Nature reserve “Lakes”: in the tracks of a mighty aurochs and an orchid at the Holy swamp

Nature reserve “Lakes”: in the tracks of a mighty aurochs and an orchid at the Holy swamp

The kings loved and valued the grandeur, beauty and inaccessibility of these places.

You can make your way to the heart of the overgrown forest and lake splendour of republican landscape reserve "Lakes" only by an off-road vehicle – its hilly forests, dug up and eroded by the ancient Valdai glacier, protect the dense forest from lighthearted human visits. The property of the reserve of almost 24 thousand hectares passes the territory of Grodno and Shchuchin districts, in the north-east it is contiguous to Lithuanian frontier. Dozens of "The Red Book" birds and plants, -old oaks of two hundred years and one of the largest populations of the king of the Belarusian forest–the European bison – all this is the protected world of nature reserve"Lakes".



It is known that the settling of the territories that now are parts of reserve "Lakes" began as long ago as the Stone Age. The evidenceof it are the ancient sites found by scientists near the village of Bershty, and not far from it, on the Kotra riverside, there is a site of ancient settlement dating back to the early Iron Age.


The kings loved and valued the grandeur, beauty and inaccessibility of these places. In the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealthtimes the territory on which the reserve is formed was the territory of two grand duchy and then royaldense forests – Ozerany and Bershty. The village of Ozery (Lakes), adjacent to the reserve of the same name, first mentioned in written sources in 1398, was in the possession of Grand Duke Vytautas, and the local land, sheltered by the shadow of centuries-old oak groves, was his favorite place of rest. Over the centuries many rulers visited the place, and the last king of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Stanislav II August Poniatovski, too.


“And in Bershty in the XV – XVI centuries there was a court of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania,” the deputy director of the Grodno Zoo, researcher of local lore VitalyGumenny said. "Noble persons from all over the state assembledthere to the hunt. Theydiscussedproblems of national importance and handed privileges to settlements there. So in 1496 Grodno received Magdeburg Rights there.

In 1526 the Grand Duke Zhigimonthanded the privilege that granted twenty years of freedom to the peasants who settled in Bershtydense forest. Under the document the greater part of its inhabitants were attributed to "forest-guards", or to the servants of the Grand Duke. They were obliged to protect the forest resources and help noble personsat hunt, tracking wild animals.”


“In the XVIII century Grodno dense forest which included the current territory of the reserve was mercilessly cut down,”VitalyGumenny said. “It came to the thing that they began to enlist the Tatar cavalry to guarding the dense forest that was a very expensive matter. The "forest-guards" themselves also did not hesitate to take out the timber for sale, in the first place, they worried about their owneconomy and not about the royal one. Therefore, the authorities decided to impose "streletses" the duties on guarding the dense forest."Streletses" were recruited from among the prosperous "forest-guards". They became peculiar rural elite. But at a royal hunt "forest-guards" performed their functions.”

At the end of the XVIII century the lands of the present reserve were a part of the Russian Empire and they saw many battles: uprisings against tsarist authorities, the war with Napoleon in 1812 and the First World War left their traces in stories and legends. During the Great Patriotic war thanks to the thick forests and the impassable swamps Ozerydense forest became a real partisan land, the memory keeper of lost heroic fighting men and innocent residents of the burnt villages of Glushnevo, Babino and Zinyaki.


The reserve is located within Ozery water and glacial lowland. There is one of the local natural resources main symbols in its name – the unique water ecosystems of 16 lakes connected in a single network by threads of many rivers and channels – the heritage of Valdai Glacier.


The water surface of the lake White is shining as a precious necklace.The lake includes five interconnected lakes pearls: Zackova, Antosera, Stav, Belashka, Dervenskoe. The high sandy shores are wrapped up in greeneryof forests –oaks of two hundred yearsand valuable ship pines. Is is one of the few places where you can find rare plants inscribed in the Red Book – Dentariabulbifera L., the martagon lily, the common polypody, the slipper orchids, dark - red helleborine. Unexpectedlythere you can stumble on one "The Red Book" living inhabitant – the grass-snake. Many people consider the reptilebeauty from colubrids to be poisonous and being horrified by the chance meeting they try to harm it. In fact, the bite of the snake is not dangerous for a man, and you can pay a fine for the "offense" caused to the protected species.


