The territory of the reserve as if stretched in a northeast direction along the state border. Its green lands with a strip of 2.5 to 7 kilometers in width stretch for 32 kilometers and a total of 10.5 thousand hectares.
It is unique not only in that 95 percent of the biotopes concentrated here are rare for Belarus, and 85 percent are protected in the European Union. Together with the Chapkeliai National Park of Lithuania, as a single natural wetland complex, since 2002 it has the status of a transboundary Ramsar territory. Among all the environmental holdings of the Grodno region, only the Kotra sanctuary is endowed with such a status. Ramsar means especially valuable, having international significance.
HELLO FROM STONE AGE
Residents of nearby villages often call the Kotranska Forest Sanctuary, but over the course of their history these forests have changed many names.
— Partially, until the end of the 18th century, they entered the Bershtovskaya Pushcha. After that, the territory of the current sanctuary «Kotra» entered the Grodno Forest. Her possessions in the 19th century reached almost Shchuchin, but among the people then the name «Russian Forest» was fixed for this territory. These forest lands began to be called Kotran forest closer to the end of the 20th century, said Vitaliy Gumenny, Grodno zoologist and local historian.
The surroundings of the forest have been inhabited by humans since ancient times. There are several sites and villages from the stone to the Bronze Age on the territory of the sanctuary and near it. Not far from the village of Zubrovo, for example, is one of the sites designated as a parking place for a Bronze Age man. Since ancient times, people here have been collecting forest gifts. And today, the forest expanses of the reserve abound with mushrooms and berries. Fans of quiet hunting can be found in the forest even after the first frost. After all, not only blueberries in the summer, but also in the autumn are attracted by a reserve of cranberry pickers.
In his possessions another element from a very distant past is concentrated — ancient dunes, whose age is more than 10 thousand years. They are very hilly areas of the forest that formed when there was a tundra with strong winds on the border of the melting Valdai glacier.
IN NATURE — AS IN THE RED BOOK
36 species of vascular plants, one species of bryophytes and two species of rare lichens are included in the Red Book of the Republic of Belarus of the variety of plants growing in the Kotra nature sanctuary. The director of the sanctuary is well aware of the growing places of many. Moreover, in his working notebook there is all the information so that a walk through the woods with guests is the most informative and interesting. It is noted in this notebook when, in all its glory, in the reserve “Kotra” you can see one or another representative of the Red Book. To enjoy the dream grass, for example, you need to come here in April or May. This year, near the forest paths, the primrose, scientifically called Proskryl meadow, was filled with bright spring colors in early April.
And the white water lily, which in many places decorates the water surface of the unhurried Kotra and forest lakes, pepper literally a few days before our arrival. You can usually see her from July to mid-September.
The flora of the reserve includes 635 species of higher vascular plants. It will help to evaluate a lot or little whether the fact that you can meet here can be about 35 percent of all species of plants represented in Belarus. Preserved individual specimens of centuries-old trees, primarily oaks are very valuable.
One of these forest centenarians was seen by everyone who went on an educational trip to the sanctuary, following the signs of the Ivache-Kotra ecological trail. The centuries-old oak tree is impressive not only due to its natural severity. From a distance, it seems as if the tree froze from a strong gust of wind: with its whole branchy camp it leaned towards the river — the basis of the entire natural complex — Kotre.
Pine forests predominate in the sanctuary. But in areas with increased moisture, spruce, birch and mixed forests are found, and in wetlands you can see black alder forests.
PLACE OF ORNITHOLOGICAL OPENINGS
The Kotran Forest is rich in animals. At least 26 species of mammals live here, including not only the lynx and badger listed in the Red Book of Belarus, but also elk, deer, roe deer, beaver, wolf and fox. They say that you can meet a lynx or badger infrequently, but even among our guides there were such lucky ones.
