The Art of Natural Forest Practice

Celf Ymarfer Coedwig Naturiol





entance to the forest
Welcome to the inner-core of the Bialowieza Primeval Forest

forest road
We enter the forest and the road goes on and on for ever. 
There must be miles of such road, constructed before the
National Park was designated

The only way for the tree is up, exceeding 100 feet disappearing into the canopy

Trees fall and recycle to provide nutrients for the next generation, a home for creepy crawlies and source of food for birds, badgers and a nursery for seedlings

Natural bog forest permanently wet of which there are many throughout the forest
Small glade created by a falling tree, where a shaft of sunlight reaches the ground greening and rejuvenating the forest

There many such small glades

Bison at large in the forest resting at a safe distance
wolfWolves roam freely in the forest as once upon a time they did in Coed Nant Gain

Beavers dam a stream flooding the forest creating numerous decaying trees

Another glade with diverse decay, recycling nutrients and
creating new life

Swamp forest by the public highway

The last evening of our visit - local women from nearby villages entertain us with traditional dancing to celebrate a wedding


Photos copyright Iliff Simey & George Sunstrom

Reflections  on  a  visit  to  the
Bialowieza  Primeval  Forest
on the Polish / Belarus border in May 2012

The author Iliff Simey compares his ancient woodland in Wales with the Bialowieza Forest, the largest surviving primeval forest in Europe.  He asks why, when both evidently originate from the prehistoric wildwood, do they look so different.  This visit has given him a fresh outlook on what he is doing – and some interesting conclusions.

(Abbreviations - (Bialowieza - B, Bialowieza National Park - BNP,
Coed Nant Gain – CNG)

i)  having visited Bialowieza how does Coed Nant Gain compare ?

Amazing!  B is huge compared to anything our British eyes are accustomed to.  The Polish part of the forest is over 63.000ha - plus that in Belarus, and thus the largest surviving primeval forest in Europe.  It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Natura 2000 project and Biosphere Reserve.  CNG by comparison is a mere dot on the map - 8ha, but no less special.  Many of our ancient woodlands in Wales are but fragments of the prehistoric wildwood, whereas B represents the complete forest ecosystem – intact with, for example, all the large mammals except bears.  And yes, we saw aspen, alder, hornbeam, oak and conifers over 100 feet high their trunks disappearing into the forest canopy!  Unfortunately we saw only a little of the superb bog forest ecosystems.

The B forest is like an aspen leaf – circular with rough edges.  At its heart is the Bialowieza National Park (BNP), approximately 10,500ha.  Within this is an inner-coreof strictly protected primeval forest of 5700ha where access is limited to research ecologists.  Visitors like ourselves may visit just one small corner – with an approved guide - the loop path round which takes near 6 hours to walk with frequent stops and explanations.  I too in CNG, restrict access to guided tours (for the educational opportunity this presents) and have set-a-side areas I refer to as - Botanically Sensitive Areas which are entirely closed off.

With limited access we saw only one wet hollow, some lakes, a beaver dam and numbers of natural glades.  In between there are lengthy walks with very tall trees, some of which have fallen/ blown over making the glades.  The map however indicates many more such features in a rich diversity of forest habitat.  Tantalising and very galling for what we saw is truly magnificent.  CNG by comparison is long and thin, its inner core no more than a piece of string along a stream.  Most of the trees are less than 100 years old.  CNG, because of its complex geography, has an exceptionally rich diversity of habitat for such a small area, perhaps even more so than some of the Bialowieza forest; a diversity that is very special.

Around the BNP is a horseshoe of forest acquired in the 1930’s when the National Park was established.  Surrounding this is an extensive belt of forest managed by the Government Forest Service, mainly for firewood and 21 nature reserves.  This has been densely planted over the years with conifers and now with an increasing change of heart, pockets of broadleaves.  It is this that is proposed be incorporated into the BNP and over which there is considerable controversy.

B and CNG appear strikingly different yet both trace their origins back to the primeval forest and have very similar fauna and flora.  So why the visual difference?  The B Forest was for centuries protected as royal hunting forest, since when there has been no management intervention - now 90 years (except where trees fall across forest rides).  Remarkably, all the big trees in CNG were felled at the same time - 93 years ago at the end of the 1 WW just when the BNP authority was implementing its policy of no intervention.  Consequently the trees in B are huge compared to CNG.  The B inner-core thus represents a near complete natural ecosystem of predominantly tall and dark shaded forest.  CNG on the other hand has been an integral part of the local rural economy for millennia with active intervention since medieval times - about 500 years.

