Estonia –  a leading protector of Europe’s natural heritage

Although Estonia is small, about the size of Denmark or Holland, the country has a fraction of its population – about 1.3 million. About 50% of the land is forested, and bogs cover another chunk; that doesn’t leave much room for people, but it does mean more space for wildlife!

Ural Owl by Ingmar Muusikus

Beginning early in the 20th century, when one lone nature lover began to protect birds and improve their breeding conditions on small islands off the western coast, Estonia has continually expanded its parks, nature reserves, and protection for individual trees, marshes, meadow communities, forests, lakes, and unique landscapes. In fact, it’s one of the few European countries which has officially and progressively recognized the strong bonds between species and their habitats, acting to make them more resistant to disturbances and negative influences that threaten their survival.

This northern-most Baltic State lies directly across the Finnish Gulf from Finland to the north, is bordered by Russia on the east (the border cuts through Lake Peipsi, Estonia’s largest water body), and Latvia to the south. The majority of the population is centered around the capital, Tallinn, and three other cities: Tartu, Narva, and Pärnu.

Estonians are surrounded by nature, and their long, close connection with the land has prompted them to value and preserve its many forms, diverse features, and inhabitants.

We have also made a summarising overview of the 8 Best Nature Sites in Estonia.

Birding Highlights

At present, 368 bird species (below or click Birding Highlights) have been registered in Estonian nature and more than 220 breed here. Of the high number of species, a great number can be seen in 24 hours of birdwatching.

Herons and Storks: Bittern, Grey Heron, White and rare Black Storks

Cranes and Crakes: Common Crane, Corn, Lesser Spotted and Spotted Crakes

Waders: Avocet; Ringed, Grey, Golden Plovers; Temminck’s Stint, Ruff, Broad-billed Sandpiper; Common, Jack and Great Snipes; Bar-tailed Godwit, Spotted Redshank, Red-necked Phalarope, Grey Phalarope

Raptors: White-tailed Eagle, Goshawk; Golden, Lesser Spotted and Greater Spotted Eagles; Montagu’s, Hen, and Marsh Harriers; Osprey

Game: Hazel Grouse, Black Grouse, Capercaillie

Wildfowl/Divers: Mute and Whooper Swans, Black and Velvet Scoters, Long-tailed Duck, Smew, Shellduck, Gadwall, Pintail, Wigeon, Shoveler, Pochard; Taiga Bean, Tundra Bean, Pink-footed, White-fronted, Lesser White-fronted, Barnacle, Brent, Red-breasted and Greylag Goose

Divers and Grebes: Red- and Black-throated Divers; Great Crested, Little, Slavonian, Red-necked Grebes

Owls: Eagle, Pygmy, Ural, Tengmalm’s Owls

Woodpeckers: Three-toed, Black, Grey-headed, Great Spotted, Medium, Lesser Spotted, White-backed Woodpeckers, Wryneck

Passerines: Crested Tit, Northern Nuthatch, Common and Parrot Crossbills, Hawfinch,Wood Lark, Citrine Wagtail, Savi’s and Blyth’s Warblers, Greenish Warbler, Tawny and Rock Pipits, Bluethroat, Thrush Nightingale, Black Redstart, Golden Oriole, Northern Wheatear, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Penduline Tit, Red-backed and Great Grey Shrike

Waterfowl Transit

Estonia is a cross-point for Arctic waterfowl migrating along the East Atlantic Flyway. Over 50 million water and coastal birds are attracted by the abundant Estonian coastal wetlands. Many of these birds stop to prepare for the long journey to their Russian Arctic breeding grounds. At the peak time, usually the first two weeks of May, every small inlet swarms with coots, grebes, ducks, geese and swans.

