International hospitality from Iceland to Bosnia
It is the morning after the night before in the Romincka Forest. All around, the woods look worse for wear after a messy night: clods of earth kicked up by foraging wild boar; chunks of bark stripped from the trees by elk; timber chomped up and dragged about by unscrupulous beavers. Inspecting the damage is Romek – a forester who helps visitors track the area’s wildlife – crouched by a patch of shattered ice on a frozen stream. A pair of paw prints show where an animal fell through the ice before scrambling out and scampering off into the woods. "Wilki," Romek says solemnly (it means ‘wolves’) before getting to his feet and bellowing out a long, sonorous wolf-howl that resonates around the forest.
It pays to be on good terms with the neighbours in this remote corner of Poland, one of the last tracts of wilderness in Europe where these animals still roam freely. Once upon a time, woodland like this covered the whole continent. If you could press a giant reset button on the European landscape, these forests are the template to which everything would return. The monsters found here could hold their own against the big beasts of America and Africa. Even in Britain, you could expect to get trampled by a bison less than a thousand years ago, mauled by a wolf as late as the 17th century and finished off by wild boar chewing your innards well into the Middle Ages. Nowadays the majority of Europe’s wildlife could be classified ‘PG’ at most but, in recent times, the woods of Romincka Forest have grown wilder. With the collapse of Communism in Poland, industrial-scale forestry and farming have petered out and populations of wolf, boar, elk and even lynx have all gradually shuffled back in. To the west, one of the continent’s last remaining herds of European bison are growing in number. A one-tonne wrecking ball of a beast, this animal can comfortably bulldoze anything that dares cross its path.
It has begun to snow as we follow the wolf tracks further into the forest – big, fluffy, Narnia-esque snowflakes making the paw prints on the ground become fainter. Above us, pine trees sway in the wind, sending patches of sunlight scattering across the forest floor, their boughs creaking under the weight of the snowfall.
Romeck tells me about a night when he howled to a wolf he spied pouncing on a wild boar, only to hear a howl returned from the darkness in response. “He passed by my car, so he must have known I was human,” he adds proudly. However, those who live on the fringes of the forest aren’t such keen admirers. Local farmers tell tales of one particularly cunning wolf that grabbed sheep by their necks and marched them one-by-one into the forest, where they were promptly devoured. We approach a clearing in the forest, and Romek stops. “The Russian border,” he announces, pointing to a red post half-submerged in the snow, meaning that we can go no further. During the Cold War, Soviet border guards left their sentry posts to sneak off to dances in Polish villages, dashing back to their positions before their superiors could catch them. Today there is little to see, other than a pair of wolf tracks leading over the border into Russian territory. “A wolf doesn’t need a passport,” Romek says grumpily, before turning back into the woods.
Complicated borders are an unfortunate fact of life in the Romincka Forest, where the frontiers of Poland, Russia and Lithuania meet. Not so long ago, these woodlands were part of East Prussia, what was once the eastern frontier of the German Empire – a region known for its sprawling forests and good hunting. Traces of this lost kingdom can still be found: stations bearing German place names on a dismantled railway line or a stately home concealed among Communist-era farm buildings. The former inhabitants of East Prussia, however, are long departed. As the Soviet Army advanced on the region in 1944, almost two million German civilians fled west – thousands of refugees drowned crossing frozen lagoons as Soviet warplanes bombed the ice from above. Stalin decided that East Prussia – now largely emptied of its population – would be split between the Soviet Union and Poland, with the border slicing through Romincka Forest.