Eco-tourism: the top 10 marshes in Belarus Eco-tourism: the top 10 marshes in Belarus

Belarus is often called the lungs of Europe, and not just because 40% of our land is covered by forest. Indeed, it is more so because the country has a huge number of marshes that are known to cleanse the air.

Belarus is most certainly a country of marshland, some of it impenetrable. And although in folklore these mysterious places were thought to be the domain of mer-people and other dubious creatures, today they are welcoming and popular tourist destinations, especially for Europeans, who even call Belarusian marshland European Amazonia. This is a wonderful domain for full relaxation, where it is possible to enjoy reverential silence and solitude, and to immerse oneself in a state of blissful inner peace.

Come with Prime Tour now on a highly unusual tour of our marshlands, based upon the lecture given by Dmitry Grummo, Research Director of the Institute of Experimental Botany.

1. Yelnya (Ельня)

With its 25,301 hectares of unspoilt nature, Yelnya is the largest area of marshland in Belarus, and the fifth largest in Europe. Incredibly, this wild, primeval place is 9,000 years old, which makes it prime for legend and fairy tale. Enjoy incredible views in and around 118 lakes, and indulge your love of bird-watching as you observe the 118 species that call Yelnya their home, some of them rare.

There are many eco-routes to follow here. The easiest of them is the 1.5-kilometre ecotropic that crosses the marsh to the lake by boardwalk and handrail, the longest and widest in Europe!

Болото Ельня © Виктор Малышчиц

2. Olmanskye marshes (Ольманские болота)

The first thing of note is that this area of 94,219 hectares encompasses the largest whole-forest area of marshland in all of Europe. It is home to a number of precious communities of rare and endangered species of plants and animals listed in the Red Book of the Republic of Belarus.

It is also one of the most remote places in Europe, where the unusual combination of upland and lowland bog with lonely hinterland between presents a shroud of mystery.

Around 40% is open marshland, with approximately 50% marsh forest.

There are things here in this ancient place of beauty to open the eyes of he or she who has never explored marshland before. Moving around in thigh-length boots, visitors will get to know the vast areas of marsh cranberry (Olmany has long been considered the cranberry capital of Belarus) and study diverse flora and fauna, as well as tread the path rarely travelled across a 1.3-kilometre section of remote marsh. 3. Pripyat marshes (Припятские болота)

This colossal wetland complex, around 11,000 years old and believed to be one of the largest in the world, occupies an area of almost 4.7 million hectares. And it is a symbol of its significance that Western tour operators consider it not only to be a prime example of European nature with no equal anywhere else, but also that it rivals the famous US Everglades National Park for diversity of flora and fauna.

Eco-routes here meander areas of pine forest where cranberries grow in bountiful plenty, and visitors have access to a diverse variety of shrubs, grasses, wild animals and birds, all in abundance. A choice of individual trails is available, up to 20 kilometres in length. 4. Kozyanskye marshes (Козьянские болота)

Ah, the land of deep blue lakes, dense forests of green spruce and pine, fields, ravines and valleys pierced by the lazy, meandering ribbon of the Western Dvina river … If you didn’t know it before, this magical place reveals Belarus as a wondrous country of lakeland. Blooming water lilies are dotted around the crystal-clear waters, with large areas of beautiful shoreland ideal for swimming, but beware; step carefully and avoid unintentionally straying into deep, marshland waters.

This area of 26,060 hectares is home to 21 species of plants, 47 species of animals and 175 species of birds. And this is one of only a few locations in the country where lynx and brown bear have been known to live in recent years. Козьянские болота © Сергей Плыткевич

5. Yukhovichsky Moss (Юховичский мох)

This area of 17 square kilometres is the jewel in the crown of the Krasny Bor forest reserve. Here stand a dozen mineral islands covered in ancient pine forest, as well as two residual oligotrophic lakes, where the low presence of algae presents waters of rare clarity and beauty.

The Yukhovichsky Moss bog is often referred to as the tundra of Northern Belarus, and to facilitate access to this remote area a boardwalk hiking trail has been laid to one of the islands of dry marsh.

Look to see tracks of wild boar, elk, roe deer and racoon; and if you keep very quiet and are very lucky, you may even spot some of these creatures themselves. If the weather is favourable and the big skies here are clear, then birds of prey are likely to swoop and soar, including even the rarest of all, the serpent eagle. You can also expect to see waders, golden eagle and eagle-fishers (the very symbol of Belarusian Lakeland).

Unusually, the culmination of a marshland excursion in this special place will actually be an amble without arboreal adornment, to study and to be amazed by the soft formation and intricate patterns of a rich carpet of moss.

And to complete the whole experience visitors can first visit the Zabrodye Museum of Partisan Life, before relaxing over dinner and a cosy overnight stay in authentic partisan dugouts. But will you be brave enough to submit to the black sauna?!

6.Sporovskоye (Споровское)

Created in 1991, the Sparovsky Biological Reserve covers an area of 11,288 hectares. It is a large area of lowland marsh and is located on the floodplain of the Yaseldy River. There is a rich diversity of shrubs here, all showcased in the annual Sporovskоye Hayfields Festival, which even features a competition of marsh football!

