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West Estonian Archipelago

The West Estonian Archipelago is a group of islands located in the eastern part of the Baltic Sea. Its area is 3933 km2, with a population of about 46000. The archipelago is separated from mainland Estonia by the Sea of Muhu and from the Courland Peninsula in Latvia by the Gulf of Riga.

The largest islands in the archipelago are Saaremaa, Hiiumaa, Muhu, and Vormsi.


The history of human settlement in the archipelago dates back thousands of years. The earliest mentions of the inhabitants of the region date back to the Roman era. Throughout history, the West Estonian archipelago has experienced close interaction with neighboring cultures and powers. Primarily originating from Scandinavia, the Vikings embarked on sea voyages, leaving their mark on local communities. With the expansion of trade routes and maritime activities, the archipelago became a significant crossroads for regional trade.

The West Estonian islands' distinctive and strong identity has developed due to a combination of insularity isolation and various cultural connections. Island residents take pride in local dialects, which helps them differentiate from their neighbors and fosters a strong sense of community even beyond the region. The development and deepening of the islands' folk culture, including the unique characteristics of traditional costumes, influenced by the insular location, differences in natural conditions, and resulting diverse economic activities. Strong Scandinavian influences, especially from Sweds who settled in coastal areas, have left their mark on the islands' traditional costumes and dialects. The majority of coastal Swedes lived on the islands of Vormsi and Ruhnu. Estonian Swedes are an indigenous minority in Estonia who have maintained their cultural identity.



Slightly over half (52%) of the terrestrial area within the biosphere reserve is covered by forests. Forests are crucial carriers of diverse and region-specific biodiversity and serve as regulators of climate change. Only a very small portion of the biosphere reserve's forests are non-managed natural forests. Such forests are found within the stricter protection zones of protected areas. Most of the biosphere reserve's forested land is subject to conventional forest management practices, often involving clear-cutting, which is not sustainable from the perspective of nature conservation and the quality of human living environments, often leading to conflicts with local residents. Sustainable forestry development has been set as a significant goal for land use within the biosphere reserve.

Image by Maksim Shutov

Cultural Landscapes

The archipelago's topography has been shaped by glacial and post-glacial geomorphological processes on Ordovician and Silurian limestone bedrock. Under natural conditions, the dominant natural composition in the West Estonian Archipelago would include spruce forests, pine forests, mixed forests, heathlands, coastal meadows, and wetlands including bogs. Due to agricultural and forestry practices over the past millennia, the vegetation has changed with relatively few of its original natural types remaining. Alongside cultivated fields, extensive areas were used as natural hayfields and pastures, giving rise to semi-natural habitats known as cultural landscapes - such as wooded meadows, coastal meadows, grasslands, and grazed wooded pastures. These cultural landscapes, also known as semi-natural habitats, are essential for preserving the biodiversity of the West Estonian Archipelago. According to environmental registry data, the Biosphere Reserve has nearly 31,000 hectares of cultural landscapes. The appearance and values of these landscapes have developed and been preserved through long-term sustainable and nature-friendly management.

The local national park, Vilsandi National Park, is in the oldest protected area in the Baltic states. 

Estonia hosts 38 flowering orchid species, with 36 of them found on Saaremaa.


Coastal Sea and Small Islands

The archipelago's coastal areas and the small islands are valuable for their role in preserving biodiversity. Significant habitat types found here include submerged sandy flats, rocky shores, coastal cliffs, wide shallow bays, inlets, and reefs. The Väinameri is one of the most important support areas for Estonia's declining population of grey seals. Estonia is situated along an important branch of the East Atlantic Flyway, and our maritime area holds significant value as a stopover site for migratory waterbirds. Thousands of waterbirds stop in these waters, with their numbers exceeding the numerical thresholds of internationally important bird areas.

According to the Estonian Ornithological Society (EOS), establishing marine protected areas is one of the important goals in the near future to halt and reverse the decline in marine biodiversity. The European Union's Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 supports increasing protected marine areas to at least 30 percent. The region's fish stocks, and their reproductive capacity are most threatened by overfishing, marine pollution, loss of spawning areas, and climate change.


The islands boost a dynamic and varied economy that draws strength from a fusion of historical sectors like agriculture, fishing, and food processing, as well as contemporary industries like digital technology, and advanced manufacturing. This diverse economic landscape is a reflection of the island's ability to balance its rich heritage with the demands of the modern world.

Moreover, the islands economy has also experienced an infusion of vitality from the tourism sector. With its breathtaking natural beauty, unique cultural heritage, and inviting atmosphere, the islands have emerged as sought-after destinations for travelers seeking an authentic and enriching experience.


Saare County: Saaremaa, Muhu, and Ruhnu Parish

As of December 31, 2021, there are 29,557 people living in Saaremaa Parish, 1,646 people in Muhu Parish, and 89 people in Ruhnu Parish. The economic life of Saare County is characterized by diversity, as no single sector dominates. The islands have a dynamic and diverse economy, drawing strength from venerable sectors such as agriculture, fishing, and food processing, alongside modern industries. Sectors with significant export volumes include food and beverage manufacturing, metal products and transportation equipment manufacturing, computer and electronics manufacturing, as well as chemical, rubber, plastic product, and mineral manufacturing. The tourism sector is also of significant importance. The region's only institution of higher education, Taltech Kuressaare College, is located on Saaremaa.


Lääne County: Vormsi Parish

As of December 31, 2021, there are 301 people living in Vormsi Parish. The dominant economic activities are tourism, excessive logging of forests, and agriculture (mainly livestock farming). Farming and fishing are mainly carried out for personal consumption. Solutions for service development are seen in the advancement of information technology services, as well as the promotion of tourism.

Hiiu County: Hiiumaa Parish

As of December 31, 2021, there are 8,497 people living in Hiiumaa Parish. The driving force behind Hiiumaa's economy is manufacturing, primarily plastic and electronics industries, as well as forestry. The agricultural sector is experiencing a growing trend. In addition to these sectors, the tourism industry is also significant for the islands. Hiiumaa is one of the Estonian counties most dependent on seasonality.

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