Estonia has an area of 45,215 km², i.e. almost as large as Denmark and the Netherlands have. However, only 1.4 million people live in Estonia which is three times less than in Denmark and ten times less than in the Netherlands. Small population density has enabled to preserve the natural environment better than in densely populated West European areas. Forests and mires make up more than half of the territory of Estonia.
The national plant symbol is the cornflower, with the blue flowers of which the fields of Estonia have been embellished through centuries. Due to the modern tillage methods the cornflower has become a rare species by now.
The national bird symbol is the swallow. This stunning bird has always nested near human settlements cheering up the farmers during their everyday work with its optimistic twitter.
The outcrops of limestone, the national stone symbol of the Estonians, can be found in North and West Estonia. While many farmers have faced difficulties because of the limestone, the Estonian architecture has gained a lot from this outstanding building material.
The oak tree has been unofficially recognized as a national symbol tree of Estonia. Here it grows on the northern edge of its natural range. Estonians have valued the tree both for its practical use and sacredness. In the past, this kind of value conflict contributed to sustainable use of natural resources.
NATURE AND HUMANS
The Estonians are one of the oldest nations in Europe who have had permanent settlement in one particular region. The ancestors of present Estonians arrived here about 5,000 years ago. Only about a hundred years ago the Estonians were mostly peasants, depending largely in their subsistence on the ability to co-exist with nature. This is also reflected in Estonian folklore. The indigenous natural religion endured for quite a long time alongside with Christianity. According to ancient beliefs some old trees, rocks, springs and tree groves were regarded as sacred. Diseases were cured mainly with natural products. The Estonians have preserved some traits of this kind of thinking up to the present urbanized period.
Drastic political transformations of the last century have had severe impact on the landscapes of Estonia. Estonia gained independence once, then lost it again for fifty years, and regained it once more. After the Second World War a number of villages were wiped off from the maps, many coastal areas, forests and wetlands became closed border zones and were left almost intact for fifty years.
According to general view the landscapes of Estonia may be divided into three major types:
Lowlands of West Estonia have flat relief and relative heights usually not exceeding 30 metres. Higher plains or plateaus are found in North Estonia, Central Estonia and around Tartu. These areas are characterized by flat or slightly undulating surface topography. The higher grounds alternate with deep valleys, the largest of which is the primeval valley of the Emajõgi River. Limestone outcrops can be seen on the lower reaches of the rivers flowing into the Gulf of Finland and the sandstone outcrops on the mid-reaches of the rivers of South Estonia.
The upland areas of Pandivere, Sakala, Vooremaa, Otepää, Karula and Haanja are the most high-lying regions with varying relief. There are few extensive peatlands but plenty of lakes. For instance there are 130 lakes in the Otepää Upland and 170 lakes in the Haanja Upland. The upland climate differs somewhat from that of the surrounding areas. The most remarkable climate feature is the long duration of snow cover. The Southeast Estonian upland areas have historically been covered with arable land. During the last fifty years the fields have become more and more overgrown with shrub and wood.
Estonia has a long and curvy coastline of approximately 3,800 km. More than 2,500 km of it is made up of the shoreline of about 1,500 islands and islets. The real treasure of North Estonia is the limestone cliff. West Estonian coasts are very diverse.
FORESTS AND MIRES
In temperate zone climate forests are natural ecological communities of succession. Without human interference, forests with plots of mires in between them would dominate the landscape. Present Estonian landscapes have evolved as a result of the competition between different communities. During the last two millennia also humans have considerably shaped the landscape.
About half of the territory of Estonia is covered with forests and one fifth with mires. In comparison with other European countries the nature of Estonia can be regarded as rather pristineMany of Estonian mires have formed as a result of weed infestation of lakes. Attempts to drain the land have not been successful and activities of that kind were halted in 1970s.
RIVERS AND LAKES
The natural river system can be regarded as one of the most important values of Estonian nature. Above all, this involves riverine and riparian habitats. There are about 1,500 lakes of considerable size in Estonia. In addition, thousands of smaller ponds and bog pools can be counted. The area covered by lakes in Estonia occupies over 2,000 km², two thirds of which is (made up of) Lake Peipsi – the fifth biggest lake in Europe.