Estonia : Hiiumaa


Hiiumaa is the second largest island (1,019 in Estonia, separated from the mainland by a 22 km wide strait. It is located in the Baltic Sea, north of the island of Saaremaa, a part of the west Estonian archipelago (Moonsund archipelago). The island has a low elevation; its highest point being 68 m above sea level. The population is around 10,000 and the largest town Kardla has an airport with regular flights to the Estonian capital of Tallinn. However, most people come to Hiiumaa by ferries, either from Rohukula to Heltermaa or from Triigi in Saaremaa to Soru. In winter depending how severe the cold is outside it is possible to drive across an ice road to the mainland.

Beginning with Mesolithic settlements on the Kopu peninsula, man has changed the landscape of the island for over seven thousand years. In 1228 the island was first mentioned in written annals under the name Dageida, at the time when Hiiumaa, along with the rest of Estonia, had been conquered by Germanic crusaders. In 1254, Hiiumaa was divided between the Bishopric of Osel-Wiek and the Livonian branch of the Teutonic Order, who were also partly acting on behalf of the Hanseatic League. The island was part of Swedish Estonia from 1563-1710, after which it passed to the Russian Empire as part of the Governorate of Estonia. German military forces occupied Hiiumaa in 1917 but after the war, it became a part of the Republic of Estonia. It was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, by Nazi Germany in 1941, and by the Soviets again in 1944. It was then a part of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic until the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. Since then, it has been a part of independent Estonia.

The islanders have always been a seafaring and farming people. Besides these occupations, the people of Hiiumaa have been engaged in tar making, lime burning, salt working, shipbuilding, construction and carpentry. The last few centuries on the island have witnessed the existence of a glass foundry, a cloth factory and an artificial silk factory. After the World War II and during the Soviet occupation, the main industries were based on large scale agriculture and fishing. Most recent trends in Hiiumaa economy have been towards smaller farms and tourism, also small industry, such as plastics and medical instruments. The service sector is widening due to the development of tourism and a small number of IT based jobs have also been created.

Hiiumaa together with Saaremaa is a member of the Islands Commission of the Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions of Europe that represents 24 European regional island authorities. Hiiumaa is also a member of the B7 Baltic Islands Network and will chair this organisation in 2010. Hiiumaa together with 15 other Estonian islands are members of the Estonian Islands Council. On Saaremaa the former Institute for Islands Development is now the Kuressaare College of Tallinn University of Technology.

Renewable Energy & Eco Housing

Eesti Energia is the dominant player in the Estonian power sector as it has responsibilities for the bulk of the country’s power generating units and its distribution networks. Estonia has approximately 3.3 gigawatts (GW) of installed electric generating capacity, 99.7% of which comes from thermal power plants. The Estonian Power Station and Baltic Power Station, both fuelled by oil shale, together make up nearly 95% of Estonia’s electric production.

Estonia currently obtains less than 2% of its power from renewable sources, but under a deal with the EU the Baltic state will have to raise that percentage to 5.1% by 2010 as it moves itself away from oil shale fired electricity. The negative outcomes of current oil shale mining and major environmental impacts resulting from production practices of the country’s main electric power plants have long been recognised by the Estonian Fund for Nature. They have urged the state, power companies and local communities to find and invest into seeking alternative solutions like renewable energy. Eesti Energia responded by starting the Green Energy project.

Indeed, Estonia has become one of Europe’s hottest spots for looking to set up wind farms. Foreign investors and the government are pouring billions of kroons into developing the resource. The Estonian Development Fund announced in January 2009 that it would buy a 21% stake in wind turbine technology developer Goliath Wind to help spur on the company’s research goals. Goliath is working on developing a wind turbine generator that would reduce expenses by 15-20%, drastically improving the financial viability of wind farm projects.

