The past century of logging has transformed Białowieża Primeval Forest into a mosaic of natural and plantation forest. Fortunately there’s still plenty of natural (primeval) forest to see. But to find it, it’s critical that you know where to go. In this post I’ll briefly explain how this mosaic came about, and then how to find the forest’s most special areas.
Only a century ago, Białowieża Forest was in its entirety a vast, primeval wilderness that had been protected for centuries. This unwavering protection of Lithuanian, Polish and Russian kings lasted till WW1, at which point everything changed. The German occupying force began intensive logging, during what became the most destructive period in the forest’s history. In just three years, a quarter of the forest’s area was devastatingly cut and carted away. Since then, logging has continued at varying intensities. Thankfully, various fragments of primeval forest have survived, including one very special place − the strict reserve of the national park, which covers 8% of the Polish side of the forest. This small fragment of forest sandwiched between two rivers was recognized as worth saving as far back as WW1. It has remained untouched throughout this century and is the only part of the forest that is truly ‘primeval’. The rest of the Polish side of the forest has been subject to commercial forestry practices to varying degrees. But don’t let that dishearten you: there’s still plenty of natural forest to be seen. In recent years, the best-preserved fragments of forest outside of the strict reserve have been given protected status. And it is these protected areas you should aim to visit on your trips out into the forest.
Where to find best-preserved forest
There is a simple rule of thumb for finding the primeval parts of Białowieża Forest: look for the protected areas, i.e. the nature reserves and national park. Whatever you do, don’t just head off in a random direction. Particularly stunning fragments of natural forest have survived in the north of the national park, in the centre of the forest around the three small villages of Pogorzelce, Teremiski and Budy, and in the far south on the Belarussian border. In the map below, I’ve divided the forest into three zones. Head towards, the zone I (darkest green) and zone II (dark green) – this is where the best preserved bits of the forest are. See my descriptions of the map below for more details.
Here is the list of zones in order of how well preserved they are:
- Zone I – The national park’s strict reserve. For reasons already mentioned, this is the pinnacle of European forests. Wild, untouched, and ancient. It requires a guide to visit, but it’s the only part of the forest untouched by humans, so don’t miss it.
- Zone II – The north of the national park and nature reserves. These are areas where some forestry has occurred over the past century, but where the forest has managed to retain its natural character.
- Zone III – The managed forest. Although there are still fragments of natural forest in this part of the forest, they are quite dispersed and harder to find.
Find a good map
A further trick for easily finding the wild places is getting a good map. In addition to showing you where are the protected area, a good map will show you the ages of all the forest sub-divisions. Usually, the older the forest stand, the more natural it is. This is handy, because there is a rather simple definition for old-growth forest in Białowieża Forest: tree stands over a hundred years old are of natural origin. Why a hundred years? This is because that’s when forestry began here (i.e. during WW1), so by definition the areas with trees older than that are of natural origin. With a good map, you’ll easily be able to tell whether you’re headed in the direction of a plantation or in the direction of some of Europe’s last ancient woodland.
The rule of thumb: Head towards the nature reserves and national park (zones I & II mentioned above).