Mammal watching in Estonia

Estonia’s neverending boreal forest is packed with the continent’s most exciting large carnivores. But its star attraction is not a wolf, bear or lynx, but a flying squirrel.

 

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And I did see my lynx, though not in circumstances I could have anticipated. One day, we were invited to lunch by a local man who lived in the middle of the forest. Inside, hanging from a set of roe deer antlers on the wall, was the supersoft husk of a lynx, its collapsed face trapped in an eternal rictus grin.

The animal had been shot five years ago. I felt angry – how could this person have done such a thing? It seemed at odds with the generosity of his hospitality.

But, over the course of a delicious lunch, I realised that, though I don’t agree with trophy hunting, the issue is not as clear cut as I might like it to be.
 
My host played an active part in the conservation of flying squirrels, monitoring their nestboxes. And he was proud of the fact that his zoologist daughter was studying the species for her doctorate.
 
On my last evening in Estonia we met Remek, a biologist who has studied the country’s beavers for over 15 years. He showed us a picturesque pool created by a family of these industrious rodents, which had constructed two enormous lodges and dug numerous reedy channels into the surrounding forest.
 
It was an untamed natural wilderness left to develop at its own pace, in its own way – and perhaps a vision of what a beaver-populated Britain might look like one day.
 
 
TOP SPECIES TO SEE
 
Brown bear
  • ID: Like nothing else; coat colour varies greatly.
  • Where: Occurs throughout Estonia. You are guaranteed to see prints and droppings on trails, but for a sighting book an overnight stay in one of the hides in the Alutaguse region, which has the densest population. Several bears may visit the bait in one evening, and there is an outside chance of a wolf, too.
  • When: May is the best time, when the bears have recently emerged from hibernation and are hungry.
 
Siberian flying squirrel
  • ID: Grey with facial markings like black eyeliner. Quite small – about two-thirds of the size of a red squirrel.
  • Where: In Europe, restricted to old-growth boreal forests in Estonia (mostly in the north-east) and Finland.
  • By day, sleeps in old black woodpecker holes in aspen trees and nestboxes put up by conservationists. Chance encounters are very unlikely, so you need to join an organised tour.
  • When: Evenings, any time between April and October.
 
Eurasian lynx
  • ID: Unmistakeable: a large, stub-tailed, spotted cat.
  • Where: Estonian forests support a thriving lynx population, especially in the north-east. Sirtsi Nature Reserve is a good place to search for prints: walk the sandy tracks in the early morning, before vehicles erase the signs. You might also spot a recent kill, usually a roe deer.
  • When: Difficult to see in the wild, but spotlighting during a night drive offers the greatest chance.
 
European beaver
  • ID: A large, shaggy rodent with buckteeth and a massive, paddle-like tail.
  • Where: Shallow pools and meandering rivers, either in forests or with tree-lined banks. Finding signs of beaver activity is easy – look for felled trees, gnawed-off branches, lodges and dams. Beavers are shy and have excellent hearing, and they dive when the adult male slaps his tail hard on the water in alarm.
  • When: Early evening, any time from April to August.
 
Elk
  • ID: Massive deer weighing up to 600kg with huge, flattened antlers (males only). Known as moose in North America.
  • Where: Forests throughout Estonia. You should spot plenty of feeding signs such as debarked trees, as well as neat piles of droppings: shiny, chocolate-brown pellets. Usually seen at dusk at the edge of clearings and fields, or crossing forest trails.
  • When: Easiest to find during the rut, in September to October, when both sexes call to each other.
 
 
ESSENTIAL TRAVEL INFORMATION
 
The meadows, forests and wetlands of this former Soviet republic host a diverse range of wildlife, including rare mammals.
 
Location
  • Estonia is located in northern Europe and borders Finland, the Baltic Sea, Latvia and Russia.
 
When to go
  • Visit between spring and autumn if you want to catch mammals out and about, including flying squirrels and beavers.
  • Go to Matsalu to spot migrating birds – May is the best time of the year, but autumn is good, too.
 
Alutaguse region
  • This wild area of forests and bogs in the north-east of the country is a stronghold for bears, wolves, lynx and other mammals.
  • Resident birds include hazel grouse, Ural owls and most of Europe’s woodpecker species.
 
Matsalu National Park
  • Founded in the 1950s, Matsalu National Park in western Estonia is on a major migratory flyway.
  • Expect to see thousands of ducks, geese and cranes, and many birds of prey, including white-tailed eagles.
 
Getting around
  • By air to Tallinn with EasyJet (0871 244 2377), Estonian Air (00 372 6401 163), airBaltic (00 371 6700 6006) or Finnair (0870 241 4411). Then hire a car: most of the best wildlife sites are within a few hours’ drive of each other.
  • Tallinn is also accessible by ferry from Helsinki and Stockholm, making it possible to combine a short break in these capitals with a wildlife-watching holiday in Estonia. Tallink 00 49 451 5899 222.
 
Traveller’s information
  • Estonia joined the EU in 2004, but retains its own currency, the kroon (crown).
  • The country has plenty of comfortable country lodges, serving excellent food; many have traditional saunas, too.
 
Organised trips
  • Ben travelled with Estonian Nature Tours (00 372 477 8214) – the pioneer of dedicated mammal-watching tours in the country. Its first trips are scheduled for spring 2011.
  • They can be booked direct or through Speyside Wildlife (01479 812498).
  • Other UK-based wildlife travel companies provide birdwatching tours of Estonia in spring or autumn.
 
Health and safety
  • In high summer, midges can be annoying, though they are no worse than in the Highlands of Scotland. Don’t forget your insect repellent.
  • You should always take care when walking through areas frequented by large predators, though the risk is not great.
  • Bears are seldom aggressive unless cornered or deliberately provoked.
  • Wolf attacks on humans are extremely rare, and those by lynx unheard of.
 
Ben is the features editor of BBC Wildlife - find out more about him and the team here

For more information on Estonia, please click here.  

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