In Europe’s far east, an ancient forest survives

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Snow drapes the reserve in Bialowieza Forest. (All photos by Sue Landau)

By Sue Landau

To reach Europe’s last lowland wilderness, go east. Bialowieza Forest, about 250 km east of Warsaw, is all that remains of the mixed deciduous and coniferous woodland that once covered the continent’s plains.

The forest has been in the news of late because of a clash between Poland and the European Union over logging quotas — even though it is a protected area, some logging is allowed. It is a complex dispute that pits conservationists against a forestry lobby.

Bialowieza (pronounced “Biaowveyja”) Forest survived the mass clearings that ravaged European forests after the Middle Ages only because Poland’s kings, then Russia’s Tsars reserved it as their royal hunting ground.

So it had little exposure to intensive human land-use until German occupation in World War One, when commercial forestry was introduced and its bison were hunted to extinction.

After the war, a sixth of the forest in Poland — some 100 square kilometers — was set aside as a national park with a core reserve. Following both wars, logging and hunting restrictions were introduced for forest zones outside the park.

To grasp how little ancient woodland remains in Europe, compare this forest, spanning 1,500 sq km across the Poland-Belarus border, with the Pacific Coast Forest that covers 60,400 sq km from Alaska to Northern California.

Bialowieza Forest is prized for its aged trees and variety of tree species. It is home to wolves, deer, elk and lynx, which mostly make themselves scarce — there are only five or six lynx in the Polish forest. Bison were re-introduced after the wars.

But for biologists, the critical biodiversity is the abundance of fungi and insects, which live with the trees in a balance between symbiosis and predatory attack. The insects support a unique variety of birds.

To keep it pristine, the national park can only be visited on small, organized excursions with a forest guide. I was there on a short private trip in mid-January. I discovered a magical world where different methods — forestry or conservation — yield very different results.

With thanks to forest guide Andrzej Petryna, Bogdan Jaroszewicz of the University of Warsaw’s Bialowieza Botanical Station and Eva Kaluzynska, who organized the trip.

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Trees grow irregularly in the untamed reserve, making curious sculptures in the winter landscape. Eight tree species co-exist in the national park, but whereas spruce was dominant in 1936, by 2012 it was down just to a fifth. Deciduous hornbeam and linden (lime) now dominate there.

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One of the remaining wild herds of European bison roams free here. They can be spotted grazing in meadows bordering the forest.

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Here, several bison forage at dusk around a silo where hay has been left for the thin winter months.

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The forest is remarkable for housing all European species of woodpecker, many of which winter in warmer climes. They leave evidence of their presence in stripped bark and the holes they drilled to reach beetles living under it.

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Bracket fungus, or polypore, decorates the bark of many trees in the reserve. It is at the bottom of the food chain of life nourished by decomposing wood.

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Insects have gouged out this dead trunk. Dead wood is a key feature of the natural forest, indirectly supporting more than half the species in Bialowieza.

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A fallen tree is left in situ in the natural forest for fungi and insects to break down into humus. In managed forests, dead trees are often cut down and removed.

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Another feature of a natural forest is a nursery of saplings under the mature trees.

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In the managed forest, spruce and pine are twice as numerous as in the national park. There are also tens of thousands of old oaks over 40 meters high. Spruce is vulnerable to a bark beetle that attacks every decade, and a quarter of the managed forest’s spruce perished in the last outbreak in 2016.

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A track alongside one of the managed forests near Bialowieza. “Harvesting” wood involves using heavy machinery that gouges out the soil, but in winter this damage is covered by snow. Entry to tracks leading to logging sites is barred.

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The managed forests around Bialowieza lost Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) certification in 2008. Last year, the FSC said it was watching the dispute between Poland and the EU closely. Meanwhile, wood from these forests should not be sold as FSC certified.

For further reading on trees and forestry in general, I recommend “The Hidden Life of Trees”, by Peter Wohlleben (Greystone Books, 2016).

Sue Landau is a freelance writer and translator based in Paris. She worked in financial and business journalism for 25 years at the International Herald Tribune, Reuters and the Investor’s Chronicle, chiefly in London and Paris. She reported on energy, new technologies, media and advertising, corporate and industry issues, wealth management and investment, and regional development.

 

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2 comments

  • I hope this will help to raise awareness further about the importance of Bialowieza Forest. People in general have little idea of what constitutes a truly natural environment, as even the countryside most of us get to see is a largely man-made artefact. Hence the value of protected areas such as this ancient woodland.

  • Beautiful photos and very informative comments. ML.

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