The Lake White natural resources were exposed to danger more than once. The most acute problem which made ecologists worry downright is sand and oil products flowing from the nearby motor highway into the reservoir. They sounded the alarm in the reserve – because of the constant pollution a surface layer was formedon the water, it prevented the penetration of oxygen and led to the death of water organisms.

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“Grodno regional sanitary service specialists and scientists of YankaKupala State University of Grodnotested the water and soil in the lake White and came to the conclusion that the problem really exists and it needs to be solved,” Olga Yanchurevich, the head of the department of zoology and man and animal physiology at YankaKupala State University of Grodno, said. "Program“The New World” of Coca-Cola and of “Global Water Problem”fundshelped – thanks to it a sand and oil collector for sewage disposal getting the lakewas installed this year. In autumn we will conduct monitoring again, and then the work and efficiency of the fixed system will be clearly visible. But the first positive changes can be observed right now.”


The lake Bershtyon a tributary of the Kotra and small forest lakes Glinets, Shchuchye, Babino, Zubrovka, Black and charming by its serenity the lake Roman arelocated separately on the territory of the reserve. The last in the list, according to a long-standing sign, is always the lake of the Devil.


Towering above it the aeolian ridge – "Devil's Mountain Porechskaya"– which arose more than ten thousand years ago is considered a geological natural monument of local significance. But the residents of nearby villages, despite the "devilishly" picturesque landscapes open from the mountain, prefer to avoid the place and call it the abode of evil spirit – according to old-timers legends, pagan witchcraft rites were carried out there in remote past. The fishermen don't come there for the catch, they say that there are no fish in the Devil's lake. And every now and then old mengossip about the people who have mysteriously disappeared in the pool of the reservoir shrouded in supernatural myths.



In the sheaf of the reservewater resources popular rumour often contrasts the Holy swamp with the Devil's lake. The landscape of the unique water object is created by the alternation of open areas and fragments of swampy birch and pine forests. On the swamped "islet" a very rare in Belarus the Red Book orchid species – the early coralroot –grows. This is the only population of the large snow-white flower well-known in the region.


“Swamps play an important role in preservation of the environment. They form their own microclimate and biodiversity in the adjoining territory,” Dmitry Morozik, the director of the republican landscape reserve "Lakes" said,“but active land reclamation has led to a sharp reduction of swampterritories. Fifty years ago the Holy swamp was drainedfor peat extraction. Now within major project "Development of integrated approaches to wetland management taking into account the principle of multi-purpose landscape planning for the purpose of getting multilateral environmental benefits" implemented by the United Nations Development Program environmental rehabilitation of the unique object is being carried out. As a whole in 2015 we conducted repeated swamping on the territory of one and a half thousand hectares.”



More than a half of the reserve forests are covered with pine forest. Birch groves and fir woods, black alder groves, maple and poplar copses, oak groves, ash woods and aspen groves stretch across the territory of the unique nature protection object. There are unique specimens of the trees, the age of them numbers more than one century.


On the territory of the reserve in the environs of Ozery 32 huge ancient oaks thirty meters high and on average up to two meters in diameter were found up. The experts from the National Academy of Sciences determined that the trees were about 250 years old. The territory of the reserve with the area of seven hectares, where the oaks continue to grow stronger, was given the status of a botanical natural monument of local significance. Now it is anespecially protected natural object.


Indeed, to encompass the most powerful old-timer in the oak grove of two hundred yearswith outstretched arms of five persons is hardly to turn out. At the same time the tree is completely healthy – the strong trunk and living branches of the tree giant, despite its age, are admirable.


On the territory of the reserve 780 species of vascular plants are registered, 16 of them – the Eastern pasqueflower, the wild garlic, the twin flower, the European Slipper Orchid, spiny naiad, the common polypodyand others – are entered in The Red Book. Many of them have medicinal and healing properties.


You can also find the fir clubmoss in the heart of the dense forest. The herb is very poisonous, and this was the prerequisite for its use in pharmacology. In the old days a decoction of this rare evergreen plant with rising branched shoots was used by our ancestors as a cure for drunkenness, they mixed it with strong alcohol. There is a talk ofthe method’s effectiveness, but fortunately people have not tried to experiment on it for a long time –the wrong use of herbal "potion" can cause serious poisoning.



The animal world of the reserve is amazing. 175 species of tetrapod vertebrates are registered within its borders in all, including 20 species of mammals, more than 140 species of birds, 6 species of reptiles and 9 species of Amphibia. About 25 species of animals are protected in Belarus.