Hiiumaa, with the recent establishment of a new grid connection to the mainland via Saaremaa, now has the required infrastructure for the exploitation of wind energy. In 1997 the Hiiumaa biosphere reserve centre got the first modern wind generator operational on the Tahkuna peninsula. Its average annual electricity production reached up to 300 MWh, which was about 1% of the island’s electricity consumption. In 2002 a report was published about wind energy utilization for Hiiumaa  and the island was also a partner in the ASPIRE project (Oct 2006 – March 2009) to develop a replicable model for creating ‘Sustainable Energy Communities’ in peripheral areas of the EU. 

The most high profile of the upcoming Estonian wind farm projects on the drawing board is for Hiiumaa where 4Energy is planning to erect around 200 turbines off the coast of the island making it one of the largest wind farms in Europe. The estimated total capacity and annual output would be 600-1000 MW but will depend on final selection and positioning of the turbines. The Canadian based Greta Energy through its subsidiary company AS Raunistal has also been looking into plans to build 250 onshore wind turbines with a power output of 500 MW. However, not everyone is happy about this Greta Energy project on Hiiumaa. At the beginning of 2009 residents of the island launched a campaign aimed at putting a stop to the development  Within a few months some 8,000 signatures had been collected and this protest petition handed to the governor of the island and the speaker of parliament. As a result the company has now put their whole project on hold and will more than likely place their planned investment in some other less controversial wind park project.

The primary worry raised by critics of the development was that it would have a detrimental effect on tourism and the surrounding wildlife. Residents also said they were suspicious of the motives of Greta Energy. The company’s president and director are both wealthy Russian businessmen who hold degrees from prominent Moscow universities. Many island residents were openly expressing concerns that the project was just another way for Russia to take advantage of the Baltic state. Yet another concern raised was its effect on Estonian military bases. Critics have said that the turbines could disrupt military radars and the Estonian Defence Ministry is drafting a set of laws that would require any wind farm to have its approval before getting the go-ahead.

Economic analysts have voiced their own concerns over Estonia’s increasing reliance on wind power. At the end of 2008, one senior researcher said that renewable energy sources will at least double the price of electricity and that would hit the agriculture industry the hardest. But all these concerns may be outweighed by Estonia’s need to balance its current account deficit. Statistics Estonia has reported that the amount of imported electricity has increased by a staggering 650% year-on-year – exports, meanwhile increased only 1.94% year-on-year. With an economy that is due to get worse before it gets better, Estonia may be faced with no choice but to increase energy production to at least help make a dent in the current account deficit.

As to other forms of renewable energy, the Estonian Private Forest Centre is together with the Tallinn Technical University partners in the Baltic Sea Region Bioenergy Promotion Project and have chosen Saaremaa as the pilot area for their activities. The main share of forestry land on Saaremaa (90%) belongs to private forest owners mostly on smaller properties and the majority of state forest is protected in one way or another. Small properties and nature protection make forestry actions, especially thinning and early managing activities, expensive and unattractive for forest owners. Bioenergy derived from forest residues and low-price wood could be an incentive for private forest owners to manage their forests. Using the biofuels locally in small boiler houses reduces the transport costs, allows smaller amounts to be chipped and revenues in terms of heat/electricity and working places will stay in the municipality.

Hiiumaa is also rich in biomass (60% of the island is covered by forests) with an active Association of Private Forest Owners who might see the advantages of establishing bioenergy-village management plans in the future. The southern part of the island is also considered as one of the sunniest places in Estonia so the solar energy potential is there for producing more domestic hot water for 5-6 months per year.

Waste Minimisation & Recycling

Veolia Environmental Services (formerly Cleanaway)  has the contract to handle all waste management for Hiiumaa. It works closely with the Estonian Recovery Organisation (ETO) and Estonian PackCycling (EPC). Residents pay for either a bag or container to dispose of household waste which is then removed free of charge. This domestic refuse and other separated rubbish deposited at the 18 ETO Green Point collection locations around the island is taken to a central depot in Kardla where it is further sorted into recyclable materials like cardboard, glass, paper and plastic. These are then crushed, baled or graded and together with all the remaining garbage transported off the island to be sold or undergo further processing by the same company before final disposal at their landfill site. Recovery of other items like scrap metals, wood, tyres, electrical and electronic equipment, and domestic hazardous waste are also undertaken at the Kardla depot before being sold or removed by specialist contractors.

