As usual, when being on a trip, I try to combine business and private. This time I had the chance to visit the primeval forest in Białowieża, the last of it’s sort in Europe. Definitely worth a visit!
When we had finished our visits from Helsinki down to Marijampole our next meeting was scheduled for Monday morning in Warszaw. So we had two days for us visiting something anything in between and opted for the primeval forest near Białowieża.
To get there you head towards Hajnowka, then turn onto country road 689 direction Białowieża. Watch out when you enter town. You will encounter a couple of police officers checking traffic and for people illicitly crossing the border. Belorussia is in fact just around the corner.
If you plan to visit the forest you will find many hotels in town, but when being there in peak-season you should book in advance. We decided for the large parking next to the booking office of the park. Over night you won’t have any issues to find free places here and the charge is about €5 per day. Restaurants and bars are nearby and as it is a quite popular place, over day it fills up with people.
We got our tickets and were part of a group of 8 walking around with a guide: Joao, a Portuguese speaking several languages, passionate about this place and very informative about the forest. You don’t need any preparation, as once you get your ticket you walk off into the forest from here. 10-15 minutes walk and you reach the entry gate to the forest.
The first impression is quite disappointing, but that is due to my ignorance of the circumstances of a forest qualified “primeval”. There are four base criteria: Height of trees, density, organic matter and diversity.
As there is a race for light, trees reach tremendous heights in order to reach the upper levels and receiving as much light as possible for their life sustaining photosynthesis. Most branches start very much atop of ground, as there is no reason for them to grow lower: there simply is not enough light for them. Strange to see oaks being shaped completely different to those of my home-area “chaps”.
Density, this was the most interesting aspect for me to learn. When entering the forest I wondered about the differences to any forest I had seen before. But I learned young forests consist of bushes and small tress on the ground. Not so here. As times go by, trees grow higher, light on the ground gets scarce and in consequence small trees and bushes die out. Density is rather low, and in fact, during winter time you can see for hundreds of meters through such a forest, as there are no obstacles blocking your view. This is the most amazing information to me. I have seen a few forests since and now I understand the difference. Easy to realize, but no point of reflection in case you don’t know!
Organic matter is another point. Per hectare and year approximately 2 tons of organic matter fall onto the ground by wilting leaves, dead logs or any other. Such organic matter is the basis for new life and species. New trees “feed” on it, the forest keeps regenerating itself over and over again and eventually the topsoil layer can reach 1,5 metres and more.
Ultimately diversity. On a living tree many species live on and feed from, but even more interestingly, this number quadruples once the trees dies and decays. Weird. Up to 250 different fungi are found decaying trees, whilst on a living tree just 30 different species may be found.
When in the beginning I was quite startled to see a difference between “my forest” and a primeval one, now I can easily realise such. And obviously, most forests I have seen since, are young! It has changed my view. It does in fact change my perspective to the impact of human species onto the ecology in general. People blame South-East Asia and South America for destroying their forests, but to be fair, the Europeans have done so already centuries back. We were no better: Europe was entirely covered by forest. It has all gone. Białowieża is the last remaining spot of such.
If you have the time and option, go for it. Don’t expect spectacular views, but be prepared, your view on forests will profoundly change.