by Marina KOLOTOVA, laboratory assistant, researcher of the State Oka Biosphere Preserve
Another holiday was added to our calendar in 1999-October 14 was declared the Day of State Preserve Workers. The problem of nature conservation is particularly acute these days. The task of flora and fauna restoration is being carried out first and foremost by the biosphere natural preserves. In the article which follows we take a closer look at one such preserve-an open-air laboratory.
Amidst the East-European, or Russian plain, the largest of its kind in the world (more than 5 min square km), there is the Meshchera lowland (this name dates back to the tribe that dwelled there) formerly a large marshy taiga area, which was practically impassable. Beyond the Oka River and a large strip of meadows there rises a dark wall of pine forests. They cover deep lakes and huge peatbogs. Unfortunately the virgin Meshchera woods are just a trace of the green ocean of the past, the "Great Belt of coniferous forests", in which Russian tribesmen hid from the Tatar hordes.
This picturesque, unique in its primeval character comer of nature is situated 300 km from Moscow in the southeast of Meshchera (the Ryazan region). It is here where the State Oka Natural Preserve was established in 1935 by a decision of the All-Union Central Executive Committee and the Soviet of People's Commissars of the RSFSR. From the day of its foundation and up to the present moment its area has been gradually increasing from 11,000 to 55,774 hectares, 50,476.5 of which are occupied by the forest, 2,539.5 by marshes, 2,090.4 by open and dry lands and 637.6-by lakes and rivers. The territory's expansion suggested the establishment of a biospheric preserve. It is located on the junction of the mixed forest and the forest-steppe zones. Almost all types of flora characteristic of this region are represented here. The western part is occupied by the pineries. In boggy hollows it gives place to black alder forests and birch woods. Oak woods and a mix of oak and fir woods (sometimes with a large proportion of lime-trees) are rarely found here. However, in some places the lime-tree creates a thick belt. The eastern part is mainly covered with oak woods of the flood-lands and with pineries on the terrace above the flood-lands of the Oka. In many places Meshchera oak coppices used to be dangerous because of armies of red ants with strong jaws. They swarmed on a person in no time if and when he made a stop in their habi-
tation on a hot day. However, even these insects were threatened by ant-eating bears. These, otherwise harmless, bears dug up old stumps and licked off ants' eggs.
People feared marshes from time immemorial-they always looked dangerous and mysterious. Fogs, fens and "wandering lights"-spontaneous ignitions of bog gas gave rise to numerous stories and legends. Their notoriety was also accentuated by diseases, which often affect a person in a damp place, and sanguivorous insects- gadflies and mosquitoes. And legends tell us that it is in the marshes where witch- doctors and sorcerers communicated with evil forces. And, it is also there where native healers looked for healing herbs. However, since long ago marshes, together with meadows and forests, have been not only the natural "drugstore", but also a clinic where calm and solitude, boundless fens and the intoxicating smell of the wild rosemary healed one's nerves.
Low marshes are mainly covered with grassy plants: sedge, veinik, reed, cane, reed mace, horse-tail, mare's-tail and vakhta. Forest marshes-with alders, birches and shrubby willows. As far as the upper marshes or the mshars are concerned, they represent a real kingdom of moss. These places are boggy and rotten, but they are especially beautiful when cranberries or cowberries redden and multi-colored caps of brown cap boletuses and orange cap boletuses appear dark on the pale green cushion of moss.
The Meshchera marshes are lakes overgrown with vegetation over the centuries. Sandy knolls, covered with pineries and fern, can be seen here and there. These are former islands where elks rest at night.
The vast sedge and sphagnum Babye marsh, with large patches of marshes of different type along the periphery, spreads up in the center of the Oka preserve. In some places it is covered with sedge turf mounds, which are sometimes 1 m high and 50 cm wide in the upper part. This marsh is difficult to pass even in winter as it freezes up only in case of strong and long cold spells. It is connected with almost all big local marshes: Kovezhnoye, Dubskoye, Lakashinskoye, the Lopata former river- bed, etc.