The largest coastal wetland in Estonia is Matsalu, a large bay surrounded by various coastal habitats – coastal, alluvial and wooded meadows, reed-beds and islets. During the spring migration, more than two million waterfowl pass through Matsalu, primarily long-tailed and other Arctic diving ducks. In addition, nearly the entire population of Bewick’s swans – about seventeen thousand birds – travel through Estonia, many of them staying in the Matsalu area – along with about 50,000 Barnacle Geese, more than 10,000 Bean and White-fronted Geese, and thousands of wading birds.

At peak time, more than 50 000 Barnacle Geese can be seen in Matsalu. Fewer appear during the autumn migration, but more than 300,000 do pass by. Spectacular flocks of common cranes feed on the fields and gather to overnight in sheltered wetland areas.

In Estonia Western-taiga forests alternate with huge bogs and semi-natural habitats. Human population is sparse and over 50% of land area is covered by forests.To preserve this diverse nature, an extensive network of protected areas has been created and 22% of  Estonia’s land area is protected.

This provides excellent living conditions for big mammals- around 800 Brown Bears, 200-300 Grey Wolves, 500 Northern Lynxes,10-12 000 European Elks, 16 000 European Beavers, 1500 Ringed Seals live in Estonia. It is extreme density of wildlife for a such a small country. It makes encountering some of these beautiful creatures in Estonian nature easier.

European Mink is the one of rarest mammals in Europe, Siberian Flying Squirrel, reaching its western limit of distribution and isolated population of Baltic Ringed Seals can be seen in few other European countries.

Overall 65 different species of mammals have been spotted in Estonia:

Hedgehogs: European Hedgehog , Southern White-breasted Hedgehog

Moles: European Mole

Shrews: Common Shrew, Laxmann’s (Masked) Shrew, Eurasian pygmy shrew, Eurasian Least Shrew, Eurasian Water Shrew

Bats: Pond Bat, Daubenton’s bat, Brandt’s Bat, Whiskered Bat, Natterer’s Bat, Common Long-eared Bat, Nathusius’ Pipistrelle, Common Pipistrelle, Northern Bat,Parti-coloured bat (Rearmouse), Common Noctule

Rabbits and Hares:European (Brown) Hare, Mountain (Arctic) Hare

Squirrels: (Eurasian) Red Squirrel

Flying Squirrels: Siberian Flying Squirrel

Beavers: European Beaver

Dormice: Garden Dormouse, Common (Hazel) Dormouse

Jumping mice: Northern Birch Mouse

Mice and Allies:Common (Brown) Rat, Black Rat, Yellow-Necked (Field) Mouse, Ural Field Mouse, Striped Field Mouse, House Mouse, Eurasian Harvest Mouse

Hamsters and Allies:Muskrat, European Water Vole, Bank Vole, Tundra (Root) Vole, Field Vole, Sibling Vole, Common Vole, European Pine Vole

Canids: Grey Wolf, Common (Red) Fox, Raccoon Dog,

Bears:Brown Bear

Martens, Stoats, Weasels: Common (European) Otter, European Badger, (European) Pine Marten, Stone (Beech) Marten, European Polecat, European Mink, American Mink, Common Stoat, Least Weasel

CatsEurasian Lynx

Seals: Grey Seal, Ringed Seal

Dolphines: Harbour porpoise

Pigs: Wild Boar (Wild Pig)

Moose, Deer: Eurasian Elk (Moose), Red Deer, Sika Deer (Spotted Deer), Roe Deer

Natural and Unregulated Rivers, Floodplains

Unlike rivers in much of Western Europe, Estonia’s rivers have been regulated and their courses modified to a lesser extent; these largely untouched areas provide valuable habitats for wildlife.

The managed alluvial meadows on floodplains of the Kasari (in Matsalu Nature Reserve) and Emajõgi rivers (in Alam-Pedja Nature Reserve) are essential for several bird species – especially for Corncrake and Great Snipe, below. Floodplain meadows also provide feeding grounds for Storks and Lesser Spotted and spotted Eagles.

