Lääne County, or Läänemaa, is one of 15 counties of Estonia. Lääne County is situated in the western part of Estonia, about 100 km from the capital Tallinn and consists of 3 municipalities: Vormsi, Lääne-Nigula municipalities and Haapsalu town.
The Lääne County is predominantly flat and locating entirely on the West-Estonian Lowland. The length of the coastline is about 415 km, which is diversified by the bays (Haapsalu Bay, Matsalu Bay) and the peninsulas (Noarootsi Peninsula, Puise Peninsula). The largest islands are Vormsi Island and Osmussaar. Haapsalu town and sandy coastline is an important recreational areas. The main land cover types are forest (54,3%), grasslands (7,5%), agricultural land (18,1%) and wetlands (10,7%) (Fig. 1). The average annual temperature is between 6.1 °C and 7.8 °C with a precipitation of 500 to 700 mm.
Short facts about the region
Characteristics of the region
Agriculture dominates with extensive use, small fields, semi-natural meadows and small forests patches. 55 % of land is privately owned, ca 43% is state owned, and 1.5% belonged to municipalities.
The total number of farming enterprises in Lääne County is ca 1000 (2018), including 59 farms bigger than 300 ha and 249 farms smaller than 5 ha. The highest number of farms (434) are belonging to the size group of 5-25 ha. Most farming enterprises are mixed farms with combinations of arable crops and animal husbandry (mostly cattle for meat production) or focused on crops (cereals, oil-crops). During the last six years average farm size has increased from 57 ha (2012) to 72 ha (2018). Ca 33% farmland are managed according to principle of organic farming, large part are grasslands. In total there are ca 8900 meat cows and ca 2500 milk cows. The number of sheep have increased ca 20% during the last years up to 5600 animals.
Significant Resources of the region
The biological diversity is high in Lääne County, compared to other regions in Estonia. Lääne County has the largest areas covered with the nature protection areas in Estonia. Together with Natura 2000 sites 23% of the territory of the county is protected, including the most famous Matsalu National Park (NP) and semi-natural habitats (including extensive coastal and floodplain meadows) (Fig. 2). Matsalu Bay is one of the most important wetland bird areas in Europe, due to its prime position on the East Atlantic Flyway. Large numbers of migratory birds use Matsalu as a staging area. Every spring over two million waterfowl pass Matsalu, of which around 1.6 million are long-tailed ducks.
Lääne County in Estonia is characterized by the high share of semi-natural grasslands, specifically coastal and alluvial meadows. These grasslands are well known as biodiversity hotspots and key stopover locations for thousands of migrating birds. Wooded meadows and alvars are exceptionally rich in species. According to Estonian botanists, more than 50 species of vascular plants (as well as mosses) can be found on one square meter in a wooded meadow which has been managed continuously for a long time. The most diverse plant habitat in Estonia (and probably in all of North-Europe) is Laelatu wooded meadow in Lääne County, where up to 76 plant species can be found on one square meter (Kukk 2004). Ecosystem services of grasslands were evaluated during the Life+ project VivaGrass (2015-2019).
Due to extensive agriculture and land abandonment species abundances declined, species composition changed, and landscape structure has changed in semi-natural areas of Lääne County.
During the last years large areas of semi-natural meadows (coastal meadows, alvars) have restored, now the question is how to manage them sustainability and increase biodiversity. Many of these valuable grasslands are managed using the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) support, but a large share of the cut grass is not used for animal feeding and remains wasted on the field.
However, grasslands have a potential for energy production as solid biomass heating fuels. Whether grasslands are specifically cultivated for this purpose, or the grass mown from permanent and semi-natural meadows is used, grass can be burnt in co-fired plants for heat generation.
Another major challenge is how better valorize and to market a local food and raw materials (beef, sheep, etc.).