This special place is one of the largest habitats of the aquatic warbler (Acrocephalus paludicola), the rarest songbird in Europe and a globally threatened species. Around 43% of the world’s population nests in Belarus, of which approximately 9% live in this biological reserve. A further 27% live in the neighbouring Zvanets landscape reserve.

In Sparovsky, look to amble along the ecotropic route At the Edge of the Aquatic Warbler, a section of which passes through the lowland marsh. This route also navigates through a stand of pine and down to the bank of the Yaseldy River, which is then crossed by ferry (a round trip of 3 kilometres). The path through the marsh is along a boardwalk with access to an observation tower along the way.

Споровское болото © Kanstancin Chykalau

7. Zvanets (Званец)

What makes the Zvanets Marshes so unique is the fact of their being the home of large populations of a number or rare and endangered species of European birdlife, including the aquatic warbler (Acrocephalus paludicola). Furthermore, the composition of the various plant and animal species living here has not been recorded anywhere else in Belarus.

The ecotrope Secrets of the Plant World has been developed here. The length of the route is 2 kilometres, 300 metres of which run through the lowland marsh itself. The best time to visit is between April and September, preferably in dry weather, when it should not even be necessary to wear rubber boots. The very best time of all to be here is on a balmy June day, when the blooms along the trail present a riot of colour.

8. Osveyskoye (Освейское)

This area of marshland is situated in the Osveisky Republican Landscape Reserve and is the northernmost body of water in Belarus. The reserve itself has a total in excess of 480 plants, 9 species of amphibians, 5 of reptiles, 164 of nesting birds and 30 of mammals (almost 70% of the total composition of species in the country).

A walking tour here presents visitors with an opportunity to study the avifauna and flora at close hand, as well as showcasing a glorious panoramic view of the entirety of the island itself (and of the lake) from a height of 18-20 metres above the level of the water at the southern end of the island. And there is a 12-metre observation tower for close study of the birdlife.

9. Marsh Moss (Болото Мох)

Coniferous shrubs and peat mosses combine with birch, spruce and aspen here, as well as rare examples for Belarus of a wide variety of flora, including cloudberry, hollow corydalis, and dwarf birch. The diversity of animal and bird life includes wild boar, roe deer, elk, hare, fox, wolf and black stork. And foragers should not forget to bring their baskets, because copious supplies of cranberry, lingonberry, blueberry and mushroom may be harvested in this special place.

10. Dikoe (Дикое)

At 6,000 years of age, Dikoe Marsh is as old as the Egyptian Pyramids. And there are only four such marshes in the whole world.

The topography and landscape resemble the savannah and in the opinion of eminent scientists, this is one of the most beautiful and largest of the lowland marsh areas in Europe. Sadly, however, only a small part of the original 16,000 hectares remains. At one time, this wondrous place stretched for 15-20 kilometres in the north-eastern section of the Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park.

But the good news is that the surviving area of Dikoe Marsh is included within the territory of the cross-border UNESCO Belovezhskaya Pushcha World Heritage Site. It also forms part of the UNESCO Man and Biosphere reserve here, so this unique location has the protection of a duet of significant international environmental classifications.

Access to the open area of marshland is permissible only in a few places. Just one ancient road crosses the marsh from north to south. Along it, visitors can become acquainted with the diversity of biotope in and around the marsh itself. At close hand, it is possible to study the transition from dry pine forest, through hinterland and down to lowland marsh. The route is of particular interest to biologists because of the opportunity it presents to observe rare plant life not just within Belarus, but throughout Europe.

Болото Дикое © Volha Kaskevich

To sum up …

Specialists from many branches of science all agree that the existence of huge wetland complexes within the country has significantly influenced the development of culture and the national psyche of the Belarusian people.

It has long been acknowledged that they are characterised by reliability, tolerance, compromise and goodwill, traits that have been shaped and crafted across the centuries. And it is an undeniable fact that without resilience and the ability to adapt to difficult circumstances, it would simply not have been possible to survive and flourish in these areas of challenging marshland.

Marshes teach patience and encourage quick wit and determination. They offer tranquillity and a life lived close to nature. Historically, communities have cohabited here in large groups on isolated islands entirely surrounded by marshland, so an ability to control emotions, a responsive nature and endurance have always been essential qualities.

Further, marshes have long served as defensive protection against enemies; they have fed people with nutritious berries; and they have provided medicinal herbs for healing. In ancient times, sacrifices were made to give thanks for their bounty.

The Marshes of Belarus are an essential and significant feature of the country’s popular ecotourism routes, where visitors have the opportunity to experience unique mysteries. And after all these years, still they offer unconditional hospitality to pilgrims with open minds and open hearts, in the form of delicious and nutritious berries. Will you come? Will you gladly accept these gifts?

A final word of caution; these are places of wonder, beauty and mystery but don’t forget, they can bite. For the unwary and ill-prepared there are potential dangers, so you should only visit with a knowledgeable and specially-trained guide, whose advice and instructions you should always observe without question. Follow this simple but essential warning, and you are unlikely to go far wrong.