Wooded meadows

The vegetation of the West-Estonian plains is characterised by an abundance of meadows and wooded meadows, peatlands, floodplains and reedbeds. The area is several thousand years younger than Upper-Estonia. The process of land uplift is still in progress here (at a rate of ca 10–20 cm in a century) and thus the present bay-bights are gradually becoming coastal lakes, the lakes are turning into fens, the mud flats into coastal meadows, the reefs into islets and the islets into headlands.

The most intensive landrise occurs on the northwestern coast of Estonia, reaching an annual rate of up to 3 mm there. The rate of land uplift decreases towards the south and stops on the coast of Pärnu County. Intensive landrise is gradually shifting the coastline towards the sea, enabling the coastal vegetation to occupy new areas of land. Vegetation of the newly emerged areas is developing in intermittent stages, depending on annual fluctuations of the water level. Deposition of mud in low inlets and estuaries also contributes to the formation of new land. At the time when high woody vegetation was already developing in Upper-Estonia, this area was still a sea bottom. After its emergence from the sea, the area was gradually covered with a species-rich vegetation. This process was fostered both by the mild and humid Atlantic climate of that period and by soils of high productivity developed on a chemically rich parent material.

Man has influenced the vegetation of this area from its very early history, especially since the Bronze Age, when cattle breeding started here and the permanent population was established. The more cattle breeding and farming developed, the more the natural vegetation changed, being gradually replaced by a semi-natural vegetation. Characteristic examples of the latter are alvar meadows and wooded meadows. In the first half of the 20th century wooded meadows were the ‘business cards’ of the West-Estonian landscapes. Formation and preservation of these park-like communities is conditioned by regular mowing, cutting of brushwood, and other labour-consuming maintenance work. As intensive agricultural practices were introduced during the second half of the last century, wooded meadows began to decline. As a result of no longer being mown, most of them have grown over with brushwood and have lost their characteristic richness in herb species and their park-like general look. Wooded meadows with oak, which were once most typical of these areas, have become extremely rare. They can still be found mainly in protected areas (in Laelatu, Nedrema, and Matsalu Nature Reserve) and to a smaller extent in other places. Wooded meadows of moist mineral land can be found mainly in areas bordering the floodplain meadows of the Kasari River basin.

West-Estonian wooded meadows are among the most species-rich plant communities in the world as measured by the number of vascular plant species per one square metre. For instance in the Vahenurme wooded meadow, more than 70 different species of vascular plants have been recorded in one square metre. In the stems and roots of vascular plants there is a well-established water supply mechanism, which allows the plants to occupy dry habitats. Such plants include ferns, gymnosperms and angiosperms.

An important reason behind the species-richness of wooded meadows is probably the high diversity of habitat conditions there (light and shelter, moisture and drought, high nutrient content, neutral pH), which allows typical forest species and typical meadow species to grow together. Another important factor is connected with regular mowing, which prevents certain species from attaining domination and thus impoverishing the general species composition. The nutrient reserve in the upper layers of soil is continuously supplemented at the expense of leaves falling from trees, thus keeping up the soil fertility. Wooded meadows with the beauty of their abundant, seasonally changing blossoms are the most attractive communities in Estonia. In early spring they become evenly covered with a lush hepatica carpet that is gradually replaced by wood and yellow anemones somewhat later. In summer the dwarf viper grass, the common cow-wheat, the blood-red geranium and many orchid species reach the peak of their blossoming, giving way to the marsh parnassia in late summer, and these, in turn, to the autumn hawkbit in autumn. A large part of the species richness of wooded meadows is determined, however, by the abundance of sedge and grass species.

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