European Russia’s natural vegetation falls into several east-west bands. Northernmost is the tundra, which covers the northern 150km or so of mainland and southern Novaya Zemlya. ( Northern Novaya Zemlya and Zemlya Frantsa-losifa Islands are mostly icecovered.) Delicate lichens, mosses, grasses, flowers and a few low shrubs and trees grow in the tundra on the permafrost, a frozen bog hundreds of metres deep. Seals, walruses and polar bears live on or near the coasts; lemmings, polar foxes, wolves and (sometimes domesticated) reindeer live inland.
Next is the taiga, the northern pine, fir, spruce and larch forest, that stretches from the Arctic Circle to the latitudes of St Petersburg and Yaroslavl. The vast stretches of forest and tundra across the country serve as a major carbon sink, which helps to minimise the release of carbon compounds that contribute to global warming. It is estimated that the taiga removes 500 million tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere each year. These huge forests shelter elk, some reindeer, wolves, brown bears (also native to the mixed forest farther south), beavers, lynx, foxes and many smaller furry animals.
Farther south, stretching in the west from around St Petersburg almost to Ukraine, is a band of mixed forest roughly 500km wide, in which broad-leaved species (predominantly birch) steadily replace conifers as you move south. Deer, wolves, lynx and foxes are among its fauna. Moscow lies in this belt.
From the latitudes of Voronezh and Saratov down into the Kuban area north of the Caucasus stretches the steppe (from stepi, meaning plain), the flat or gently rolling band of low grassland, mostly treeless except along river banks, which runs intermittently all the way from Mongolia to Hungary. Since much of the steppe is on humus-rich chernozyom (black earth), superb for grain growing, most of it is cultivated and no longer in its natural state. Fauna of the steppe are mostly small, but herds of the small saygak (a type of antelope), an ancient animal that once grazed all the way from Britain to Alaska, still roam the more arid steppe regions around the northern Caspian Sea. These areas are being desertified because of the huge herds of sheep grazed on them.
The delta through which the Volga River enters the Caspian is, in contrast to the surrounding area, very rich in flora and fauna. Huge carpets of the pink or white Caspian lotus flower spread across the waters in summer, many millions of birds of over 200 species frequent the delta, and wild boar and 30 other mammal species roam the land.
The steppe gives way to alpine regions in the Caucasus, a botanist’s wonderland with 6000 highly varied plant species and glorious wild flowers in summer. Among the animals of the Caucasus are the tur (a mountain goat), the bezoar (wild goat), endangered mouflon (mountain sheep), chamois (an antelope), brown bear and reintroduced European bison. The lammergeier (bearded vulture), endangered griffon vulture, imperial eagle, peregrine falcon, goshawk and snowcock are among the Caucasus’ most spectacular birds. Both types of vulture will occasionally attack a live tur.
Many of the former USSR’s 160 state nature reserves, ranging in size up to several thousand square kilometres, are in European Russia. These are areas set aside to protect fauna and flora, often habitats of endangered or unique species, where controls are very strict. There’s also a class of zakazniki, areas where protection is limited to specific species or seasons.
These reserves were once the pride of the Soviet government, and were – by Russian standards – lavished with resources. Scientists had ample funding to study the biological diversity of the reserves and conservation laws were strictly enforced.
But, as with reserves in developing countries, the entire network is in danger of collapse due to a shortage of funds. The remaining conservation officers and scientists often grow their own food so they can eat. Some reserves are open to visitors; and unlike in the old days, when your ramblings were strictly controlled, today you can often hire the staff to show you around.