Ministry wants 562 ha of private forest as flying squirrel protection zone

Siberian flying squirrel in Estonia.
Siberian flying squirrel in Estonia. Source: Ministry of Climate/Tõnu Lassi

The Climate Ministry has planned to take 1,600 hectares of Estonian forest under protection, around a third of which is currently in private ownership, with a view to preserving potential flying squirrel habitats.

Pteromys volans, the Siberian Flying Squirrel, is a protected species in Estonia, where it is found in small numbers and as such is the only EU nation apart from Finland, home to quite a substantial population, where the species can be found.

The representative of private forest owner's lobby group Eesti Erametsaliit, however, opposes the climate ministry bill, and wants the Ministry of Justice not to approve it.

The bill is in the form of a regulation rather than legislation, and had been marked as confidential.

On July 17, the Ministry of Climate, set up after the entry into office of the Reform-Eesti 200-SDE coalition, issued the regulation, which concerns the expansion of flying squirrels' permanent habitats.

This regulation was stamped as for official use only, ie. not to be made publicly available.

However, the Erametsaliit representative was able to get hold of the document, and forward it to the Ministry of Justice, together with counter arguments, requesting the ministry to introduce the regulation.

In its appeal, the association relies mainly on three arguments; First, it is not sufficiently clear whether flying squirrels' range covers the entire protected area; second, not all economic activity should be barred even if flying squirrels are present; third too low a level of compensation would be made available to owners.

The Ministry of Climate responded that the draft regulation must be processed confidentially in the interests of protecting those habitats.

Taimo Aasma, head of the climate ministry's nature conservation department of the Ministry of Climate said with regard to the size of the protected zones, that while a permanent habitat protection area of ​​0.2 ha is automatically put in place around any tree in which a flying squirrel is know to nest, this does not sufficiently ensure the protection of the habitat to an extent which would be needed for the preservation of the species.

However, while the Erametsaliit concedes that there are several places in the draft regulation where large areas are taken under protection, the climate ministry says that where possible, they have tried to take larger areas under protection on state lands, in order to reduce the impact on private lands going forward.

Aasma said: "The forest around the automatic permanent habitat might be felled, which could lead to trees being nested in begin too exposed; this would render the corresponding area unsuitable for flying squirrels for approximately the next 60 years. The minimum requirement is a permanent habitat with a radius of at least 150 meters, of about seven hectares, around the nesting tree in a habitat suitable for the species – this equates almost to the average area taken up by a resident female."

"Private land is included in the target protection zone under strict protection if there are flying squirrel nesting trees, or if the zone lies between groups of flying squirrel nesting trees; for example, the nesting territory of two females located close to each other. Private land is also included in the restricted zone if it is unavoidably necessary to ensure the protection of connecting corridors, for example, where a flying squirrel habitat is surrounded by private land and there is no way in which this could be secured via state land alone, or if the squirrels' nesting trees remain on the border of the target protection zone," Aasma added.

Compensation will be treated as a separate issue. The private forest association came up with an example calculation whereby one property comprising mature forest would have a compensation value of €190,000 at present.

The Climate Ministry agreed with this rate.

At the same time, the climate ministry said that the compensation had recently been hiked from €110 per hectare to €134 per hectare in strictly protected areas. "Further increases in compensations is also one of the key topics in the [Reform-Eesti 200-SDE] coalition agreement," Aasma said.

The Siberian flying squirrel is in the highest protection category in Estonia and in Finland, though across the northern Eurasian land mass as a whole, it is much commoner. It is the only European flying squirrel species to be found, and while it was once found in Latvia, is thought to have been extinct there for around a decade.

The "flying" aspect relates to a membrane stretching from the animals fore legs to its hind legs, which enables it to glide while jumping from tree to tree, at distances of dozens of meters.

The species has also been named animal of the year in Estonia, the climate ministry itself reports (link in Estonian).


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Editor: Huko Aaspõllu, Andrew Whyte

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