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Bialowieza forest - last primeval forest in Europe

Białowieża forest, the last primeval forest in Europe, is one of the destinations that every forest ecologist wants to visit. The forest lies on both sides of the border between Poland and Belarus and has served as an exclusive hunting ground for centuries, which is why parts of the forest have never been used for forestry operations. When our supervisor and colleague Dr. Grezgorz Mikuskinski, who has known the forest and researchers there for over 30 years, invited us to come with him to Białowieża, Taylor, João and I didn’t think twice before saying yes.

The forest there is absolutely amazing. Some parts of the forests revealed old oak and lime trees, like we have never seen before.  Other parts were strongly shaped by browsing from the European Bison or by outbreaks of bark beetles. From areas dominated by regenerating trees after disturbances to areas full of lying and decaying dead-wood, the forest offered all the phases of natural forest succession. Particularly striking was the difference in the abundance of tree-related microhabitats (TreMs), which was much greater than what can be found in managed forest stands, as we know from our studies in the Black Forest. We learned that some birds, such as the common swift, which we think of as relying on predominantly anthropogenic structures, only occupy cavities in the Białowieża forest, where TreMs are abundant enough to support their natural preference. It turns out that bats also have different roosting preferences in such a pristine forest, choosing natural cavities, not those made by woodpeckers, as we see in the Black Forest. The variety of structures provided by the forest and their longstanding continuity together creates habitats for many plant and animal species, some of them occurring only in the National Park of Białowieża. This area has high species richness but low density of individual species, as is commonly found in all pristine forests, regardless the climatic zone.

Besides stunning nature, the researchers Dr. Michał Żmihorski and Dr. Ireneusz Ruczyński and their colleagues from the Mammal Institute of Białowieża were extremely welcoming. We enjoyed the opportunity to exchange our ongoing research projects about the monitoring of birds, bats and sounds during a symposium, after which we continued planning future studies while warming ourselves at a cozy bonfire close to the Institute.

We had the great privilege of experiencing the forest in a way most people never get to experience. We spent almost two days in the forest, walking or riding bicycles along little roads that are currently covered with golden autumn leaves, always finding something to wonder about. All human activities are usually severely restricted in the protected part of the forest, which we fortunately had access to. When we visited, however, the situation in the area was far from normal, due to a current political and humanitarian crisis. When we entered the area of Białowieża, we were entering a ‘Zone of Emergency’, where the Polish government has restricted access of any visitors coming to the area, including tourists and journalists. While we had documentation to enter the area, no one else was allowed. Polish police were present everywhere, stationed there to push back refugees entering Poland from Belarus. On the Polish television we could see how they were cutting a swathe through the forest and building a fence along the Belarussian border. While we enjoyed the pleasure to travel for scientific purposes to the forest, we were aware that in that same area, there were many people engaged in a geopolitical conflict. Refugees were attempting to secretly cross the forest to escape from Polish authorities and since night temperatures dropped below freezing during the week we were there, we were and still are very concerned about their safety.

During this visit we learned about much more than just forest ecology; we learned how conflicting it can be to be a visitor in a place whose political decisions we disagree with, but whose natural areas we are grateful to see. We experienced the privilege of being scientists, with access to a space that few others are allowed, and the privilege of being from nations whose human rights are respected, regardless of the political climate.

We thank everyone making our visit to Białowieża possible and certainly hope it is not our last visit.


by Anna-Lena Hendel (B5), João Pereira (B6) and Taylor Shaw (B7)