The Art of Natural Forest Practice
Celf Ymarfer Coedwig Naturiol
Photos copyright Iliff Simey & George Sunstrom
Reflections on a visit to the
(Abbreviations - (Bialowieza - B, Bialowieza National Park - BNP,
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
* 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.
* 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.
* 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 ?
iv) Conclusion – forest and woodland – have they a future ?
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.
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.