Saturday, 27 June 2009

Return to Turov

In true Belarussian style, one minute we were enjoying a free buffet in Minsk and before we knew it we were in a minibus at dawn heading back to Turov (if you missed earlier posts we lived there for a month in May). A good opportunity to see how things looked on the 1st and new APB (BirdLife Belarus) reserve 'Turov Meadow' since we left it in May.

This is the now nearly famous Terek Sandpiper monument in the main square (this photo is for the attention of the British Embassy in Minsk... more like this please).

All seemed normal in Turov with people heading out to cut hay to feed their animals through the

But strange forces were at work. Coca Cola had sponsored a camp to use local kids to clear up the mass of plastic bottles that can usually be seen on the reserve. Good chance to educate local youngsters on waste and maybe try to publicise the case for better waste collection for the area. The previously mentioned soft drinks company gets a LOT of good PR for very little actual donation, its a great start but perhaps they could be rnvouraged to think bigger (bigger bucks$$).

Here the fizzy drinks giants explain their undying commitments to environmental harmony ...and positive publicity to Director of APB Viktar Fenchuk and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds' Mark Day. Mark was making a short film for the RSPB about Turov Meadow. What the area needs here is Ecotourism and local projects to provide some income through traditional crafts, accommodation etc. so that young people stay in the villages and people maintain their way of life and the land around them. To do that the infrastructure has to improve a bit and the RSPB is trying to help that happen in a sustainable way. Come to Turov and see!

Kids trying to get a big catfish or a pike - apparently fishing is on the slide and most people go home with just a few tiddlers. The drainage further up the river causes quicker, faster flood times which doesn'thelp fish breeding. There's also a lot of illegal fishing with nets strewn all over the place.

These examples are being cured. Not everyone's cup of tea but probably good with chips.

Little tern nest.

Summer gets colourful on the meadow.

This is the bridge that never was. Doesn't look much but this was going to connect villages across the Pripyat as crossing points are few and far between. Nicknamed the million rouble bridge (which is about 250 pounds) and now a handy fishing platform..... for teenage girls in this case. Not a sight you see every day in Britain.

Explaining to the neighbour why our garden is a mess and everyone else's are full of veg. Soil around these parts is classed as the best in Belarus - it's 100% and everything else is something less. They're big on cucumbers particularly.

At least our garden provides some good grazing for other people.

Our street (Sovietskaya), now free of water in mid-June.

Most people work with horses and plough their land that way, but for those that can afford it, the Belarussian tractor is a very popular one. They are never, ever, dirty.

Minsk - strange and beautiful, not twinned with Milton Keynes

Minsk - the centre is clean and very, very patriotic. Big squares and wide streets with lots of decoration and green and red flags everywhere. It's nice to walk around, so that's what everyone does.....
This is October square - everything named after a significant revolutionary or war-time event.

One of many orthodox churches.

The very flashy National Library. We are members here and have an ID card and anything.

And then there's our flat....... up on the 5th floor. Very nice on the inside I'll have you know. The lift has been broken for a month so you feel sorry for the old folk on the top floor....especially because you have to hold your breath going up the stairs because of the fumes (from the lift repairs I suspect..).

Not a ballroom but a metro station. Everywhere emblazoned with hammers and sickles and communist emblems.

Not water but the vodka shelf in the moderately sized local supermarket. There is an equally large sour cream selection.

Window on the main shopping street to celebrate 65 years since they won the Patriotic War (WWII) and it seems military wear should be all the rage again.

A night at the ballet with our friend Olga!

Neil now has dreams about wearing tights and shirts with floaty arms.

Followed by a night celebrating the Queen's Birthday (when is it again????) with the Ambassador! Thankfully there's a 2nd hand shop round the corner from our flat for a revamp of our wardrobes for one night of glitz and glam: the queen would not have approved of flip-flops and worn out jeans.

Thanks Tim the vice Consul ( see fig 1a - couple of stylish scallies) for inviting us.

This big bison marks the southern border of Minsk region - their version of the Angel of the North.

Minsk Castle is a little odd and doesn't actually look very old, but worth a stop to stretch your legs if you've been in minibuses for too long. Pack-a-macs not included.

On the subject of pac-a-macs, the weather here changes rapidly and if you've had a day of sun then a thunder storm seems inevitable. June is definitely a wet month in Belarus and the umbrella is taken very seriously here.

Ominous skies seem an appropriate backdrop for Minsk.

Here's Olga at work in the APB office. Everyone's in the field at the minute but this room does usually have 5 people in it. BirdLife Belarus (APB) is growing, now with 14 staff. However, Belarussian bureaucracy means that admin and bookkeeping staff account for a chunk of this. To put it in context, Belarus has about 50 birdwatchers and APB has a pretty small membership. The RSPB has 1.1 million.

Europe's largest market is located just across the street from our flat. You can get some fine, fine food for not very much here. And there's some great people watching to be done.

The berry season has begun - the forests are now full of people.

Spuds or 'boolba' of all sorts.

Bee-keeping is very popular and for the benefits to the countryside it's all tax-free. Unfortunately it seems everyone can get their own from friends. If you walk by these bored honey-sellers you get the hard-sell.

