I’m back in Tartu after a two-and-a-half day, 2,500 km long road journey in my Estonian friends’ van. We travelled through nine countries – the UK (area 244,820 km2; population 63,742,977), France (area 640,679 km2, population 66,616,416), Belgium (area 30,528 km2, population 11,198,638), The Netherlands (area 41,543 km2, population 16,856,620), Germany (area 357,168 km2, population 80,716,000), Poland (area 312,679 km2, population 38,483,957), Lithuania (area 65,300 km2, population 2,944,459), Latvia (area 64,589 km2, population 1,994,300) and Eesti (area 45,227 km2, population 1,315,819).
I was disappointed not to see the White Cliffs of Dover (our ferry to France departed at 23.45) recede as we crossed the English Channel but it’s not as if I will never go back. The channel separates southern England from northern France and joins the North Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. The French call it La Manche –“the sleeve.”
Historically, it’s also been known as the “British Sea” because the second century Greek-Egyptian mapmaker Ptolemy called it the Oceanus Britannicus. This name is used on an Italian map of about 1450, which also gives the name canalites Anglie—possibly the first recorded use of “English Channel.” Ptolemy (c. 100— c. 170 AD) was a geographer, astronomer and mathematician. His most important innovation was to record longitudes and latitudes in degrees for roughly 8,000 locations on his world map, giving a good idea of the world as known in the Roman Empire at its height—a world that extended from the Shetland Islands (UK) in the north to the sources of the Nile (Egypt) in the south, from the Canary Islands (Spain) in the west to China and Southeast Asia in the east. Estonia is not on it but, doing the Eesti-Egypt return flight each year, Egypt would have been known to our storks. Maybe one (whilst pecking around for a grub) even spotted Ptolemy scribbling away in Alexandria.
Our first stop was near Dortmund with kind hostess Estonian table tennis champion Evi Ilves. Between 1971-1996 Evi won 38 medals: 13 gold (3 singles), 13 silver (3 singles) and 12 bronze (5 singles). She later played in Sweden and Germany where she met husband Gerd (our kind host). Our second stop was a refurbished Soviet era motorway hotel in Poland. I didn’t even get a name but, although the hotel could never be called pretty it was clean, cheap, comfortable, friendly and served a generous breakfast.
There is, even for me (used to UK roads) an astonishingly huge amount of traffic in Germany, even at night. The reason, of course, is Germany’s situation in the centre of Europe. The first motorway (autobahn) in the world was built between Cologne and Bonn in 1932 but much freight traffic has shifted from rail to road in the last decades. The roadside car parks (and there are many) are, however, still full of snoozing long-distance lorry drivers. Most passenger travellers use the train. German intercity buses became almost extinct when legislation was introduced in the 1980s to protect the national railway. The market was deregulated in 2012, but there are still only 150 intercity bus lines.
We crossed over the old east-west Europe divide at Helmstedt–Marienborn, marked by a sculpture of two interlocking hands symbolic of the reunification of Germany. Soon after my friends pointed out the many blinking red eyes of Helmstedt Power Station. The site has a long tradition of energy generation: lignite or brown coal (used for over a century) is an important fuel here and an additional plant using fuel waste was added in 1998. This waste incinerator is among the largest in Germany and supplies eight districts and over 100 000 households.
We crossed Poland by day, travelling under some impressive wildlife crossings in national parks and wildlife reserves. Wildlife crossings were first built in France during the 1950s but they now exist all over the world. There’s an elephant crossing in Kenya and a camel crossing in Kuwait. When toads refused to use a toad tunnel in California, USA, it was lit to encourage use. The heat of the tunnel lamps, however, killed many toads and those that made it through had to contend with smart birds who soon discovered a toad-producing hole in the ground! Preservationists are working on it. Other USA bridges serve Mountain Goats (Montana), Spotted Salamanders (Massachusetts), Bighorn Sheep (Colorado), Desert Tortoises (California) and Florida Panthers. There’s a bat bridge (a structure across a road to aid bat navigation following the destruction of a hedgerow) in the UK and a little squirrel bridge (suspended across a motorway) in Washington, USA. Koalas, wombats and kangaroos use the Australian versions. In Poland over 11 over and underpasses have been built since 1997 for elk, deer, wolves, boar, foxes, badgers, amphibians and reptiles. Where to put crossings was decided on the basis of field research (migration routes of mammals and breeding habits of amphibians) made by national park staff, private companies, and volunteers. Our first "ecoduct" is over the Tallinn-Tartu highway near Kose, about 30 km from Tallinn and more are being planned.
One study (Wildlife habitat connectivity across European highways, Bank et al. 2002) estimates that adding wildlife crossings to a road adds only a 7-8% increase to the cost of a project. Any monetary costs are trumped by the long term benefits of protecting wildlife, reducing damage to vehicles and saving human lives by reducing collisions with wildlife (and cats, says Jelli, who has never been anywhere near a motorway in her life unless you count the main road at Lilleküla Estate, Tallinn, where she was born).
Then home through the Baltic States with the traffic getting less and less … It pleases me to report on the wildlife tunnels and to end 2014 on a positive note. It has after all, been a pretty shitty year for Eastern Europe. Tail up and Happy Christmas from my Tartu home! Saba püsti ja häid Jõule minu kodunt Tartust!
Bird Droppings from Estonia: Ending 2014 on a positive note (1)