Europe's primeval forest may be at risk

Trees in the Białowieża forest Image copyright Wojtek Radwanski/Getty Images
Image caption The forest's trees host a haven of birdlife

The Białowieża Forest, which straddles Belarus and Poland, is Europe's last significant stretch of primeval forest. Now it may be under threat from commercial logging and the bark beetle, as Hugh Sykes reports.

Dawn in June in Białowieża forest in Poland is at about three o'clock in the morning.

The dawn chorus is "a fantastic choir of different singing birds", a wildlife guide Arkadiusz Smyk (known as Arek) enthused to me.

The birds here include: three-toed woodpecker, red-breasted flycatcher, collared flycatcher, white-backed woodpecker, black woodpecker, chaffinch, robin, river warbler, corncrake... and many more, easily meeting the demands of birders' lengthy checklists.

There are so many birds in Białowieża because there are so many trees, which support a lot of the food that the birds need to eat - grubs, bugs and beetles.

Logging fears

Białowieża is in the far east of Poland, and stretches across the border into Belarus. It's been largely untouched for centuries - Polish kings and Russian czars left it undisturbed so that they could use it for hunting large game.

On the Polish side of the border, the forest is a Unesco World Heritage Site, and is required to comply with European Union environment directives.

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Media captionEurope's last significant stretch of primeval forest may be under threat.

But the primeval perfection of the forest may be threatened - by commercial logging. The government in Warsaw has more than tripled the quantity of timber that they will permit to be extracted from this unique place.

Naturalists say that allowing more logging in Białowieża defeats its purpose as a World Heritage Site.

Foresters say they need to remove more wood so that they can make a decent living.

They also want to remove dead trees - standing and fallen - because they say that the rotting 'cadavers' blight the beauty of the forest, and that tourists don't like them because they spoil their photographs.

Beetle damage?

Local people also want more trees cut down because of an infestation of a spruce bark-beetle.

Wildlife guide Arek says the infestation doesn't matter: "Bark beetles invade spruce trees from time to time, and nature can handle it. The beetles come, then they go. It is always like this. There is no harm to the forest stand."

Forest rangers disagree - they say that beetles have attacked about a fifth of the healthy spruce trees in the forest, and that they could infect more.

Image caption UNESCO inspectors are due to report in July

Arek is suspicious of such claims, saying that spruce timber from Białowieża - and oak too - are threatened with felling because there's a strong commercial demand for them.

Because the forest is dark and closely packed, trees grow high as they reach up towards the light. Some spruce and oak here rise to 150 feet (45m). Height generates dense, strong - and profitable - wood.

Unesco inspectors recently visited the forest to arbitrate between loggers and naturalists.

They are expected to reveal their findings in July. Polish Forests assured me that no logging will take place until then - other than clearing trees that may be a danger to passing traffic.

Fists and expletives

A public meeting in Białowieża village revealed strong local feelings. There were complaints about 'outsiders' interfering in traditional forest culture, and accusations that opponents of logging were 'pseudo ecologists.'

Two local men reacted violently when a TV crew tried to film evidence that logging had not actually ceased.

Two men threw plastic water bottles at the TV camera, screamed their fury, and assaulted the crew - with fists & expletives.

Image caption Director of Polish forests Konrad Tomaszewski says Białowieża must not become a museum

And I experienced a puzzling reluctance on the part of the director of Polish Forests, Konrad Tomaszewski, to have the BBC record his field trip presentation to the UNESCO inspectors. He wanted to hear my recording to authorise it before it was broadcast. I politely declined his invitation.

One of Mr Tomaszewski's arguments in favour of extra logging is that Białowieża should be "a living community, not a museum".

Arkadiusz Smyk wants the forest to be preserved as a museum. He describes it as the last primeval forest of its kind in Europe, and says it provides unique, irreplaceable evidence of how a forest "behaves" when there is minimal interaction with humans.

"Other forests all over Poland can be used for timber farming," he suggested, "just please leave Białowieża how it is."

Arkadiusz handed me his binoculars, and pointed to a small, perfectly round hole high up the trunk of a dead oak tree. A small bird popped its head out. A larger bird arrived, holding beetles in its beak. It placed them inside the hole - a middle-spotted woodpecker feeding its young in their nest.

You can hear what a primeval forest sounds like on the Broadcasting House website

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