In spite of this abuse the natural ecosystem of CNG has survived and only in the last 25 years has its value been recognised.  Yet whilst B is recognised internationally, CNG is largely ignored.  There are many ancient woodlands in Wales, some of which like CNG may also originate from the end of the ice-age.  These make a distinctive ecosystem, yet they are unrecorded as important relic woodland on the Atlantic fringe of British Isles.  This amounts to a transgression against nature for which future generations will surely condemn us.


ii)  Features common and contrasting
a) The forest 

Compared to CNG, which is verdant and green, I was surprised by the relative paucity of green in B and the relative scarcity of downwood compared to what I have seen in the Oregon unlogged old-growth coniferous forests.
* Scale – CNG is like the B Forest in miniature – mystical, silent, the trees disappearing up into the canopy, the forest seemingly extending for miles in all directions.  In B it would be very easy to stray from the track and become lost.  In CNG the landscape is immediate, in front of us, we can touch it, see and smell it.  The small scale of CNG means that the woodland is constantly changing and there is always something of interest– new growth, fallen trees, blossom and berry, footprints of fox and badger, the sound of running water.  This smallness of scale has its inherent problems- the edge effect - letting light and air into the woodland; the habitat too small for the larger fauna, the run-off without protection from intensive agriculture surrounding the wood and the countryside crowded with people.  Under such pressures CNG can never become self-sufficient.  B on the other hand provides an image of how a fully grown ecosystem looks and functions.

* Geology B is flat and largely dry whereas CNG, being a Welsh nant, is steep sides with limestone outcrops and complex drift soils deposited by the glaciers, thus creating an exceptionally diverse woodland habitat.

* Fauna - B. has all but one of its larger predators – principally - bison, horse, lynx, wolf, red deer, roe deer, cattle, moose, wild boar, beaver and badger. Only bear is missing.
Insects? We saw only black ants swarming on a tree cavity and lots of fat, juicy mosquitoes.
There are NO nest boxes in B.  Why?  Perhaps because there are numerous old trees with nest sites and their policy of doing nothing within the National Park?

* Flora - Much of the flora in the B forest is strikingly similar to CNG.  For example, of the ground flora there is flag iris (CNG – Iris pseudocorus), yellow archangel (CNG - Lamiastum galeobdol), stitchwort (CNG has principally the lesser – Stellaria graminea  and B the greater – S. holosttea).  B has no bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) so characteristic of broadleaf woodlands in Britain.  Why - perhaps because Wales has a much higher rainfall (CNG 900mm) ?  Unfortunately do not have the Latin names for the flora of the B Forest.

* Glades  In CNG small glades occur wherever large trees have fallen, the ground flora flourishes and sapling trees grow vigorously towards the light.  This rejuvenates the woodland determining its future.  In Wales we describe these as glades.  In the B forest these are relatively few (at least in the part we visited) raising interesting questions as to why.

* Wet/ bog woodland – a rich and diverse feature of the B Forest.  In CNG the valley bottom along which the stream flows is damp with its own diverse species and there are also pools and seepage places where mammals have a drink.  In Britain we give little value to wet/ flooded woodland and fail to recognise these as a habitat in their own right.  It is urgent that we give thought to how we can care for those that nature has created, typically of alder carr (flooded woodland).

* Edge effect of the forest – Studies have shown that air and light penetrate the edge of the woodland for a considerable depth, drying the soil and humidity and increasing the light having a profound effect on the flora.  B being like an aspen leaf has the minimum circumference for its area creating a maximum of deep, dark forest.  CNG on the other hand is long and thin and has an extensive edge, typical of woodlands in Britain.

b) Management
* Restricted areas – Both CNG and the BNP have restricted areas where visitors are excluded.  In B this includes most of the inner-core, 5,700ha. and the public may visit only a small part of one corner.  In CNG the restricted areas are referred to as Botanically Sensitive Areas which identify where scarce flora is found and so people are excluded.

* Access – the B Forest has a long history non-access, from royal hunting to the present day.  In Britain the public have used footpaths across farm and woodland for centuries, giving rise to different attitudes in Britain and Poland.  CNG is a part of this and, like the B Forest, access is limited to guided tours.  In both we are visitors and must respect the fauna and flora- the true residents.  In CNG public awareness and education of what is involved in caring for woodland is paramount.

* Information  The BNP park authority supplied us with an excellent map of the forest and our Guides were well informed.  However, no printed material was available describing the fauna and flora, climate, soil, rainfall, temp, prevailing wind, history, etc.  Some of this may be available on the internet but I have not found it (see footnote).  At CNG visitors are advised to look at the website in preparation for their visit.

