Postcard from... Białowieża

By Daniel Greenwood:

Białowieża is somewhere I have wanted to visit for several years after reading about it and hearing from friends (especially Poles) who had been there. It is described as Europe’s last remnant of primeval woodland (12-10,000 years old), a slight exaggeration recycled on social media and subsequently in news items. The Czech Republic has numerous stands of ‘virgin’ forest or woodland though not on the scale of Białowieża, which is probably the largest remaining tract of ancient European woodland due to the 5,000 hectare strict reserve which is said never to have been logged. But it is not the largest woodland in Europe, that accolade belongs to the Bavarian and Bohemian Forest complex on the border with the Czech Republic and Germany.

We went to Białowieża at a time when the Polish government were rubber-stamping plans to increase forestry activity in the National Park and outlying woods, resulting in much opposition from environmentalists in the west and large demonstrations in Poland. The premise for increasing logging is to combat the spread of spruce bark beetle (Ips typographus) which is currently impacting on Norway spruce trees (Picea abies) in the National Park. Those opposed to the plans argue that this is a natural process and that the beetle is a key species, a ‘forest engineer’. I agree, having seen the same impact in the Bavarian Forest National Park where some intervention does take place. I would argue that the impact of 20th century forestry practice has led to a proliferation of Norway spruce where there should be a more ‘natural’ balance of other species.

Białowieża National Park has key designations to protect its natural heritage. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve. The National Park was established in 1921 to offer protection to the herds of wild bison (Bison bisonus). Today Białowieża National Park is crucial because it has much of its original large fauna which can help ‘manage’ the landscape without any need for human intervention, i.e. logging. One theory of virgin woodland, established by Franz Vera in 1996, is that the dominant idea of endless trees covering northern Europe before humans arrived (we’ve been in Europe for over 40,000 years) is a myth. In fact wind blew holes in the wildwood and these glades were kept open by large grazing animals like elk, bison, deer and aurochs, meaning that the landscape was more like savannah or wood pasture – grassland dotted with trees. Vera argued that it was the human-enforced reduction and extinction of many of these large herbivores that led to the more dense woodland of the recent imagination. It also meant the larger clearings became towns and villages, settlements which were once established next to woodland (this is what ‘ley’ or ‘hurst’ means at the end of English place names). In Białowieża human intervention is evident in the landscape and has been for over 600 years.