“Among the forests and the swamps of the reserve you can see the elk, the wild boar, the roe deer, the red deer. The combination of various types of forest, swamps and overgrown clearings create good protective and fodder conditions for ungulate animals,” Dmitry Morozik said. “Squirrels and hares are usual there. In the forests of the reserve carnivore are met, they are the European pine marten, the ermine, the short-tailed weasel, the fox, the wolf, the raccoon dog. The American mink is found along the banks of reservoirs, and the beaver settlements live on forest small rivers and streams. Rarelyyou can see the otter and the Eurasian lynx – the species that have a protection status in Europe.”


On the territory of the reserve in the open flood-lands of the Strievka river between the villages of Pereseltsy and Mostki the largest tetrapod mammals in Europe – the European bisons–live. These majestic animals in large herds – up to several dozensof individuals – go out to pastures of perennial herbs, where they can be observed in natural conditions. The first bison were brought there twenty years ago. Then there were 18 individuals. Today hundreds powerful adult males and females, young bisons inhabit the forests of the reserve, freely walk about pastures and they are not afraid to show themselves to people.

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“The bison, who once lived in vast areas of Europe and Asia, almost became extinct in the last century. Currently every thoroughbred bison is recorded in the stud book maintained in the Bialowieza National Park,” Dmitry Morozik said. “The micro-population living in the vicinity of Lakes has about 250 individuals and it is the largest one outside of the Bialowieza dense forest. It is of great value, since the total number of bison living in freedom around the world is only a few thousand.”



The lesser spotted eagle, the osprey, the common crane, the black stork, the corn - crake, the jack snipe, the great snipe, the little tern, the great grey owl, the common kingfisher, the European green and the three-toed woodpeckers, the tawny pipit – 13 species of birds entered in The Red Book dwell in the reserve. And “The Red Book” species of winged carnivore regularly hibernate there: the hen harrier, the white-tailed eagle and the golden eagle.


The colonies of black-headed gulls nest on the lakes of the reserve, and since August large flocks of common cranes gather in the harvested fields before flying away to Africa for hibernation. Thousands of beautiful rare birds in one place is a magnificent sight. It is possible to watch thebirds not being afraid to frighten off them. On the unique natural lands, you can see how the grebes carry their chicks on their backs, you can hear the whistle of the Eurasian pendulinetits, which weave their nests-mittens from vegetable down and hang them on thin branches above the water, you can meet the common fire-crest – the smallest bird, forest inhabitant, of Europe –and many other "living winged wonders".


To hide the amazing natural world from people would be an unforgivable mistake. The unique natural objects of nature reserve “Lakes” have a great tourist potential, by the way, they are successfully trying to use it there. And the question is not only about the recreation areas equipped with barbecue grills and pavilions, where you can pitch a tent and organize a picnic. Although there is no doubt that it is in demand.


Within the project "Promoting the transition of the Republic of Belarus to a "green economy"nature reserve “Lakes” together with the YankaKupala Grodno State University developed four touristpackages that are offeredto the guests of the protected area. The tourists visit picturesque places and the most striking and significant natural objects –the old oak grove, the habitat of the European bison, the history of villages and towns adjacent to the territory of the reserve, ecological paths. The guests can go to the pheasantryof “Porechanka”,the branch of Grodno meat processing and packing factory, they can learn how pheasants are grown and bred, they can visit “the Honey Path” company, which is engaged not only in the production of honey, but also in the active promotion of industrial tourism.


And for small groups who would like to be in the most difficult to traverse, but stunningly beautiful places, there is a special safari tour on an off-road vehicle.

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One of the ecological trails located on the territory of the reserve, with a length of more than three kilometers, is called "Lakes". It allows anyone to walk through the picturesque forest tract, get acquainted with unique rare species of flora and fauna.

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The second trail - "A touch of nature" - consists of only five hundred meters. And this is a special project for particular people: there all the information posted on each of the stands is repeated in Braille. The first sensory ecological trail in the region, as it is called, leads to the floodlands of the Solomyanka River, ending in a large forest clearing, where you can literally touch samples of various tree species, their cones and needles, and sense the smell of fragrant herbs growing in the reserve.


“Our guests can receive audio information through special technical means – tifloflashplayers,” Dmitry Morozik said.“The trail is bordered by rope railings and low small wooden posts along the way. It allows weak sighted people and those who move with a cane to walk on their own.”


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