The sheer volume of wild nature makes Latvia one of the greenest countries in the world. Ironically one may say that half of Latvia is not covered by lush forests. The country holds one of the rarest ecosystems of the world largely untouched by civilization. It is a haven for the visitor who seeks to experience a land where nature and tradition have coexisted in harmony from time immemorial.
The pristine nature of Latvia is rich and diverse. An odd hillock decorates the rolling Latvian plains in between the sea, the lakes and countless rivers. Stately forests, broad mires, meadows, groves and gardens form the unique mosaic of the Latvian landscape. Pastoral serenity is what the Latvian countryside stands for.
If you like nature, you will love Latvia. Latvia resembles a nature preserve at times interrupted by spots of highly urbanised landscape of European modernity. This is an exceptional land where woodlands, marshes, lakes and rivers have developed over the centuries at their own pace with minimal human interference.
Nowhere else in Europe will you find such a large population of the black stork and the lesser-spotted eagle. 65 thousand square kilometres of Latvia hold hundreds of wolves and lynxes, 4 thousand otters and 100 thousand beavers. Latvian seaside is almost unspoiled by resorts, restaurants or hordes of holidaymakers all over the 500 km white sand beach.
The coastal climate of western Latvia modulates into the continental climate of eastern Latvia. It is a natural crossroads for people, flora and fauna. Latvia's geographic position alongside the Baltic Sea has fostered unique conditions where northern-southern and western-eastern vegetation can be found flourishing side by side.
Of the 1304 indigenous flowering plant and fern species in Latvia, several hundred grow on or near Latvia's borders. Similar patterns can be found in the animal kingdom. As a result, almost anywhere you look you will find plant and animal species characteristic of various geographic regions growing in one place. In Latvian forests you can find the typically "western" cross-leaved heath, as well as the "eastern" broad-leaved canna, the "northern" flying squirrel and the "southern" edible or fat dormouse.
Latvian forests are a mix of northern coniferous and southern deciduous trees. One may discover a patch of pines next to a birch tree forest and a diverse spectrum of other species throughout. Nearly a quarter of local forests grow on wetlands because of the unique climate and terrain. Wetland forests ensure high biological diversity. Many plant and animal species survive only in constant habitats provided by the Latvian nature.
Several of Latvia's forests meet the criteria for a natural forest. They also afford a rich supply of berries, wild strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and loganberries. The berry-picking season lasts from late June until late September. It is also the time for gathering mushrooms. The most popular mushrooms are the edible boletus, orange cap boletus, chanterelles and rusulla. Apart from clearly marked private lands, the wealth of Latvia's forests, berries, mushrooms and hazelnuts is accessible to anyone.
Seaside along the Baltic Sea is an important part of the Latvian landscape. Sand dunes of up to 36 metres, sandy beaches, river estuaries, marshes and lakes form a continuous ecosystem. This zone is still home to picturesque fishing villages that appear to have stepped out of a page in history. These villages were originally settled by the Livs, an ancient Finno-Ugric tribe that lived along the Baltic coast.
Coastal fishing traditions are an essential part of Latvian culture. A fishing expedition with a local fisherman, including savouring of the catch, can be an unforgettable experience. The fragrance of smoked fish is the unmistakable calling card of a coastal fishing village. The small harbours are still thriving and await yachtsmen. It is possible to traverse nearly half of Latvia by sailing from harbour to harbour.
Mires and marshes
5% of Latvia's territory is covered by open marshes. Half of them are largely undisturbed by human activity. The mires host more than 20 protected plant species. At least 15 species of birds nest in mires and marshlands, including the crane, golden plover, black grouse, whimbrel, merlin and peregrine. During periods of bird migration, the mires are important resting-places for cranes and geese. There are 10 protected insect species and a rare species of snail. Mires and marshes are also highly valued by berry pickers for the wide range of berries that grow there, including cranberries, cloudberries, cowberries and bilberries.
Teiči State Reserve is the largest protected mire in the Baltic, covering almost 200 square kilometres. A raised bog covers the larger part of the territory, but there are also 19 lakes, bog pools, mineral soil islands, fens, swamps, and natural meadows. The most intensive peat creation process in Latvia can be observed here. It also has the largest concentration of pre-migratory cranes in Latvia.
Lakes and Rivers
Latvia has over 12500 rivers, as well as 2256 lakes that are bigger than a square kilometre. Latgale in the East of Latvia is "the Land of the Blue Lakes", having most of them. Most inland waters are well suited for swimming and fishing. Although some of Latvia's rivers have had their courses straightened, most rivers retain their natural contours. As a result, their banks are home to such now rare European wildlife as otter, beaver and common kingfisher. Latvia is one of the few places in the Baltic Sea region where natural salmon spawning areas still remain. There are plenty of rivers suitable for canoeing and rafting.
Gauja National Park encompasses the longest river in Latvia of the same name. The old river valley has many steep banks and ravines, streams, sandstone cliffs and caves.
The National Park includes natural territories relatively untouched by man, as well as historic rural landscapes and important ancient monuments. The park offers walking trails, observation points, rest areas, well-established camping facilities, car parks, cafes, various types of tourist cabins, information centres and the guide services.
Typical rural farmyard is the soul of Latvia, where one lives in harmony with the cycle of nature. People respect many ancient traditions and celebrate annual festivals since time immemorial. The single family farmstead is an integral part of the Latvian landscape. Many still look just as they did centuries ago.
The rural landscape is not imaginable without centuries-old stately trees, much respected and left intact even in the middle of a grain field. Many trees make an ideal nesting place for any of 20000 Latvian white storks. Many other storks nest on the farm chimneys. An increasing number of farmers are opening their farms to tourists. More than a hundred farms offer bed-and-breakfast services and a variety of leisure activities.
Protected Nature Areas
The first laws and regulations concerning the use of forests were passed as early as the 16th century. Baltic coastal dunes were reforested in the 19th century to prevent their expansion inland. The first protected area in Latvia was designated in Kurzeme in 1913 – the Moricsala, an island in the Usma Lake.
10% of the Latvian territory is within a protected nature area. This includes 4 state reserves, 3 national parks, 22 nature parks, 211 nature reserves, 6 protected landscape areas, and 1 biosphere reserve. The protected areas hold centuries old pine tree forests, black alder mires, linden, oak and ash forests and forests on ravines and slopes which are home to rare plants and animals. The species include black storks, eagles, lady's slippers, many rare lichens, mosses, insects and snails. Together, these places make up Latvia's natural heritage and have a lot to offer to the keen ecotourists.
We can still hear a frog choir on summer nights, spot a hedgehog in our garden, hear the call of the corncrake, or find the nest of a white stork atop a post, old chimney, or broken tree. All of these attest to the quality of the environment in Latvia.
© Latvian Institute 2015; Photos © Latvia's State Forests; Uldis Ķesteris; Aleksandrs Kendekovs; Latvian Tourism Development Agency - Jānis Romanovskis