Sustainable Tourism & Niche Marketing

Hiiumaa has taken full advantage of various EC programmes to significantly develop their green tourism industry. The Kopu peninsula LIFE-Nature project (2005-2007) helped to ensure the protection of several Natura 2000 conservation areas through public awareness actions, directing the visitor flow, management and restoration of different habitat types. The impressive new Ristna Nature Centre was built and is maintained by the State Forest Management Centre (RMK)  providing accommodation and a sauna for 20 people participating in field courses and other events. A series of nature study, hiking and bicycle trails, boat landing and camping sites, exhibitions including a novel display on marine litter have now provided the necessary recreational infrastructure for a part of the island that was already attracting a great number of visitors due to other sites of interest. These include the Kopu lighthouse with its pyramid-shaped base constructed in the early 1500’s and is believed to be the third oldest continuously working lighthouse in the world and the dramatically red Ristna lighthouse. Together with Tahkuna lighthouse they have formed a basis for an island tour and featured in a separate EC Interreg project on lighthouse tourism alongside those from the Finnish southwest archipelago and the “Baltic Lights” exhibition initiated by the Working Group for Coastal Culture and Maritime Heritage of Baltic Sea Heritage Co-operation. Not unsurprisingly the strategic border position of the Kopu peninsula means there are a considerable number of military installations from different eras to be seen ranging from coastal defence batteries, barracks, observation towers and concrete hangers. These are fascinating to many visitors and there is a Military Museum on the island and related online guide.

Under the Interreg BSR EAGLE project (2004-2007), Hiiumaa was one of 50 partners working to strengthen the provision of nature centres and a network of environmental educators/interpreters around the Baltic Sea. In addition to twinning and study tours, seminars and conferences, publications and developing future strategies, establishment of the Palade Nature Education Centre was probably the most important outcome for the island. Located in a dedicated classroom within an existing school and integrated with Palade library, the natural history and environmental literature of the former Hiiumaa centre of the West Estonian Archipelago Biosphere Reserve (see next section) has all been deposited here. The centre provides teaching and training activities for different interest groups and works in cooperation with the nearby Soera Farm Museum which is a popular tourism attraction in its own right as is the main Hiiumaa museum.

The Interreg Coastal Sustainability as a Challenge project (2005-2007) was established to increase communication between some 20 national parks or biosphere reserves which face the same kind of problems in the coastal areas around the Baltic Sea. The goal was to test different management models for sustainable use of protected areas and Hiiumaa concentrated on developing natural products (handicrafts and quality meat) and their marketing through the Hiiumaa Green Label system. This proved successful, more so with handicrafts than the meat that is still difficult to promote and sell in local shops, with around two dozen enterprises and individuals now certified under the scheme including Pihla Farm and the Vaemla wool factory.

The Hiiumaa Cooperation Network is the Local Action Group of the EU LEADER programme created in 2006 by 27 founder members of local municipalities, business sector and NGOs. It completed their first application round in April 2009 and awarded grants to 33 projects including several that are tourism related like the traditional Cafes Day in Kardla and Lastefestival.

The Estonian Rural Tourism organisation  was set up in 2000 and represents nearly 50% of countryside accommodation providers. There is also an Estonian Ecotourism Association established in 1996 that connects individuals, organisations and authorities responsible for green tourism development. It promotes different nature and cultural tours, labelled as “Estonia – the Natural Way” and runs a quality certification scheme.  Birdwatching holidays are especially popular offered by companies like Birding EstoniaEstonian Nature Tours and NaTourEst.    On Hiiumaa itself, Arhipelaag helps promote rural accommodation providers like Dagen Haus and Kauste puhkemajad. These local enterprises have renovated old barns, restored heritage-listed buildings and constructed new thatched roof holiday cottages all with the modern conveniences.

