South Moravia is a region of the Czech Republic that borders with Slovakia and Austria. I have visited on two occasions, in July 2013 and then the following April. The region gets its name from the Morava, one of Europe’s lesser known rivers, a tributary of the Danube. Over time it has been straightened for industry, though some of its natural meanders do still exist, I find its influence on the surrounding landscape to be fascinating both historically and ecologically. The impact of communism on the landscapes of Central and Eastern Europe are clear. Small fields were opened up and collected, taken under state control. The rivers were canalised and wetlands drained for agriculture. The similarities to post-war capitalism are strong: it was the case of two warring ideologies attempting to increase and establish their populations with similar technologies and agricultural industries. The advances in agriculture, sanitation and medicine meant that, despite hundreds of millions of deaths in the Second and First World Wars, the population of the earth tripled in the 20th century. The irrevocable ‘taming’ of continental and Eastern Europe’s natural landscapes, and loss of traditional management techniques which in fact sustained many of the richest habitats, was thought to be largely complete by the 1980s. That generalised view, however, does not give the full picture. Nature is adaptable and human perspectives change, as South Moravia’s landscapes show.
The Google Earth view of the Morava’s natural meanders at Bzenec. A now vegetated oxbow lake can be seen in the ‘o’ shape next to the ‘S’ shape in the mid left-centre. The impact of post-war industry was felt across Europe’s waterways, though the damming of the Danube was to be undertaken most severely only by the 1990s. Many rivers lost their natural meanders, straightened to aid the passage of goods and people. The Morava is an excellent example of this change. The only remaining natural meanders of the Morava can be found on the edges of Bzenecka Doubrava, a pine plantation established on the river’s sandy edgelands. The sandy conditions were created by the Morava, the river having deposited sand throughout the landscape over thousands of years. When I visited in July 2013 the trees at the edges of the river were collapsing into the water as the sand slowly eroded the banks. This way new meanders could be formed if given the chance, the silting up of the edges thinning the watercourse and increasing the erosion on the opposite side through the increase in the pace of the water’s flow. It’s unlikely that the river will be given free reign, however, as the neighbouring plantation is of economic importance. Perhaps the river’s power will be too great in this case.
The river’s work has also given people the chance to exploit these vast deposits of sand. Very close to the river was a working mine. But nature has not lost out completely here, the sand was being mined by sand martins (Riparia riparia) which in turn were being hunted by hobbies (Falco subbuteo) and their nests excavated from above by foxes (Vulpes vulpes). The mined areas as seen in the image above were being replanted with broadleaved tree species.
I photographed the sand mine from Váté písky, a protected area known as ‘the Moravian Sahara’. Green lizards (Lacerta viridis), with their beautiful blue mouths and green-yellow bodies snuck out from pieces of deadwood to eat ants and have their picture taken.
My friend Karel Šimeček knows this landscape inside out. You would be forgiven for thinking the wildlife knew him just as well. He found a pine hawkmoth in the grasslands of Váté písky. Karel has campaigned for many years to protect this post-industrial landscape – the likes of which would be built on without much thought in the UK nowadays – and he has successfully achieved designations to protect habitats in Bzenecka Doubrava for nightjar (Caprimulgus Europaeus). This nocturnal, African migrant is threatened by the proposal for a new motorway through the area.
Váté písky is a protected landscape, and Karel, along with fellow Moravian conservation-supremo Zuzka Veverkova said that entomologists from all over the country would visit to study the invertebrates
In July the flowerheads of hare’s-foot clover (Trifolium arvense) were being fed upon by the eastern bath white butterfly (Pontia edusa)
The surrounding pine trees were crisscrossed by red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris), jays (Garrulous glandarius) and golden orioles (Oriolus oriolus). The cacophony of the sand mine’s alarm, rupturing the almost pastoral peace of the Morava’s sandlands, drew a black woodpecker (Dryocopus martius) across the horizon. It was the first I had ever seen, a giant bird in comparison to British woodpeckers
Returning the following spring, Karel took us to a former military site which had ‘returned to nature’. Here woodlark (Lullula arborea), whinchat (Saxicola rubetra) and golden oriole were found, along with many more insects
Karel sought out a flowering hawthorn tree that was teeming with insects: bright blue beetles, butterflies, bees, wasps and hornets all feasting on the mayflower’s goodness. Returning home to English hawthorns I could not help but see the sheer paucity of insects, compared with the Czech abundance of life in the same tree
Small copper butterflies (Lycaena phlaeas) were to be found on flowers across the old military site
The map butterfly (Araschnia levana) is another common species found in this part of South Moravia and even as far east as Japan. It’s not one that can be found in the UK
In general I would be trying to catch up with the last thing Karel had seen when he would call out to show me something new. He had burrowed into a small area of sand to uncover an ant-lion, the larvae of a species closely related to the lacewings (Neuroptera). The ant-lion hides in the sand and waits for the vibrations of an ant’s footsteps above, creating a vacuum in the sand’s centre and picking the insect off. Micro-stories hidden within sands shifted by the mighty Morava
In May Karel drove us along the edges of the straightened river and pointed out some of its remaining floodplain habitats. Tributaries had been canalised, lined by beds of Phragmites reeds. Other parts of the floodplain had been turned over to monoculture crops but good areas of willow wood pasture remained, much like some of the more attractive English rural parklands. These willow trees were the favoured nesting sites for great grey shrike (Lanius excubitor)
One thing I love about the Czech Republic is the rough edges of its municipalities. This ‘untidiness’ has been lost from much of England through compulsive use of herbicides on city and suburban streets and mowing. Beyond the fact that more spaces were allowed to rough up, the naturally greater diversity of plant species meant that beautiful insects were seen in all places. Alongside the Morava this common clubtail dragonfly (Gomphus vulgatissimus) perched in the full glare of the morning sun
We walked down to the river’s edge on a national Czech holiday (men at one of the local petrol stations were sat outside drinking beer at 8am, fair play) and kayakers were making their way along the river
As the Morava is a tributary of the Danube, it also has tributaries of its own. One of the larger towns outside Brno in South Moravia is Kyjov, home to the Kyjovka. Above is an image of the Kyjovka valley, the landscape redrawn by the flow of water and ice over thousands of years.
