The animals of Valaam

Valaam is interestiong not only because of its architecture and century-old forests, but also for its animals. Valaam archipelago is situated in the south-Karelian zoogeographical zone, the northern border of which is bounded by the 62nd parallel. A variform of southern animals is typical for this zone. This includes grass snake, godwit, oriole, goatsucker, lentil, bat and lots of others. At the same time the region is lacking north-taiga or arctic species of animals - reindeer, polar tern, loom e.t.c. Other widespread forest species also inhabit the zone - chaffinch, woodpecker, elk, field-vole and so on.

Although fauna of Valaam has all the zonal characteristics, it still possesses its own peculiarities. This is caused by the geographical location of the territory. The island is 35-40 km away from the mainland. It is separated by the waters of the largest lake in Europe – Ladoga lake, the surface of which becomes frozen for a short period. As the result the fauna of the region is rather poor. Populations of some small vertebrates with a limited ability for migration (amphibian, reptiles, and small mammals) live here rather isolated and are especially sensitive to unfavourable conditions. Original microclimate of the island is also the consequence of the insular location. Favourable conditions for life of animals, which are ecologically dependent on water and lakeside, are caused by numerous islands, extension and irregularity of the shore line.

Literature of the past has many records of Valaam’s fauna. Unfortunately, almost all of them were made by non-specialists. However, they are of some scientific interest. There is a long list of land vertebrates, including about 30 species and geneses in one of the guidebooks for Finnish tourists, which was issued in 1927. Still, specialized scientific researches of Valaam are few in number so it is possible to talk about an incomplete study of the island’s fauna. It is supposed that one of the largest lists of species we have today will soon be enlarged. For example, according to the field studies of 1985-1986 t10-12 bird species and 2-3 mammals species must be included in the list.

The most explored group of land vertebrates is birds. Nowadays, bird fauna of Valaam includes 123 species, 87 of them are nesting birds. However, this list is not exhaustive and in the future it will be completed because of the registration of passing and migratory birds.

The high percentage of forest land in Valaam and the domination of coniferous plantations contributes to the evolution of various forest birds (44 nesting species). The most numerous of them are chaffinch, siskin, thrush, chiff-chaff, woodpecker, woodcock, tomtit, sundew, oriole, goldcrest and wren.

The birds of opened areas and feathery, closely connected with man and built-up areas (12 and 9 species correspondingly), are also represented here. These include whitethroat, swallow and crow. Because of a low percentage of waterlogged ground waders almost don’t inhabit the territory (there are only three species of them). But there are lots of birds of prey and owls, which build their nests on the archipelago: only hobby is large in number, nesting of other species is still not proved. Fauna of water birds is various (19 species). The most noticeable of them are sea gulls – they surround the ship long before its arrival and eat the food people throw. There are four species of sea gulls on Valaam (dove-colored, lake, silver and broody gulls). Other water birds that inhabit the island are golden-eye, merganser, wild duck, sandpiper and tern.

According to the observations of ornithologist S. Sazonov, the largest of the known on Ladoga colonies of silver and dove-colored sea gulls are situated on Valaam islands. In the gull colonies also live other species like sandpiper (2 pairs) and chegrava (10 pairs). For sandpiper it is the first registration of its nesting on Ladoga lake. The colony of chegrava is the only one in the north of Russia. The fauna and ecology of amphibia and retiles of Valaam are less explored. The representatives of these two classes, which live on the island, include both common for Karelia species (frog, lizard) and protected animals, which are enlisted in the Red Book of the republic (their status is “species, subjected to protection”). Besides, these species are protected by a special decree of the twenty-fifth of July 1981. These are the representatives of creepers – adder and grass snake. “It is said that there are incredibly many snakes on the island. It is forbidden to kill them, because it is not allowed to kill any living creature on the island”. These words were written 160 years ago and they were said by a famous rune-narrator Elias Lonnrot. During his travels he couldn’t miss Vlaaam, which was already famous. Unfortunately, now it is difficult to tell which of the two snake classes were these words addressed. Probably, it was talled about adder, which is larger in number than grass snake.