One of the great charms about Hiiumaa is a quirky sense of humour that underplays its natural strengths. Their official tourism catalogue is both amusing and informative pointing out Hiiu folk joke between themselves that the reason people come to their island is because there is nothing there – no big nightclubs, supermarkets or spas for hordes of tourists. On the one hand it is true, but on the other – Hiiumaa in summer is nothing less than a huge natural health centre and underscores the fact that it is still a relatively undiscovered green island and wishes to remain so.

Biodiversity & Protected Areas

Hiiumaa emerged from the sea about 8500 years ago. All over the island the limestone is covered by loose deposits from the last ice age and by marine sediments, beach ridges and dunes from the different phases of the Baltic Sea. Among the Estonian counties Hiiumaa is the richest in forest – nearly 60% of the island is wooded. There are several large marshes in the middle of the island that cover about 7% with cultivated land and settlements taking about 23% of the area of the island. Hiiumaa is situated in a region where there is a transition from temperate needle-leaf to broad-leaf forests. Thus, in the landscapes there can be found pine forests, mixed spruce and deciduous forests, swampy thickets and juniper shrubs, coastal meadows and bogs. The most frequent tree is pine making up about a half of forests that is followed by birch, spruce and alder.

Biodiversity is one of Hiiumaa’s greatest assets. About a thousand species of vascular plant grow on the island, of which about 100 are under protection. Seven invertebrate species and five amphibians on the EU and national protection lists have been found. Current data indicates 260 bird species observed and 195 as breeding with the white-tailed eagle being particularly noteworthy. Some 36 species of mammal occur in Hiiumaa including small populations of lynx, wolf, otter and beaver. The native European mink was close to extinction but in 2000 a number of captive-bred animals from Tallinn Zoo were reintroduced and appear to be doing well. Also, herds of grey seal and ringed seal gather in the coastal waters, a sight rarely seen anywhere in the Baltic Sea.

In 2009 the former Hiiumaa Protected Areas Administration became part of a new Environment Agency that is a governmental institution under the Ministry of Environment. At the time of writing, it is not clear whether the boundaries, protection zones and rules of the 4 nature reserves and 11 landscape reserves adopted in 1994 under the Act of Protected Natural Objects remain the same following this government reorganisation. There are also at least 40 other individually designated landscape features, ancient trees and erratic boulders throughout the island. In addition, there are 5 interpretation walks, 2 interpretation sites, 5 interpretation/tramping tracks and 3 tramping trails that are all well maintained around the island.

The nature reserves of Tahkuna (1,663 ha), Leigri (200 ha), Pihla-kaibaldi (3,135 ha) and Rattagu (86 ha) are strictly protected areas with a scientific value due to their varied natural habitats and associated rare, or endangered species. The largest landscape reserve is Kopu peninsula where conservation areas cover 3,531 ha and a management plan was drawn up under the LIFE-Nature project. The next two biggest landscape reserves were inscribed together as a Ramsar wetland site in 1997. They are the Hiiumaa Islets (2,663 ha)   comprising most islands in the south-eastern corner of Hiiumaa together with the Salinomme peninsula that used to be an island until the 19th century. Further west along the same coast is Kaina Bay-Kassari Island (2,572 ha) with the former being more of a shore lake than an ordinary bay having an average depth of only 0.5m connected with the sea through three channels where water regulators were constructed in 1998. The circulation of the water has caused therapeutic mud to be deposited in the southern part of the bay that has long been used to relieve neuralgic pain. There are 23 islands in the bay surrounded by reed beds which together with extensive saline coastal meadows lying on the northern shore, forest and juniper shrub land provide a haven for breeding and migratory bird species. Despite being closed off, Kaina Bay is characterised by the relatively large number of highly productive fish species.