Wooded Meadows

Wooded meadows are park-like, semi-natural grasslands which represent the richest communities in biodiversity in the temperate zone. A common sight in Western Estonia and the islands a century ago, most have overgrown. One recent, five-year effort, the Väinameri Project in the coastal island region, introduced new breeds of cattle to help re-establish the traditional way of management (i.e. mowing and grazing) which wooded meadows require. Some bird species are once again finding stopovers and nesting sites here. Lovely examples of flower-filled meadows can also be found in some of our mainland nature reserves.

A key to the exceptionally high biodiversity is the limestone-based soils of the Western Estonian coast and islands. Virtually hundreds of plant species, some rare and under special protection, grow here. The managed wooded meadow in Laelatu is one of the most diverse plant communities in Europe: 76 vascular plant species have been identified in one square metre of land.

Alvar meadows with thin topsoil on limestone bedrock, mainly distributed in Western Estonia and in the archipelago, are rather unique in the world. (In Europe, aside from Estonia, they are only found on the Swedish islands of Gotland and Öland.) They are sometimes called pseudosteppes, based on their ecological characteristics. These species-rich grasslands also require grazing and mowing to prevent becoming overgrown.

Orchids (Military Orchid being the most abundant) and other rare plants thrive in the limestone-rich soil of the Western-Estonian wooded meadows, alvars and calcareous fens, making them particularly interesting to botanists and plant-lovers.

Forests Favourable for Wildlife

Forests and woodlands cover almost half of Estonia The country lies in a transitional forest zone where the coniferous Euro-Siberian taiga is replaced by European deciduous forests. Forests here are generally less intensely managed and more natural than those in Western Europe, making them favourable for a diversity of wildlife. The great numbers of large carnivores – more than 150 wolves, about 700 lynx, and 550 Brown Bears – indicate the richness and ecological potential of Estonian forest ecosystems.

The wide expanses of aging natural forests also provide ideal conditions for some bird species. White-backed Woodpecker, for example, which depends upon decaying deciduous trees, is still quite common here although it can be seen only infrequently. This quiet bird with inconspicuous behaviour is on the verge of extinction in Scandinavia where the forest management has been too intensive. Rare black storks also find the aging trees perfectly suited to their huge nests; some return yearly to raise their offspring.

Estonia’s forest area has more than doubled during the last half of the past century and continues to grow. Nearly half of the forested land in Estonia belongs to the state, easing conservation efforts and establishing forest reserves.

A Long and Interesting Coast

The Estonian coast is long (3,794 km) and diverse (2,540 km on more than 1,000 islands), its numerous indentations contrasting it from the rough granite seaboard of its northern neighbour Finland and the straight sand beaches of Latvia to the south. The land crust is rising in western Estonia, slowly but steadily creating new coastal wetlands – shallow bays and inlets, coastal lagoons and marshes, coastal meadows and mud flats. The immediate coastal zone is protected by the Nature Conservation Act, restricting unwelcome development along the Estonian shoreline.

The Grey Seals love undisturbed coasts. Roughly a fifth of the estimated 7500 Baltic Grey Seals tend to keep close to our sheltered shores. On mild and ice-free winters, many Baltic Grey Seals give birth to their pups on small islets in Estonian waters.

Geologists also find much of interest. The western islands are known for sandy and cliffed beaches and diverse shoreline features – rocky, scarp, till, shingle and silty – and Estonia’s northern coastline (where the Baltic Sea becomes the Gulf of Finland) also offers unusual and dramatic cliffs.

Raised bogs

Bogs started to develop after the last ice age, about 12,000 years ago. The largest of them covers 10,000 hectares and the peat layer is 8 metres thick. Raised bogs are like huge sponges that hold vast amounts of water in the peat.

Bogs have a mosaic-like structure with bog-pools that resemble little ponds surrounded by miniature pine trees. Most bogs have drier wooded spots called bog islands which in olden times were used as a hiding place from enemies. Nowadays unique plant communities and rare species such as golden eagle and wolves find shelter on the Estonian bog islands.

Practical info about Estonia



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Everyman’s right and public access to natural areas

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