Białowieża Primeval Forest has been described as Europe’s Serengeti or Great Barrier Reef.Yet in most circles, the forest remains little known outside Poland. This needs to change, for as long as it remains obscure, it’ll be over-logged and under-protected. This article will touch upon a few reasons for why the forest is so precious.

1. It’s a living museum

In a way, Białowieża Forest is Europe’s premier museum of natural history. Where in a conventional museum you’d see displays of stuffed animals and fossils. Here you can walk through a prehistoric landscape replete with bogs, bison and ancient trees. Moreover, there’s an astonishing level of landscape diversity here. While civilisation has transformed and simplified most of Europe’s land area over the past few thousand years, Białowieża Forest has been largely preserved. When you visit, pay attention to the following features – these are the hallmarks of an 11,000+ year-old landscape.

The Orłówka River in Białowieża National Park’s strict reserve
  • Wild, meandering rivers lined by ancient bog forests. Compare these with most rivers in Europe, which have been straightened and lined with farmland. The Leśna River in southeast Białowieża Forest is particularly well-preserved.
  • Old, deciduous forest. Deciduous forests grow on fertile soils, which across Europe have almost entirely been cleared to make way for farmland. In Białowieża Forest, primeval deciduous woods thrive, covering most of the forest’s area.
  • Jurassic Park-like, bog forests. Most European wetlands were drained centuries ago to make way for farmland. Few remain in many parts of the continent. Białowieża Forest has retained its bogs, with some 30% of the forest’s area being one type of bog forest or another.
  • Huge, dead trees lying on the ground. In most European forests, any dead trees are removed and sold for timber. However, in natural ecosystems they form an essential component of the circle of life –myriad species, many endangered, depend on dead wood. In parts of Białowieża Forest up to a quarter of all the wood in the forest is lying dead on the forest floor.

2. A refuge for endangered species

Relict species, like the hermit beetle and three-toed woodpecker, only inhabit undisturbed, old forests. Over the past few centuries, these species have become homeless, as the ancient forests these species depend on disappeared. Białowieża Forest’s unique history of protection has created an oasis of biodiversity, a safe-refuge where relict species can survive. By preserving these species here, we will be able to rebuild ecosystems elsewhere if we wish: the forest will be able to provide a source population for any future reintroductions.

3. A living laboratory

Me putting up a camera trap to study the forest’s wolves

Despite some of the strictest environmental laws in the world, Europe’s biodiversity continues to decline. And all too often, we don’t understand why this is happening. To halt or even reverse this decline, we urgently need to improve our understanding of the continent’s ecology. Białowieża Forest with its well-preserved assemblage of native species can help us do this. Described as ‘an open-door laboratory for biology, ecology, and forestry’, it is a model ecosystem showcasing how species interacted with one-another before humans transformed the land.

4. An inspiration for rebuilding ecosystems

The relentless decline of biodiversity around the world is damaging society: our pollinators are dying, our rivers flooding and soil eroding. These problems are forecast to get worse in the coming years. Białowieża Forest can play an inspirational role in this changing world. It’s a forest in which people and nature have lived alongside for 800 years, proof that high levels of biodiversity and human civilisation can coexist.

5. Great tourist destination

Europe’s oldest forest is a nature and outdoor sports lover’s dream. It offers some of the best wildlife viewing opportunities in Europe and some great family run bed and breakfasts. And you can hike, bike and ski, before ending your day with the great regional cuisine. Busy only in July-August, it remains largely off the beaten trail, making it the perfect holiday destination for those wanting a peaceful holiday at all times of year.

6. It’s the home of the bison

Some bison I met in the forest

The bison is Europe’s largest land animal, a Polish national symbol, and the icon of the forest. It survived to the modern age under the protection of Lithuanian, Polish and Russian kings. Although it went extinct during WW1, it was meticulously reintroduced in the mid-20th century. Suffice to say, these massive, peaceful creatures are the highlight of many people’s trip to Białowieża Forest. Check out my article on how to spot one.