Discover the Oldest Forest in Europe
Some places excite the imagination due to their mysterious nature, like the oldest forest in Europe. Whether you are familiar with Europe’s oldest forest or were unaware such a place existed, you might begin to imagine what it looks like and where it fits into the landscape of Europe.
According to the European Environment Agency, about 40% of Europe remains covered in forests. The importance of forests to the health of the world through their role as carbon sinks to absorb emissions cannot be understated. By looking into the history of Europe’s oldest forest, we can gain insights into environmental protection and see how we might move forward to safeguard old-growth forests and the species that call them home.
The Oldest Forest in Europe: Białowieża Forest
The oldest forest in Europe is Białowieża Forest (pronounced bee-ah-wo-vee-EDGE-ah). Białowieża Forest is a large, ancient forest that once spread across a large portion of Europe. It gets its name from a Polish village located in the middle of the forest. This village most likely was the first human settlement and means “White Tower” in Polish. That name, in turn, refers to a hunting manor built by the Grand Duke of Lithuania sometime before 1426. In Belarus, people know the forest as Belavezhskaya Puscha, which also means “White Tower” forest.
Where is Białowieża Forest Located on a Map?
Białowieża Forest is situated on the border of Poland and Belarus and covers a total area greater than 1,000 square miles. However, the protected parts of the forest cover a much smaller extent in total. For example, Poland protects only 41 square miles of the forest as part of its national park. The Belarusian side has a much larger area of protection called Belavezhskaya Pushcha National Park, which covers 684 square miles.
UNESCO added the Polish side of the forest to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1979, with the Belarusian side added in 1992. UNESCO expanded the site’s total area in 2014 to a size of 547.8 square miles.
What is the Ecosystem of Białowieża Forest?
Białowieża Forest exemplifies the typical terrain of Central European mixed forests. It sits on the eastern part of the region known as the Central European Lowland, with a warm-summer humid continental climate. Within the forest landscape, wet meadows, river valleys, and other wetlands become intermixed . A mixture of Norway spruce, Scots pine, black alder, pedunculate oak, and birch grows throughout the forest.
The oldest forest in Europe remains one of the most critical spots left in Europe for rare and diverse fungi. An estimated 5,000 species of fungi might call Białowieża Forest home, including highly endangered species.
What is a Primeval Forest?
If something is primeval, it typically means that it is from or resembles the earliest ages of history. Therefore, a primeval forest may include any collection of trees mostly untouched by any human activity. People often refer to primeval forests as virgin forests or old-growth forests, which both carry the same meaning. Although there are still old-growth forests left in the world, many continue to shrink rapidly since the beginning of the modern age of humanity.
For any forest to be considered old-growth, it typically has multiple trees that are very old from long-lived species. These species are often past the age where they would have been harvested. In addition, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources offers some notes on high-quality old-growth forests, saying that they should exhibit woody debris and other complex structures. Old-growth forest do not feature many invasive species and might even be home to rare or unique species.
Białowieża forest exemplifies an old-growth, primeval forest, with over 40% of its tree stands being over 80 years old. According to Bialowieski Park Narodowy, the average age of the forest is 130 in the area of strictest protection in Białowieża National Park.
History of Białowieża Forest
Białowieża Forest has remained untouched by most humans for so long because of its history as a royal hunting reserve. Efforts to preserve the bison population and the integrity of the forest itself predate modern organizations such as the United Nations. Around 1385, records indicate that the forest became the hereditary property of Lithuanian grand dukes. These Lithuanian royals forbade hunting, tree felling, and other activities except for royalty in 1409. Some people believe this indicates at least 600 years of some protection for the forest. The royalty of the middle ages recorded few actual hunts, meaning even hunting had a minor impact on the integrity of Europe’s oldest forest.
Periods of heavy logging during World War I and II may have hurt the forest. Still, Poland instituted stricter protections on the part of the forest that became its national park beginning in 1921. Other impacts from regular use and habitation by humans have altered the character of parts of the forest from before the medieval period. For example, there are records of locals going into forest areas for haymaking, beekeeping, and dam building as far back as the 14th century.
Discover the Animals That Call Białowieża Forest Home
The most famous resident of Białowieża Forest is easily the European species of bison, with around 900 roaming the forest. This equals about 25% of the world’s total population. The bison found in Białowieża Forest are the largest free-roaming group in the world. European bison differ in size and body structure from their American counterparts but still rank as Europe’s heaviest land animal.
Other animals that call the forest home include at least 59 mammal species and over 250 bird species. There are also 13 amphibian species, seven reptile species, and over 12,000 invertebrate species. Specifically, moose, red deer, wild boar, lynx, and wolves call this wooded area home. However, wolves were persecuted in Belarus in the 1980s and 1990s.
There has been debate over the years whether tarpans still exist in Białowieża Forest. Tarpans lived in the forest until 1780. By the 19th century, the government caught the last wild tarpans and eventually distributed them to local peasants. A Polish professor attempted a project in the 1920s to breed horses native with similar characteristics to the extinct tarpan. He acquired all the Konik horses with tarpan-like characteristics, mainly a dun coat and dorsal stripe down the back. Many of these Konik horses still roam in the forest as part of wild herds.
Discover the Famous Oaks of Białowieża Forest
Many ancient oaks call Europe’s oldest forest home, including several with names. These pedunculate oaks or Quercus robur are native to most of Europe and western Asia and grow from a single stout trunk. They are the largest trees in the forest but do not grow as high as pines or spruces. Many of these oaks have been growing for hundreds of years and are still in good health today.
One of the most famous oaks, the Jagiełło Oak, is no longer alive. A storm knocked this prominent oak down in 1974, but experts estimated it to have lived for around 450 to 500 years. It received its name due to legends linking it to Wladyslaw Jagiełło, who might have stopped near the oak in 1426 during a plague in that part of Europe.
What is the Future of Europe’s Oldest Forest?
Europe’s oldest forest remains in danger from deforestation, invasive species, and other impacts from human actions. Although international bodies and national governments protect the forest, there has been pressure to open more areas of Białowieża Forest to logging. In 2018, the European Court of Justice suspended logging after ruling that Poland had violated European Union agreements by removing trees over 100 years old. However, Poland announced a plan to resume logging in 2021. Therefore, the future of the forest remains a question, with many dedicated individuals working to continue protecting it for posterity.