Adder is spread all over Karelia, but it can be rarely met in certain places for it hunted for. The distribution of the adder on Valaam also confirms it for adder if more often met in the southern and eastern parts of the island, which are rarely visited by tourists. Adders of different colors from black to green can be seen on Valaam. The main food of the adder are mouse-like rodents and frogs, in early summer adders eat baby birds.

Valaam is one of the northern zones of grass snake’s natural habitat in Karelia. On the other teritory of the republic this species can be met in the western Priladozhje and near Sortavala. Snakes can rarely be met to the north of this place. Grass snake is quite a large snake up to 70-90 cm long, sometimes it grown up to 1 meter and more. The peculiarities of this species are two yellow or orange spots on the sides of a head. Grass snake inhabits the shores of inland lakes of Valaam – Sisjarvi lake, Konevskie lakes and the shore of Ladoga lake, mainly in its southern and eastern parts. It prefers warm rock slopes of the southern mountains. Grass snake swims perfectly and is very active in the warm time. Grass snake yields to adder in number that’s why it must be protected.

About 10 species of mammals live on Valaam. Here one can meet typically forest animals (squirrel, field-vole, hare, elk) and animals, which spend most of their lives in water (seal). The fauna of mammals in Valaam is poorer than in the mainland because of its island location. For example, there is no large predators (trot, bear, glutton) and no mouse-like rodents. Here one can also see mole, water-vole and shrew. The ancient companion of people rat and mouse also lives here. They were brought to the island by people long time ago. The buildings of the monastery with their numerous storerooms and cellars became a shelter for them. In summer these animals also inhabit territories, which are located close to the man’s lodging – vegetable gardens, scrap heaps and pastures.

On Valaam there lives only few beasts of prey – fox and European mink. The destiny of the latter is rather difficult. Within the limits of its natural habitat the population of the European mink is decreasing that’s why the problem of protecting this species is becoming more urgent. First of all it is planned to reestablish the number of minks on the islands of large lakes. The islands for restoration are Kunashir island and the islands of Valaam archipelago. What is common between these two islands, which are located at two different ends of the country – Valaam in Karelia and Kunashir in the Far East? They are connected by the role they play in the restoration of the population of European mink. The islands are distant from the mainland, there is no American mink on them. Valaam attracted the attention of scientists by its status of museum. According to the information of the Red Book, where European mink is enlisted as “a species, which is under a partial protection”, this animal inhabited all the territory of Karelia and was rather numerous in the late 60-ies. Nowadays, European mink has almost disappeared because it was replaced by American mink. These two species differ by their size, weight and color.

The first test release of two pairs of European mink, according to the words of zoologists I.Tumanov and V. Rozhnov, was made in July 1982. In august 1985 four more animals were set free on the islands. The specialists say that European mink will not yet be in competition with the animals, which inhabit the island. Obviously, this is fair only if the population of this species will not be large. However, as it is planned to release a large number of European minks on Valaam (100 animals – more than 10 animals per 10 km of the shore line), there is a threat of disappearing of small amphibians and mouse-like rodents, which are the main food of the European mink.

Another representative of the beasts of prey of Valaam is fox. Unlike European mink, fox has inhabited the island for a long time. It became able to consolidate its grip on Valaam because of its ecological plasticity, a wide spectrum of food and ability to love close to men. Still, it is not possible to talk about an independent island population of fox – most likely there are 3-6 individuals on Valaam. People can say that foxes live here, when they see their holes located in fir- and birch-woods, only 10 meters away from the forest road. There appeared to be 4 fox-cubs in the litter, though the number might be larger – up to 5-7 cubs. Fox eats mouse-like rodents, hares, birds and frogs. Fox often ravages nests, gathers dead fish and carrion. According to the observations of the employees of the reserve, wolf also visits the island. Still these visits are not annual and usually happen in winter, after freezing-over. Because there is no wolves on Valaam, the problem of ecological balance between elks and the forests of the island is becoming more urgent.