Russia's true wealth as well as that of Meshchera, are their natural reservoirs, the so- called moraine lakes connected with the glaciers' activity.* When receding, the ice left behind a bed filled with numerous debris (the moraine), which created the hilly relief. Water filled the hollows scattered on the Russian plain. As far as flood-lands' lakes (former river-beds) of an oblong or a horseshoe shape are concerned, they represent rudiments of former river curves. As for
* Scientists have discovered traces of eight glaciation phases in northern and central regions of European Russia. The Oka phase occurred 500-400 thousand years ago.- Ed.
the cave ones, they were formed in the places with the easily soluble rock (limestone, plaster, etc.). While occupying a small area, they sometimes are considerably deep.
In almost all the Meshchera lakes water is of different colours, but always clear. In other lakes, like in the Chernenkoye, for instance, it reminds one of black ink. Without ever seeing it, it is hard to imagine this rich colour. In summer, madonna lilies lie on the water surface as on shining glass. In autumn yellow and red leaves cover the water so thickly that they rustle under the boat leaving a shining path behind it. Black water possesses a startling capability of reflection and it is hard to tell the real banks and thickets from their mirror images. The water in Lake Uzhrenskoye looks purple, in the Segden it is yellowish and in the Velikoye it is of a tin-like colour. In autumn the water in meadow lakes acquires a greenish, sea-like colour and even smells of the sea. The lakes originating in the Babye marsh are characterized with the brownish tint. The gem of the preserve is lake Svyatoye Lubyanitskoye, a cave lake with absolutely clear water.
The main waterway in the south of Meshchera is the Pra, which originates in the area of Spas-Klepiki lakes and flows into the Oka. For the space of 54 km (out of 160 km) it flows on the territory of the preserve. In this area there exist the egress of waters rich in iron and deposits of iron sand (the so-called marsh iron) can be found on its banks. That is the reason why it is of a peculiar rusty colour.
The preserve is rich in flora: more than 800 types of flowering vessel spore plants, 30 types of edible mushrooms. Herbaceous plants of the composite, cereal, sedge, multicoloured, crucifers, legumes, carnation, labiates, fig-wort and buttercups families are represented most variably, 69 rare and 5 vanishing ones, which require a special protection being among them. The Ryazan Meshchera is the richest relict nidus of the water nut (water chestnut), where 11 types of this plant can be found; one of them is a local endemic.
The central office of the preserve is lost in the dense forest. It is located in the Brykin Bor settlement which accommodates a staff of some 200 employees. Pines and birches, lilies of the valley and Solomon's seal here come up right to the walls of the houses and birds raise and feed their offsprings right near the windows. In the old days a gang of bandits, led by their leader Brykin, allegedly ruled the place. They robbed ships on the Oka and moved upstream the Pra with their rich booty, trying to hide in the Meshchera forests and marshes.
Brykin Bor contains an archeologi-cal monument of federal importance-an ancient Slav settlement of 1-2 centuries A. D. Archeologists find there clay crocks, iron tools, mammoth's teeth, etc. Some time ago a fos-
sil skeleton of a giant Irish deer with the horn span of 2.5 m was found in the marsh. A report called Studies and Finds of the Regional Museum described this discovery in the following manner:
"The skeleton was sinking into the marsh providing no support for the diggers. They had to take off their clothes and go into the mud which was rather hard because of a very low temperature of the spring water. The huge horns as well as the skull were well preserved, but very fragile due to the complete saturation of bones with water. These bones broke up right in one's hands, but as they dried up, their hardness was restored."
Brykin Bor also preserves the ruins of one of Russia's best plants producing plate glass, widely known even in Europe in the early 20th century.
Originally the preserve was called "musk-rat" as the major purpose of its establishment (let alone preserving, studying and protecting the nature complex of that part of the Meshchera lowland) was to save and increase the popu-
lation of the Russian musk-rat (insect-eaters), the fauna relict that lives exclusively on the territory of this country The survival of this precious animal, registered in the Red Data Book of Russia and the International Conservancy Union, is impossible without special measures as its numbers are directly connected with preserving the places of its abode. The drainage of flood-lands, cutting down of forests and continuous droughts affect this animal as its main feed consists of water invertebrates (such as mollusks, dragon-fly's larvae, leeches and beetles). Today the biggest population of the Russian musk-rat, consisting of approximately 1.5 thousand species, inhabits the preserve and the bordering territories. This makes it possible to settle musk-rats in other areas of the country.