Every kind of chop you want: Rabbit and goose here. The way animals are kept in Belarus means the meat is very good quality and even the milk tastes better because the cows are grazing in wildflower meadows.

Biscuits are the other big seller. Despite the fine qulaity of ingredients, the healthiness of the diet here is probably about on a par with Scotland......

The market is very popular and much more fun that your average bland samey supermarket experience. The first big supermarket has cropped up outside Minsk (Hippo) and Maccy D's now has 4 outlets which are full of youngsters. I love looking at the menu in cyrillic - биг тейсты is the new 'big tasty' burger.

Aquatic warblers and Europe's best remaining wetlands

The Aquatic Warbler… the subject of countless dossiers at the United Nations, Millions of hours of research and conservation effort… and yes, it’s a little brown jobbie… so why all the fuss? It turns out that these birds are very choosy, selecting only the very best wetland mires to breed in. Mires are one of the most threatened habitats in the world and so Aquatic Warblers are being used as an indicator species to show us which mires need to receive the most urgent and complete protection NOW. Belarus holds 46% of all breeding aquatic warblers in the world because of its fantastic Mires. One reason the mires here are so good is because people have traditionally cut the sedges annually for making hay. This is really good for mires because trees and other plants like phragmites reeds are always trying to grow in the mire which eventually dries the mire out and turns it into woodland. People in other parts of the world have long since abandoned the practice of cutting sedges from the mire but in Belarus the practice been continued… unfortunately cutting the sedges for haymaking is now becoming rare here too and this represents a great threat to one of the world’s last truly wild places. APB, RSPB and BirdLife are monitoring the warblers in Belarus and have been inventing ways to promote hay making – including the popular hay making championships where people race in teams to cut an area of the mire.

The next photos are of our week long survey trip to the Zvanets Mire, a patch of 23,000 ha in the very south of Belarus, near the border with Ukraine. This is one of the wildest places we have ever been. The mire is thick and almost impenetrable but the reeds are full of male Aquatic Warblers singing to attract the ladies (Our friend Olga Lukshyts took this picture). Zvanets is a Ramsar site, offering it a high degree of protection… but this will count for nothing if ways cannot be found to prevent trees and reeds spreading into the mire… the clock is really ticking and we saw many areas with young birch trees… in 10-15 years these areas will be lost if nothing can be done.

Here is a patch of mire. The tall reeds show that the area has not been cut for some years and there are also some birch saplings creeping in. The sedges are the finer grass-like ones at the bottom and the orchids are marsh orchids. This area was a beautiful quiet corner of the mire with wildflowers, red-bellied frogs and cranes singing their mournful song. If nothing is done it will not be here in ten years…. Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!

A red bellied frog. Makes a mellow hooping noise.

The surveys are done by counting the number of males which can be heard singing loudly and continuously as the sun sets. The reeds are often over the top your head and the water is often over the top of your waders… and after your survey you have to find your way back to civilisation in the dark without bumping into an angry moose (elk).

We joined up with a great group of people from Germany who had come to see the mire and take part in surveys. We were not lucky with the weather… can you guess the nationality by the rain gear?!

We stayed on a small farm – 2 cows (which respond to their names and bring themselves home after a long day grazing), 2 pigs (and piglets), 2 geese (and goslings), cats (and kittens), chickens, guinea fowl and a dog.

The farm was a very peaceful place

By day he was a superhero… by night a guinea fowl.

The local Newspaper came to ask us why we were interested in their Mire. We said that what they have here has been lost from most of Europe and that it was special.

Camp food was spiced up with strawberries bought from a wee lady on the side of the road. We didn’t hear a word from Simion for quite some minutes!

The strawbs tasted better than the home-made schnapps…

… at seventy-something % proof…. It made people do strange things:

…like play cricket

…and balance crawfish in dangerous places.

This is a postcard which was on the wall in the farmhouse. It is a play on a poster that was produced by the government to say that strong men can also say no to vodka, except the text has been changed to say something along the lines of “first you deny vodka and then you deny your motherland….?”. Crikey and I thought Scots took Whiskey seriously!

Some sights ofrom Zvanets and around:

A penduline tit (pause for laughter if necessary) making his basket nest in a bush from rush fluff.

A red-data book spider species. Found crawling on my leg..., in the dark..., deep in the mire… aaaahhhhhh.

Eyed Hawkmoth

One of the trillion mosquitoes proving it was too tough to be dissuaded by insect repellent.

Frog (Rana Viridis) getting all puffed up for making the farty noises the ladies find so attractive.

A rare field of poppies. Rare because poppies are illegal in Belarus.

One of many abandoned houses. Villages are dying here (one reason that there are fewer people cutting sedge on the mire). You can see when a village is dying because the shop closes and the mobile shop van comes round – it is known as the harbinger of a dying village.

This lady lives in a dying village… she is one of many babooshka you will see out and about. They sit and pass the time with friends on benches outside their houses, always deep in conversation, always wearing colourful head scarves and always interested in what you are doing.

This babooshka has walked a long way with a young horse which she is bringingclose to home before a huge rainstorm.

The old gentlemen prefer to talk fish.