The West Estonian Archipelago Biosphere Reserve was set up from the 1st January 1990 with a total area of 1,560,078 ha and belongs biogeographically to the palearctic boreonemoral province, representing its coastal and insular environments. The bigger islands are Saaremaa, Hiiumaa, Muhu and Vormsi. Besides these islands, there are some hundreds of smaller islets. The UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Programme (MAB) proposes an interdisciplinary research agenda and capacity building aiming to improve the relationship of people with their environment globally. Launched in the early 1970s, it notably targets the ecological, social and economic dimensions of biodiversity loss and the reduction of this loss. It uses its world network of biosphere reserves as vehicles for knowledge sharing, research and monitoring, education and training, and participatory decision-making. This work is co-ordinated by local centres together with governmental and municipal organisations.

Between 1990-2002 local centres existed on three Estonian islands and the one for Hiiumaa in particular carried out a remarkable amount of work upon sustainable development projects, environmental education, publishing and research. However, coordination amongst the centres turned out to be insufficient and a clear strategy for the entire biosphere reserve was missing. In 2002 the Ministry of Environment decided to dissolve the local centres and to transfer biosphere reserve management to one NGO foundation. This decentralisation proved to be entirely counterproductive as without sufficient governmental funding, supervision and scientific support, any form of holistic management for the biosphere reserve quickly dissipated. It is also meant that most of the valuable and time-consuming ‘bottom up’ community and integrated development work undertaken by the local centre on Hiiumaa over a decade was lost and could not be advantageously built upon.

Ruuben Post, the much respected and now sadly deceased former managing director of the Hiiumaa biosphere reserve centre, wrote an insightful article in 2003 entitled ‘Hidden from God and Strangers’.  Also recommended is the book ‘Kohtumispaik’ (Meeting) edited by his colleague Toomas Kokovkin who now manages Arhipelaag (see next section). This publication summarizes the Hiiumaa experience gained from the West Estonia Archipelago Biosphere Reserve 1990-2003 and provides an overview about others from around Europe.

Integrated Development Planning

Arhipelaag is a non-profit research and development organisation whose purpose is to foster a sustainable way of life on the coast and islands. Since it was founded in 1997, Arhipelaag has been involved in an area that touches the boundaries of nature conservation, culture and rural economy. It believes that a clean environment is an inseparable part of life quality: that man can attain a balanced relationship with nature; that a high quality local product is superior to nameless mass production; and that the coast is our common treasure.

In its work Arhipelaag is guided by the principles of UNESCO MAB and the most important joint research programme they participated in was the Vainameri project linking rural life and coastal nature. The direct translation of Vainameri is “the sea of straits”, a semi-enclosed coastal area of about 2000 sq km surrounded by the Estonian mainland and the islands of Saaremaa, Hiiumaa, Vormsi and Muhu. For a summary description and to download the full project and technical reports as well as access to other publications, photos and films visit these webpages. Scottish Natural Heritage also chose Vainameri as one of their case studies to help inform their thinking on coastal and marine national parks. 

The Vainameri project now counts more than 2,000 beef cattle and 20,000 hectares of semi-natural grassland and Arhipelaag continues to promote this naturally grazed meat. It offered a nature-friendly cookery masterclass with one of the country’s top chefs at the Black Nights Film Festival held at Kardla in December 2008. In July 2009 they organised the Good Energy Festival where an extravaganza of local food, music and theatre was available within and around the old power plant in Kardla.

Other major programmes Arhipelaag have had a direct involvement with are EQUAL for applying models of telework and flexible work arrangements on the islands and peripheral coastal areas of Estonia and CoastLearn which was a multimedia training package on Integrated Coastal Zone Management.


Lia Rosenberg and Toomas Kokovkin, Arhipelaag
Reet Kokovkin, Executive Manager, LEADER programme
Aivo Kriiska, Executive Manager, AS Cleanaway
Aira Toss, Chairperson Hiiumaa Private Forest Society
Tuuli Tammla, former Project Manager, Kopu LIFE-nature project
Riina Lillemae, Environment Agency
Tonu Kaptein, farmer in Vainameri project