In 1937 Meshchera saw the beginning of restoring the number of the river beaver that was completely exterminated in the Ryazan Region already in the early 19th century In 1937-1940, 23 beavers were brought from the Voronezh
Region and by 1950 river beavers had got used to the whole territory of the Oka preserve and had even settled beyond its borders. Now more than 500 of these precious animals have been taken out to other regions of Russia.
Thanks to the preserve regime the number of elks, the original inhabitants of local forests, was restored. In the first years of the preserve's foundation on the protected territory the number of elks ran to no more than ten, today then-density has reached 10-17 animals per 1,000 hectares.
Insect-eaters here are represented by the mole, ordinary and small shrews, kutora*, hedgehog, cheiroptera are represented by red and small bats, ordinary bat, double- colored bat. Mouse-type rodents such as the ordinary field-vole, housekeeper, red water rat, forest and field mouse are numerous. Garden and nut-wood drowsy-heads, squirrel, flying squirrel, white hare and hare can also be found here. Predatory animals are represented by the wolf, fox, bear, marten, black and steppe polecat, stoat, weasel, mink, otter and lynx. The nursery of pure-blooded Belovezhsk-Caucasian bisons was created, where the punctate deer has been brought, and as far as the boar, raccoon dog and musquash are concerned, they have penetrated here from the bordering territories.
There are approximately 251 species of birds in Meshchera, more than 150 of which nest on the territory of the preserve. On February 11, 1956 the first Central (Oka) Ornithological Station was set up in this country At first its employees studied the birds of the central regions of Russia. Later, their activity considerably expanded and moved beyond the borders of this country Ornithologists have ringed hundreds of thousands of birds. Profound ecological
* Kutora belongs to the shrew family. The length of the body is 7-10 cm, the length of the tail is 4.5-7.5 cm. Kutora can be found along the lakes' banks. It is a good swimmer.- Ed.
studies of separate types of birds and their migration, the organization of mass-ringing expeditions, the collection of materials to find out birds' epidemiological and parasitical significance are the major tasks of the Central Ornithological Station. Various ways of fowling, applied not only in this country but also abroad, have been approved for the period of its functioning. Recent years have seen positive results in the marking of cranes with radio transmitters and their shadowing by satellites.
From 1982 to 1993 the nursery for rare species of birds of prey functioned in the Oka preserve. Bearded vultures, black gryphons, golden eagles, merlins, peregrines and balobans were kept there.
Besides the Central Ornithological Station, the Biological Survey Group, organized in 1960 to increase the quality of work of the hunter service and to improve phonological studies, is functioning in the preserve. It covers hunter's territories (and there are more than 200 of them) of 12 regions and autonomous republics of Russia. The preserve has worked out methods of observation and registration as well as forms of providing initial materials, on the basis of which the information on the number of elk, squirrel, white hare, fox, wolf, marten, wood grouse, hazed hen and black grouse was annually summarized.
In the 1940s it was in the Oka preserve that the obligatory form of observations called The Nature's Chronicle was introduced. This multi-volume book is drawn up annually. It summarizes large ecological material collected on the territory of the preserve and includes the results of scientific research, phonological studies, hydro- meteorological reports, the state and dynamics of dispersion of rare species of plants and animals. Such long-term data make it possible not only to draw theoretical conclusions on the functioning of ecological systems, but also to solve various practical problems connected with the studies and use of natural resources.
Since September 5,1994 the Oka preserve has been under the patronage of the European Council that awarded it with its Diploma. While awarding the preserve, the representatives of the European Council stressed the great contribution of local experts and acknowledged that the nature conservation here was up to the European standards. Today only four out of all preserves of this country (and there are approximately a hundred of them) have been granted this award. Numerous scientific programs are being implemented there thanks to the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), the constant sponsor of the preserve.
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