— Just a month ago, while patrolling the border strip, I noticed a fast forest cat. Wild animals usually shy away from settlements, but this time the animal flashed near the village of Romanovo, says Alexander Demchenko, the head of the Motyl border post.
A visit to the Kotra nature reserve was generous with this kind of surprise for us. Although they caught a glimpse of a rare representative of birds — the Lesser Spotted Eagle. Of course, it was not possible to discern the Red Book in detail. Having hardly noticed the people, it was not at all the small little spotted eagle that said goodbye to us in a matter of seconds with a wide wingspan. And yet even a short acquaintance can be considered a great success.
-There are many forest and bog species in the reserve, including protected black storks and gray cranes, says Tadeusz Lutkevich, the director of the reserve. A year ago, it would have easily shown the nesting site of the black stork, but today, alas, the pine tree on that site began to dry and the birds settled somewhere else.
Finding a nest of gray cranes in the Kotra Wildlife Sanctuary is not easy — the bird chooses a marshland. But it is interesting that on the eve of departure to warmer countries these representatives of birds are hatching in packs from year to year in the same place. Very symbolically, a kind of an airfield for gray cranes became the territory immediately behind the village with the «bird» name — Sparrows.
— In total, about 90 species of birds were recorded at the nesting sites, but many of them can be noted only during seasonal migration. In general, the species composition of birds migrating here in spring and autumn remains the least studied, and therefore at the most interesting time for a naturalist — the beginning of spring and autumn — large and small ornithological discoveries are still possible here, says Oleg Sozinov, the head of the Department of Botany of Yanka Kupala State University.
INFOKIOSK WILL TELL ABOUT WALK
The natural wealth of the territory of the Kotra reserve is largely due to the minimal participation of a person in his life. This has been true for many decades.
— Since 2014, as part of a cross-border cooperation project, together with Lithuanian colleagues, we have developed a joint management plan, in essence, for a single natural complex that divides the state border — the Kotra Belarusian Republican landscape sanctuary and the Chapkelai Lithuanian state sanctuary. We try to intervene in the life of nature minimally and very carefully, says Tadeusz Lutkevich.
Two nature trails have been developed in the reserve. They are interesting not only for their picturesque nature — along the entire route alternate with signs for the continuation of the forest route and equipped places for recreation, informative stands with images and information about many species of plants, animals and insects that are found in the reserve.
Ecological trails are part of several tourist routes along Schuchin’s land, but the most frequent guests here are young residents of the agricultural town of Pervomaisk. Perhaps every student at the local school is familiar with its paths, and more recently, one of the school’s classrooms has become transformed into the ecological center of the reserve.
Until the end of the year, we will not only talk about the natural wealth of the region, which has become a small homeland for the boys and girls here, not only with the help of various schemes, tables and pictures. In the framework of the program for the development of environmental areas for 2016 — 2020, an information kiosk will appear in the arsenal of the environmental center. This, in fact, is a large television, thanks to which the story about Kotranska Forest will be informative and fascinating, adds the reserve director.
“Flying Dutchman” and “Predatory” Plant
On the territory of the sanctuary, slender forests of mainly mixed type are reflected in the water surface of two lakes — Kraskovo and Chernoe. The approach to both is swampy. To see the forest mirror Kraskovo, more than a dozen meters we go along a special wooden flooring. Even in the hottest weather, residents of nearby villages are not in a hurry here to swim, but real connoisseurs of «unrestored» natural landscapes should definitely visit. Cranberry spots are on either side of the man-made wooden path. To treat yourself to an autumn natural storehouse of vitamin C, just reach out. A sundew feels comfortable around the lake — the only carnivorous plant in Belarus, and right behind the wall of reeds the lake is adorned like leaves of water lilies copying each other.
— This lake was chosen by the snakes, and on warm summer days, here and there you can see sticks sticking out of the water — their heads. Apparently, fearing for future offspring, almost no birds nest near the lake. Even in summer, sometimes there is almost “transparent” silence, which only the wind breaks, says Tadeusz Lutkevich.