The Kyjovka at Mutěnice
The Kyjovka is a special river for me because it has a very interesting story to tell. Its waters have been harnessed to make an area of fishponds in the village of Mutěnice, a few miles south of Kyjov. Karel introduced me to the fishponds, a wonderful place for birds but also for another animal, the beaver (Castor fiber). Beavers managed to return to South Moravia via the Morava from the Danube and then from the Morava to the Kyjovka. The story goes that the beavers began to cause problems for the owners of the fishponds by digging channels between the ponds and mixing up the fish stocks. The beaver is iconic for many conservationists because it alters the landscape in ways that benefit many species, even us. But for fishpond owners who wanted to keep fish separate, they were a problem. The owners captured the beavers and interred them in a local zoo. But the beavers escaped the night they were captured and returned to the fishponds. They are now well established
In May Karel pointed out channels of water flowing through the mudflats of the fishponds. There were other more direct channels created by beavers
The main worry for British landowners (who now have to accept that beavers are back) is the impact that the animals have through their natural tree-felling behaviour. Beavers have very sharp front teeth which are kept in good condition by the front bottom teeth which act to sharpen them as would a whetstone sharpen metal. Beavers create dams in rivers which slow the passage of water and prevent flooding in settlements further downstream. The dams also provide spawning grounds for fish and micro-habitats for invertebrates. They gnaw through the bark of poplar and willow, waiting for the moment when the tree will fall to escape. The light brought in – much like when we coppice woodland trees – nourishes the wild plants and herbs on the riverbank increasing the diversity of species and diversifying the habitat structure. The trees grow back from their bases and can live longer than many standards trees. Trees like willow collapse often anyway and the beaver is just speeding up the cycle of a natural process
The willows that did remain upright (and there were many) were being used by the penduline tit (Remiz pendulinus). This charming bird builds its nest from the beardy seeds of poplar, as well as old grasses. The timing of poplars producing seed and the nesting of this bird exemplify the beautifully serene symbiosis between birds and native trees, and the utter dependence on certain trees that many birds have. I had always wanted to see this bird and once again I had Karel to thank
Karel was not the only ornithologist at Mutěnice. A group of men had spent the night at the fishponds preparing for a public event on the morning that we came in April 2014. They were ringing birds using a mist net to try and raise awareness about wildlife in South Moravia. One of the birds caught was a common sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos), it was soon let go, the bird zipping off towards the water
Reed warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus) was one of the more common species to be caught in the nets, which cause no harm to the birds. In the woodland at the edges of the fishponds, nightingales (Luscinia megarhynchos) sang and I managed to glimpse the shadow of one dropping down through the leaves. But the nightingale’s song was not the most dominant. The surface of the fishponds were pocked by the eyes of marsh frog (Pelophylax ridibundus), their calls were like nothing I had ever heard. They dominated the soundscape to the point that even the cuckoo struggled to break their dominance
On the edge of the fishponds is an area of woodland where black stork (Ciconia nigra) could be seen perched, overlooking the ponds. They are massive birds and, like their cousins the white stork (Ciconia ciconia), migrate to Europe in spring from Africa.
Karel knew an oak tree in the woods that was the favoured nesting place for a black stork. We wandered in through the light, grassy woodland in a fog of St. Mark’s fly (Bibio marci) and attendant mosquitoes. The stork did arrive but Karel did not want us to stay. A few months later Karel emailed to say that the black stork had raised young but it was eaten by a pine marten (Martes martes)
The woodland floor was rich in wildflowers, with Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum multiflorum) growing in mini-thickets
I looked out to the edge of the wood, the fishponds and its storks behind us. At the end of the track was the bright yellow of flowering oilseed rape and grey pylons. I thought of how suddenly this diverse habitat, with all its insects, flowers, trees and birds ended in pesticide-laden monoculture, of how quickly the land lost its vitality, its character. With my feet in the Morava’s sands, I thought of how much the river had done to change this landscape and how much people were changing it again. Nevertheless, in the woods, fishponds, the valleys and estuaries the story of the Morava and its wildlife is there to be told