* No dogs, no smoking, no litter - both in B and CNG.

iii) When to do nothing ?
*  In the BNP there has been a policy of ‘doing nothing’, no intervention, for 90 years.  This was perhaps the most significant feature of our visit.  It’s the shere size of B that makes this possible.  The B forest has for millennia been more or less natural; except for royal hunting parties shooting bison, the partisans during the 2ndWW, and the intrusive grid of gross access roads (,which should be ripped-up and replaced by something more modest).  Unlike British woodlands it thus had a threshold on which a policy of non-intervention is based.  
      CNG is quite different for all the big trees were felled at the end of the 1st WW and the woodland abandoned and, perhaps for the first time in its history, regarded as waste land.  Post 2ndWW, government decrees led to the planting of quick growing non-native conifers and now the lowering of water table, overcrowding of the land by people, intensive agriculture and the collapse of the rural economy.  Amazingly something of the natural ecosystem survived all this.  The fact that it now has no commercial value, apart from firewood, provides an opportunity to restore the natural ecosystem to a dominant guiding role in the woodland.
       Unlike B, CNG can never be entirely free of intervention.  Its smallness (8ha) is typical of many British woodlands, so that it can never be entirely self-sufficient.  For example; the absence of large, old trees providing nest, shelter and food; the loss of key predators (principally wolf, beaver and bear); and the edge effect modifying the woodland must be compensated for. 
I call this the threshold, - the point at which the natural ecosystem can take over and find its own way.  The B experience indicates that in some respects CNG is now approaching this point and human intervention can begin to be phased out.  Were it like B a single step would be sufficient.


iv)  Conclusion – forest and woodland – have they a future ?
Survival  The existing BNP is to British eyes of sufficient size for the forest ecosystem to function.  However the edge effect surrounding this effectively reduces the interior and hence impacts on the undisturbed forest.  CNG on the other hand is so small that there is very little undisturbed woodland remaining.  The B forest thus has the potential to demonstrate how the deep interior of the forest functions.  How the forest relates to the surrounding countryside is therefore of strategic importance.

Natural ecosystem  It is interesting to speculate whether the broadleaf trees will continue to dominate or the conifers take over.  This is possible because B has had a natural forest ecosystem since the end of the last ice-age and which the policy of doing nothing continues.  Conversely, CNG has been so modified over the centuries that it is amazing anything of the natural ecosystem survives.  With a policy of less and less intervention, the forest, in its own time will take over.

Surrounding forest - The existing forest that surrounds the BNP if adopted into the BNP would ‘cushion’ the existing BNP from the inevitable intensification of the surrounding countryside.  CNG is already experiencing this from the shere numbers of people, new housing, access to the countryside and intensive agriculture with little or no thought as to how they fit together.  CNG to survive needs just such a cushion as well as being key for a green corridor from river to open mountain.

People access  Both CNG and B have a policy that we as visitors and must respect the fauna and flora of the forest.  Creating public awareness in CNG is very important and people as well as owners are encouraged to come to see what is being done and learn about what is involved in caring for the woodland.  An inevitable consequence of the increasing population is that more and more people will want to visit the forest.  So many local people have now been on guided tours in CNG that there must be considerable local awareness; something that B might find very useful.

How we value the forest  The BNP by being designated a World Heritage Site has considerable stature.  Such designations as CNG has are of little or no significance in practice.  It has no commercial value (apart from firewood – which would destroy it) and must survive by its conservation value and as a demonstration potential of how the natural woodland ecosystem functions.  The future lies with the Welsh Assembly recognising the importance of these ancient woodlands and affording special protection with international recognition, not just as ancient woodland but as Old-Growth Ancient Woodland on a par with the American model.


1.  The author is grateful to the forest guides – Ewa Zin – Institute of Forest Research, Arek Szymura – botanist and ornithologist, and Mateusz Szymura – forester working in the National Park, all of whom so ably conducted us round the Bialowieza forest.

2.  Size matters.  In Britain we tend to think of forests as huge and woodland as small.  We use the term glades to describe where a single tree has fallen creating a gap in the canopy and a pool of light on the ground.  In Poland they think of glades as being larger - 2 to 4 acres, which to us is a clearing - quite different.

3.  Searching the internet I have found very little literature describing the Bialowieza Forest ecosystem.  The best is the map of the forest sold by the BNP authority.  If you find anything please let me know.

4.  This article and photos are the copyright of the author.
Please refer to the statement on the homepage of the website.
Iliff Simey June 2012