This lake is also interesting because it periodically wanders through it own “flying Dutchman”.
A drifting islet is nothing more than a raft floating off the coast — a carpet of water and marsh plants.
MOTOR, MOTORKA AND ORCHID
In places, almost parallel to the forest path that leads to Lake Kraskovo, another waterway arches among the pines — the rivulet Motorka. The measured pace of forest life as if copies its water surface: not even a subtle current can be seen here. Today it’s hard to believe that in the recent past this river filled the lake with the same name with a mirror of 120 hectares.
As the director of the Kotra reserve said, in the 60s of the last century, reclamation work was carried out on this territory. They touched the lake. The houses of the existing Romanovo village today stood on the very shore of this lake. Today, there are practically no indigenous people left here, but the director of the reserve remembers the old-timers’ stories about how they came to fish to Lake Motor even from the village of Ozera, which is not too short and generous for similar goods: they used to take the catch in bags.
Today it seems that on the site of the former lake there is a spacious plain. But the impression is deceptive — this is the only Belarusian-Lithuanian swamp of Motor of its kind. Two thirds of it are located on the territory of Belarus, and one third is part of the Lithuanian territory.
— When you walk here, you feel the so-called trampoline effect, characteristic of lowland marshes. There is water under a dense one and a half meter earthen pillow, and being here without an experienced escort is very risky, says Oleg Sozinov.
This swamp is unique not only because of the history of its origin and the peculiar geographical cross-border. You can see here, for example, an orchid that grows in Belarus in natural conditions. Motor is the place of growth of rare for our country orchid Losenel moose elk, which is listed in the Red Book.
If we return to the topic of territorial division, it is interesting that the story with the swamp already mentioned in this regard is “duplicated” in the village of Romanovo, which is next to it. One of the houses that was built by local residents more than half a century ago is located on the territory of Lithuania and is separated from its Belarusian neighbors by the state border.
Sisters of Khatyn
It is obvious even to non-experts that the Kotra River gave the name to the sanctuary. In its mainstream, it practically draws the border between the two states along the entire conservation area and in only a few places allows guests from the Belarusian side to its other shore. One of these is a place of eternal memory and sorrow — the former village of Ogorodishche. Today, the obelisk monument resembles the tragic fate of its inhabitants during the Great Patriotic War, to which every year on 26th of February students of the Pervomaiskaya school and border guards hurry with flowers. It was on this winter day of 1943 that the village shared the fate of the Belarusian Khatyn. 28 houses and 147 residents were burned here. In the postwar years, the garden did not rebuild.
Not far from the monument, several moss-covered foundations of former houses are still preserved. Very clearly one of them shows the steps of the porch that led to someone’s hut, someone’s life full of peaceful worries … Today, branchy aspens stretch to the sky inside the perimeter of the house, and nearby people remind of life here before the war fruit trees.
— In early September, a capsule with earth from the burnt village of Ogorodishche went to Minsk. It will be stored in the Temple Monument in honor of All Saints and will become another symbol that will remind guests and residents of the capital about the tragedy of the Belarusian people, says Tadeusz Lutkevich.
On the map of the sanctuary there is another point that recalls the events of the Great Patriotic War. In 2011 a stone monument was erected by the reserve on the site of the death of three unknown partisans from the detachment of Major General P.P. Kapusta. In the post-war period, their remains were reburied in the square of the agricultural town of Pervomaisk.
Another moment reminds of the military past of Kotran Forest. In many areas you can find an embankment from a narrow gauge railway. During the First World War, the Germans established transport links for the export of wood. Stretched more than 30 kilometers of narrow gauge railway. In the 60s of the last century, the road was dismantled, and in some areas a flat bulk strip was even adapted for a forest road.
By Ekaterina MOTEVICH
Фото were taken by Jan KHVEDCHIN and from open sources