We have already said, that during the last 10-15 years the number of elks on the territory of the island exceeds the standard. That lead to the degradation of elks’ winter pastures and serious injuries of both locative wood species (pine, aspen, willow, birch) and valuable new species (larch, silver fir and oak). So the underwood of pine is destroyed by elks for 90-95%, and there is almost no restoration of this species on the island. The strongest concentration of elks is in the south-west part of the island. It is obvious that in this situation people must regulate the population of elk even in the reserve. But it is necessary to know the exact number of elks on the island to establish ecological standards of elk’s shoot. However, the information about the population of elk on the island is quite rough. Because of this the Institution of forests of Karelia makes special studies of the number and biological role of elks on Valaam. It was found that in the middle 80-ies 15-20 elks lived here, which corresponds to the density of 5-7 individuals per a thousand hectares. This figure is exceeding the maximum permissible number of the animals, which may live on its territory without doing harm to its woods. So what is the permissible amount? In order to find it, people must make special test areas for estimation of elks’ food in all types of forests. The most recent estimations for the whole area of the island made it possible to define all the food store for elks on Valaam. It makes about 100 tons. On conditions that only 30% of the whole food storage will be used, it is enough to feed 10-12 elks. But the number of the animals must be decreased to 3-4 individuals (1-1.5 elks per a thousand of hectares). The shooting of elks, which is an exceptional measure for the reserve, must go with the annual registration of the number of elks and observations of the migration of the animals from the mainland. So, one of the possible ways to solve the problem of elk on Valaam is ecologically valid control of the population of the species, of its food store and migration.

Mighty century-old pines of Valaam make a tourist to think if elks have inhabited the island forever and if they were as large in number as nowadays? At that time about 15-200 years ago the destiny of today’s forest giants was doubtful. There are some records of deers, but not elks living on the island in the literature. “It is said that in the forests of Valaam one can easily meet a deer, who came here from the Finnish shore… He wanders in the forest and is not afraid of passers-by” – N. Tulinov reports in 1907. The records of the monastery also have this mentioning. Of course, we should be careful with this kind of sources for they were mostly written by non-specialists. But we can believe the words of a famous researcher of Ladoga lake A. Andreev: “Wild animals: sometimes elk can be met here, deer lives on Valaam all the time, but in winter it goes to other places in the northern part of the lake”. So, it is possible to state that, at least, in the last century, deer inhabited the island. That’s why it is possible not to exclude the re-acclimatization of the wild rein deer on Valaam.

Another possible solution is to artificially replace the elk with any species of red deer, for example, with Virginia deer, which has already successfully acclimatized in Finland. Zoologists made suggestions of this kind even earlier. One more argument for this solution is that this species has another ration: Virginia deer makes less damage to the undergrowth of pine than elk, it prefers sprouts of hardwood, hay, mosses and lichens. A staff of forest protectionists and forestry specialists will allow organizing a qualified control of the acclimatization. It is also important to remember that the acclimatization of animals is a very important step, which demands caution, and it must be held not on the territory of the reserve. The final decision must be collective, and must take into account the opinion of specialists of different every description: zoologists, forestry specialists, silviculturists and hunt specialists.

In the conclusion it is impossible not to mention Ladoga seal. This subspecies of an annulated seal is an endemic of Ladoga lake (i.e. it can be met only here) and the only representative of mammals of karelia, enlisted in the Red Book of Russia. Ladoga seal is a cautious, but rather curious animal. It can watch the people on the shore for a long. On Valaam seal can be seen near the southern and soutjeastern shores of the island, its breeding-ground is located on some small islands of the archipelago (Golyi, Krestovyi and other islands). The number of people’s visits to those islands must be limited to minimum.

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