Lithuania’s nature is as beautiful as it is diverse. The country’s national parks reflect the landscape and culture of its large geographical areas. The thirty regional parks protect and represent the most valuable ecosystems and cultural treasures of different regions from natural, ethno cultural, recreational and aesthetic points of view. The wide variety of wildlife in the parks includes the protected species of animals listed in THE RED DATA BOOK (Lithuania’s endangered species list), and rare plants.
Research programmes are being carried out in the parks’ sanctuaries and reserves. Large areas have been designated as recreational sites.
Rash urban development in the second half of this century has reached even the remotest parts of the country. Therefore, the areas of unspoilt nature conserved in the parks serve as an excellent example of the efforts of conservationists and environmentalists. But it is the foresters and rangers who have shouldered the responsibility for looking after the natural treasures in the parks.
Reserves cover approx 12% of the country’s territory. Reserves are protected areas of ecological reservation priority and protected areas of restorative protection, which are aimed at the restoration, multiplication and protection of natural resources. In four reserves – Cepkeliai, Kamanos, Viesvile and Zuvintas – 35 wild animal, 200 bird, 11-20 fish and 600-800 flora species are under protection. A special permit is required to enter these reserves.
2.1. Aukstaitija National Park
Lithuania’s first national park – Aukstaitija National Park – was designated in 1974 and covers an area of 40570 hectares in the regions of Ignalina, Utena and Svencionys. Over 70 per cent of its territory is pine stands, including the ancient woods of Azvinciai, Mincia and Linkmenos. Some of the pine trees in Azvinciai wood are over 200 years old and the oaks of Trainiskis, Kaltanenai and Varniskiai are the remains of the ancient oak-tree forests that once covered large territories here. The park represents a picturesque forested and hilly terrain abounding in lakes and having ethnographic villages; it contains quite a lot of other cultural monuments.
Scattered among the woods and hills are some 100 smaller and larger lakes, often interconnected by rivulets and streams. The largest of them is Lake Dringis (721 ha). Lake Tauragnas, the deepest in Lithuania (60.5 m deep) is also here. The Baluosas features seven islands, one of which has a little lake of its own, feeding the Baluosas waters through a small stream.
Of some thirty rivers on the territory of the park, Zeimena is the most beautiful, although the smaller ones – Kriauna, Lukna, Buka, Sventele, Stregzda – are no less attractive to tourists, linguists and ethnographers alike.
The woods, marshes and meadows of Aukstaitija National Park abound in rare plant species, including a number of plants that are listed in the Red Data Book of Lithuania and are protected as endangered species. The woods of the park are the domain of elk, deer and wild boar. The lakes and rivers, too, are rich in wildlife, from Canadian mink to a variety of birds that can bring quite a few exciting moments to a devoted birdwatcher.
The park’s territory embraces some 80 settlements and villages, some of which have retained not only their old original layout but also archaic wooden farm buildings and other structures. Paluse village, which is the tourist centre of the Aukstaitija National Park, was first mentioned in written sources in 1651. It still boasts an octagonal wooden church dating back to 1757. Paluse is the starting point of most of the tourist routes, both shorter and longer walks and a rowing-boat route along a system of lakes and streams connecting them.
2.2. Dzukija National Park
Dzukija National Park was designated in 1991 in the region of Varena. Its aim is to protect the landscape, the old villages, historical and cultural monuments, and forests of southeastern Lithuania. The park’s territory is 55 thousand hectares, 85 per cent of which is covered by woods. The pine stands make up 90% of the forestland. The park contains 12 historical, 25 archaeological, 10 architectural and 35 art monuments.
Among the historical attractions of Dzukija National Park, the ancient town of Merkine and the village of Liskiava are of greatest interest. Merkine dates back to the 14th century and is situated at the confluence of the Nemunas and Merkys rivers. Merkine castle hill, which gave the rise to the town, offers an unforgettable view of the Nemunas valley and surrounding woodland.
Liskiava, which can be easily reached by boat or by bus from Druskininkai, is a settlement on the bank of the Nemunas, surrounded by numerous legends and folk tales. Most of them are connected with the Liskiava castle hill, on top of which one can still see remnants of the 14-century castle.
Besides Liskiava, there are a number of other old villages – some dating back to the 16th century – that have retained the traditional layout of forest villages and architecture of buildings. The inhabitants of many of them still excel in the traditional folk crafts: weaving, woodcarving and pottery.
Pinewoods, which dominate in the Dzukija National Park, abound in mushrooms and berries and have since long ago, had been a source of extra income for the local people. Among the
mushrooms most sought after are edible boletus and chantarelle. The latter are gathered in large quantities and even exported abroad. Wild strawberries, cranberries, raspberries, and red bilberries are the most widely spread kind of berries found on the territory of the park.