Białowieża Forest: Europe’s Last Ancient Woodland

Look how green it is!

Białowieża Forest represents one of Europe’s only ‘primeval forests’ that remains undisturbed by human activity.

Perhaps few have heard of the ancient Białowieża Forest, though its value as a conservational hotspot is worth hearing about. In 1979 UNESCO listed Białowieża Forest on their World Heritage Site List, owing to its immense natural capital and cultural significance. Białowieża Forest represents one of the few remaining examples of what’s considered to be the ‘primeval forest’ of pre-human Europe. Situated between Poland and Belarus in Central Europe, the forest is 141,885 ha and has large swaths of extensive lowland forest, undisturbed by human activity. Without the regular extraction of wood, the forest is dead, well far deader than a managed forest at least. Local ecologist Janusz Korbel estimates that half the wood in the forest is dead, up to 10 times more than in similarly managed forests. This isn’t as bad as you might initially think however, for a huge number of species native to the area rely on this dead wood. Fungi, saproxylic beetles like the near-threatened Cucujus cinnaberinus and birds like the white-backed woodpecker utilise these vital resources. In fact, it’s thought that at least half the species in the forest rely in some form on the decaying wood in the forest. That’s not all though, the living trees are also massive biodiversity hubs and the forest has large populations of wolves, lynx, otters, elk, fire-bellied frogs, beavers, and, of particular importance, European bison. In 1921 one of the last remaining wild European bison was shot in this same forest, but after reintroduction from captivity efforts, the woodland now supports a population of 900 of these majestic animals, 25% of the World’s population; the IUCN even upgraded their classification from endangered in 1996 to vulnerable in the current Białowieża Forest. Some of Europe’s oldest and largest oaks live in the forest, many of which have endearing names and long histories that are of particular cultural value to the area. Białowieża Forest isn’t just forest though, for within the park lie other important habitats for biodiversity: wet meadows, river valleys and wetlands to name a few.

Look how furry they are!

The European Bison were extinct in the wild until recently when they were reintroduced from captivity. Białowieża Forest now supports a population of 900 individuals, that’s nearly 25% of the World’s Population!

If you’ve been following the Polish environmental news recently you’ll know that the forest is under significant threat. Whilst a large part of the forest is protected inside the national park, the majority of the forest lies outside the park’s jurisdiction and as such faces the very real possibility of human management, notably logging practices. This year the Polish Minister for Environment, Jan Szyszko, revealed plans to approve a vast increase in logging within the Białowieża Forest. The justification for such plans are, according to Mr Szyszko, to combat the infestation of the infamous Spruce Bark Beetle within the forest. The European Spruce Bark Beetle is a notorious pest that infests itself in diseased or damaged spruces and can also transfer other pathogens that greatly reduce the health of the trees and will often quickly kill their hosts; in high enough populations it is suspected that the beetle will attack healthy trees as well. Local ecologists, however, argue that the presence of the beetle is nothing novel and that it has co-existed within the area’s natural ecology. While cutting infected trees might be an effective containment method for more managed forests, the unique nature of the Białowieża Forest requires a more bespoke approach, they argue. The complications do not halt there however. Local employment relies heavily on timber extraction, as well as the use of firewood for fuel, leading to conflicts between ecologists and residents.

Look how... dead it is...

Dead and decaying wood, known as coarse woody debris, represents essential habitat and food resources for a significant number of species in old-growth forests.

Ultimately, the argument boils down to perspective and the objectives of the park. It may well be the case that the spruce bark beetle is a dangerous invasive pest that threatens the existence of the forest, but is immediate extraction of the crucial resources, the dead wood, that provide habitat and food for the threatened species that make the park special, the correct response? Invasive pests, especially saproxylic beetles, can be devastatingly quick to destroy and do require efficient and targeted strategies, but selective logging of a site famous for its undisturbed history could well be considered shortsighted and irresponsible in the long-run, for it’s especially difficult to regrow a millennia-old forest if you turn out to be wrong.

By John Cannon u5738570

For more information:

UNESCO World Heritage Site:

http://whc.unesco.org/en/decisions/6097

The Guardian:

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/apr/06/poland-environmentalists-foresters-primeval-forest

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/25/poland-starts-logging-primeval-bialowieza-forest-despite-protests