kalns

Despite the fact that floodplains are often thoroughly drained, growing crops in them is risky because they are periodically flooded during flood season. Therefore, many floodplains are neglected and overgrown with bushes or trees, no longer fulfilling their natural functions. Floodplains also tend to be cultivated as grasslands without much significance for biodiversity compared to a naturally functioning floodplain.

The most valuable for nature are grassland meadows that meet the EU Habitats Directive. They have a defined composition of plant species, which indicates that the grassland has maintained the conditions characteristic of a floodplain meadow for a long time. These grasslands are regularly flooded, ensuring variable soil moisture and fertility conditions. The moving ice in flood season also helps to maintain an open landscape, since large shrubs can be pushed away by them. The natural changing or meandering of river beds ensures that nearby in the floodplain there is the ‘old river’ – an old, closed river channel, which provides a biodiverse ecosystem that is important for fish, invertebrates and birds.

Plants in the floodplains

Floodplain grassland is the most important habitat for several rare and protected plant species, such as the shingled Gladiolus, Jacob’s-ladder, Siberian iris, Cnidium dubium and fen violet. They are also home to a variety of rare orchids, such as marsh orchids (genus Dactylorhiza) and butterfly orchids (genus Platanthera).

Birds in the floodplains

Common snipe

Photo: Edgars Smislovs

For many species of birds, floodplain meadows are important nesting and feeding grounds. In the bushy floodplains, you can find songbirds, such as the reed bunting, the common rosefinch and the red-backed shrike. In the wet depressions and old, closed river channels, you can find the spotted crake and the water rail. If the grassland area is sufficient, it is also occupied by the corn crake and/or meadow wading birds – common redshank, common snipe, northern lapwing, less often, also black-tailed godwit and ruff amongst others.

Meadow wading birds. Photos: Ilze Priedniece

The great snipe and the short-eared owl can also be found in particularly large and high-quality floodplain grasslands. Black grouse, as well as the black-tailed godwit, also use floodplain meadows in the rutting season. If there is a river or a lake nearby with rich aquatic vegetation, meadow ducks – garganey, common shoveler and gadwall – also nest there. During the passage period (especially in spring, during flooding), floodplain grasslands are used as resting and feeding grounds by many waterfowl and waders of various species. The floodplains also serve as a feeding habitat for the white stork and the lesser spotted eagle.

Invertebrates in floodplains 

These habitats are inhabited by the short-winged conehead, the dark bush-cricket, the large golden grasshopper, tortoise and seed bugs, and many other insects. The fauna of soil invertebrates is very rich. Huntsman spiders also live in floodplain meadows. Large copper (a butterfly species) larvae live on Russian dock plants in these habitats. Widely represented in floodplains are species of moisture-loving insects that feed on plant remains.

The large golden grasshopper

Photo: Valda Ērmane

Fish in floodplains

Floodplains are undoubtedly of value to fish and amphibians. Pike and other fish spawn and feed in the shallow, warm waters of the floodplain. At least 40 species of fish are associated with floodplains. Some of them live in the old, closed river channels and in the grasslands during flooding, spawning takes place.

Mammals in floodplains

Floodplain meadows serve as pastures for roe deer, red deer, elk, and therefore also as a hunting ground for wolves and lynx. Not only birds of prey, but also foxes are attracted by the small mammals living in the floodplains – mice and voles, which colonize the floodplain every year after the flood recedes. Bats also feed in the floodplains.

Ramsar convention

For the protection of wetlands, in 1971 in the Iranian city of Ramsar, the United Nations adopted the Convention “On Wetlands of International Importance, Especially as Habitat for Waterfowl”, which is often called the Ramsar or Wetlands Convention. It is the only international environmental treaty dedicated to a specific ecosystem. The Ramsar Convention stipulates that each member state of the convention must designate wetlands of international importance, or so-called Ramsar sites, in its territory. For an area to be designated as a Ramsar site, it must meet one or more criteria. For example, 20,000 or more waterfowl regularly stay in the area. There are more than 2350 internationally important wetland areas in the world, among them six also in Latvia – Pape wetland complex, Lake Engure, Ķemeri National Park, Teiči and Pelečāre bogs, Northern bogs and Lubāns wetland complex, but small wetland areas are also important – beaver made wetlands, small ponds, wet corners of meadows, wet, unmanaged depressions in intensively cultivated fields among others.