Megafauna in Poland’s Bialowieza Forest – wolf, bison and lynx

Extinction fascinates me. Since I was a kid, the idea that when walking across the New Forest I was walking the same land that had once been trodden by cave bears and mammoths was very exciting. And when I learnt that the UK did actually have species like the wolf until just a dozen generations ago, I became really interested in rewilding. We’re always told Britain is running out of space, so could we live alongside reintroduced megafauna? Should we restore Britain’s carnivore-devoid ecosystems?

To answer these, I needed to understand just what the UK has lost in terms of megafauna and how other countries were faring. I decided to head across to Poland and Romania – two countries with exceptional diversities of ‘big’ wildlife left – and various strategies in place to help reduce any human-wildlife conflict.

I started the trip in Poland with a few naturalist friends. Specifically, the Bialowieza Forest; a vast ancient woodland that straddles eastern Poland and western Belarus. Though parts of it are active timber concessions, at its core is a protected ancient woodland, one with no history of human management. It could well be the oldest woodland in Europe. Bialowieza is also the home of the European bison, the largest land mammal in Europe. The history of this species is a brilliant example of early conservation. Having been hunted to extinction in the wild at the beginning of the 20th century (the last one was shot in 1921 in this forest), a pioneering effort that paved the way for studbook-based conservation turned the fortune of this species around. Today, this forest is once again the stronghold for the species and is home to around 600 of these car-sized beasts.

With the help of a guide from the excellent local PTTK, it didn’t take long to track these giants down. Just drive slowly around the central small towns, scanning all the clearings in the fields between the mixed forestry and you will eventually come across one. We were very lucky, the first individual we came across was a huge lone bull sauntering along just by the road side. He was looking for a scratching post and once he’d found a log pile, he spent a good half an hour rubbing himself against it, working carefully to give every piece of his body a good itch!

Our small group and a few other passing cars were treated to brilliant views of this mature bull as he rocked the young oak and birch trees that the cut timber was stacked against. We left him to it and continued onto another site where the bison are fed. 

On the way there we were met by a rather sad sight. A tiny calf had just been killed crossing the road. One of the rangers was there to take it back for testing – after which we were told the body would be left deep in the forest for the wolves and other scavengers to eat. It was refreshing to hear that at least the calf would help feed another of the forest’s iconic animals.

It was sad to see this tiny, rare life extinguished so early – simply because humans across the world are incapable of driving a little slower through wildlife rich regions. It reminded me of our own situation in the UK, where we have in excess of 40,000 deer-vehicle collisions each year (this is a great website for good stats: http://www.deercollisions.co.uk/).

Whilst the ranger was removing the calf, the rest of the herd – all adult and sub-adult females – stood by watching. It was clear that one was the mother, she stood at the front eyeing us closely, reluctant to let the rest of the herd move on without her baby. Eventually they did wander off, forming an impressive barricade as they moved from the grass into the woodland.

 

We’d been about as fortunate as we could have hoped with the bison, with outstanding views of all age classes. We decided to carry on and head to the specially protected part of the forest.

Access is only allowed through permit, and even then you must be accompanied by a guide. But it is more than worth it. Arriving at the grand entrance, the huge wooden gates reminded me of Jurassic Park. The rough-carved wooden letters downplayed the ecological riches hidden behind. Only a small Unesco World Heritage plaque hinted that this was not just any old forest.

As soon as you’re inside this forest, you can tell that it is a place where nature has been allowed to call the shots. The biggest immediate difference between this place and an English woodland was the sheer volume of deadwood. Standing deadwood in the form of recently deceased trees. Fallen deadwood – with some trees decades old still decaying where they originally fell, victims of disease or the elements. Deadwood on living trees: huge, delicately-balanced decaying limbs and scarred fissures providing countless homes for invertebrates, owls, woodpeckers, mammals and a diverse array of fungi. If a tree falls on public land in the UK, contractors are immediately brought in to remove the ‘problem’. Here, this same wood is seen as a solution, providing an essential ecosystem service. It is an integral part of the natural environment, forming a vital link in the carbon cycle that supports such rich biodiversity. The whole place looked, smelt and sounded alive. It was home to some of the most interesting fungi I had ever seen!

Walking around, the sound of this woodland was defined by the ever-present tapping of woodpeckers. Bialowieza is home to all 10 of Europe’s breeding woodpecker species. Being October, wrynecks had already left on their migration but we had good fortune seeing most of the others – including my favourite – the garishly striated three-toed.

Three-toed woodpecker
 

Three-toed woodpecker
Great spotted woodpecker
The impressive black woodpecker
White-backed woodpecker
 

Middle spotted woodpecker

We were even lucky enough to see three using the same tree – here is a composite image for size comparison with the huge black woodpecker – Europe’s largest woodpecker species. Down the main trunk are middle spotted, great spotted and black, with another great spotted on the left:

Middle spot, great spot and black woodpecker comparison (composite photo)

Other avian treats including abundant yellowhammer, crested tits and nuthatch.

Throughout the day, massive flocks of migrating cranes announced their presence overhead with their loud trumpeting calls – emitted during flight. I like to think they are constantly chatting to one another as they fly.

The next morning, we had a very different target. Wolves and lynx. We had a different guide for this trip, Tomasz, an ex-hunter turned wildlife photographer with an exceptionally detailed knowledge of the Bialowieza Forest and it’s surrounding plantation woodlands. 

Arriving an hour before first light, he briefed us on how we’d find our quarry. Tomasz had been tracking a small wolf pack for the past few days, knowing which set of woodlands they were moving from and which direction they were headed in. Lynx he explained, were pure chance. As they were in the area, we had a good opportunity to find the wolves so we’d target those first. We turned off our headlights, dulled all interior lights, and set off very slowly amongst the plantation roads. Tomasz had special permission to access these tracks. He excited us by saying that at any moment we might come across a lynx, but from his directions we could tell he was heading to a very specific spot, presumably the place where he thought the wolves would be spending the night. 

As we edged closer to our unknown destination, the realisation of what we were doing hit me. This was an almost entirely man-dominated landscape, a large section of human planted rotation forestry well outside of the protected forest. And Tomasz assured us that there were regularly wolves here, sometimes multiple packs. We’d passed people, houses and livestock just a few miles ago. This isn’t an animal that needs to be left alone. This is an animal that knows how to be left alone, keeping a very low presence in its chosen environment.

Inching along forestry tracks, we waited. At each cross roads, Tomasz got out and inspected the corners. “Wolf” he exclaimed, pointing to a fresh scat and long, two foot scratch marks in the road. “Fresh. This morning. This way.” I sensed a hint of excitement in his voice – even though I knew this was a man who probably saw wolves more times in a month than most see in a lifetime. And then gracefully, a wolf glided out of the forest about 100m ahead of us. On long powerful limbs it kept a dead straight line, clearing the path at a light trot in about four paces. And then it was gone, the forest calm again. Had I imagined it? I trained my camera on the spot to try and zoom in on where I’d see it. This was possibly the most serendipitous moment of the trip as a second wolf drifted out of the forest into my shot – just enough for me to get a record shot in the half light:



This was the jewel in the crown, Europe’s most wide-ranging apex carnivore, a superbly intelligent animal capable of living alongside humans if we give them the chance. And it was the perfect way to round off our Polish adventure. 

Next stop, Romania! 

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