Białowieża National Park, Poland

”Logging in Europe’s Last Primeval Forest” or “Pristine Wilderness” screamed the headlines as the forest administration tried to fight an extreme outbreak of European spruce bark beetle (Ips typographus) in the famous Białowieża Forest by felling the infested trees between 2015 and 2018. Many claims in one headline! Apparently it is not the only primeval forest in Europe – witness this website. Let’s see how many of the other claims are true!

The size of the entire Białowieża Forest differs from one source to another. It may be 1250 km2 1, 1345 km2 2, 1450 km2 3 or 1500 km2 4 5 located on the both sides of the Polish-Belarus border, the Polish part covering 580 km2 1, 592 km2 2, 600 km2 3 5 or 625 km2 4. However, this is not all primeval or even seminatural forest. Białowieża National Park comprises 105 km2 of Białowieża Forest4. Białowieża National Park is further comprised of two protective units: Orłówka and Hwoźna. The latter (52 km2) was only added to the Białowieża National Park in 1996 and is less natural. The Orłówka Protective Unit (51 km2, bordered by Hwoźna and Narewka Creeks in the north and west, the Belarus border in the east and a fence in the south) is the original part of Białowieża National Park, protected since 1921, and only this part (or most of it, perhaps about 40 km2) is near-virgin forest6.

Białowieża Forest outside the Białowieża National Park is no virgin forest at all but, apart from a few small reserves, is managed for forestry purposes, with related timber exploitation methods, including clear-cutting, planting as the main reforesting method, and regulation of ungulate populations3 5. Small-scale timber harvesting started in the 17th century1 and mass timber exploitation in 1915 6. In 1924 alone, 51 km2 of Białowieża Forest were felled6. Today Białowieża Forest outside the Białowieża National Park constitutes a patchwork of even-aged, usually single-species plantations, isolated remnants of natural and seminatural stands and vast areas of pioneer, mainly birch (Betula spp.) stands, that developed spontaneously on the clear fell areas left without artificial reforestation5. Although the recent increased logging (7 km2 were felled between 2015 and 2018 7) was extended to zones that had long been untouched, and the European Court finally decided the logging was illegal8, all the logging happened outside the Białowieża National Park, i.e. no virgin (or even near-virgin, see below) forest was felled9! Thus, one reason for misunderstandings is confusing Białowieża National Park with Białowieża Forest. Another reason is that the Polish name for Białowieża Forest “Puszcza Białowieska” is often translated as Białowieża Primeval Forest. The Belarusian part, Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park, has only been protected since 1950 and is “less virgin” than the Orłówka Unit6. An electric fence separates the Polish and Belarus parts today, so only animals able to swim under the fence can cross the boundary (e.g. wolf (Canis lupus)) 9. The entire Białowieża Forest is a World Heritage Site and the National Parks are UNESCO biosphere reserves.

However, even the Orłówka Unit is not untouched forest. Before the 20th century the area of the Orłówka Unit, too, was, more or less continuously disturbed, possibly as much by people as by natural events1. This is indicated by the structure and tree species proportions at the beginning of the preservation and by their later development1. Some stands had a rather low density that allowed pioneers, short-lived (like birches, common aspen (Populus tremula) and goat willow (Salix caprea)) and long-lived (like Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) and pedunculate oak (Quercus robur)) to regenerate continuously1. Even today, old birches (photo right) and aspens can be observed in shady broadleaf stands where their further regeneration seems very unlikely. Shade-tolerant broadleaf trees small-leaved linden (Tilia cordata), European hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) and, to a lesser degree, European ash (Fraxinus excelsior) have increased their abundance1. The regeneration of today’s lindens occurred largely after 1923 10 (photo below). Thus, Białowieża does not actually qualify for this website, but we have decided to include it because of its special status.

Relatively young stand of small-leaved linden

Furthermore, the proportion of Norway spruce (Picea abies) is artificially high (photo below). In 1891 and 1907, when the Białowieża Forest was the private property of the Russian Tsars2, large numbers of game animals, particularly European bison (Bison bonasus) and red deer (Cervus elaphus), were introduced for hunting purposes6. The density of these large herbivores was very high until 1915 6. There was practically no tree regeneration apart from Norway spruce and hornbeam, a browse line occurred throughout the forest and the undergrowth was destroyed6. Indeed, the regeneration of today’s spruce largely occurred during the period 1874–1906 10. Hornbeam regenerated despite the strong ungulate feeding pressure, too10. Although it is heavily browsed it is highly resistant to damage2. From the more distant past, there are burial grounds (cemeteries) whose surrounding areas may have been settled around 900–1200 6. More local human traces include one ancient charcoal pile with cleared but reforested surroundings, one meadow now overgrown with forest and a formerly settled clearing “Łagiery” 6.

Spruce grove. Also pedunculate oak and small-leaved linden

Nor is Białowieża National Park a wilderness: It is crisscrossed by a grid of straight north–south and west–east orientated roads one kilometre apart. The roads, made for hunting purposes, are used today by wardens and researchers, though not all the roads are kept open anymore9.

Despite all the above, Białowieża National Park is a very special forest. Above all, the Orłówka Unit has immense value as the best preserved and by far the largest near-virgin forest on the lowland plains of the European temperate zone.

It is without doubt one of the most beautiful forests in Europe. Because the heavily shade-casting European beech (Fagus sylvatica) is absent, there are more shrubs, saplings, herbs and grasses, the general impression being a lush greenness (photo below). Furthermore, because none of the park’s trees is a superior competitor, like the beech to the west, this is a true mixed forest with many abundant tree species, including numerous splendid large individuals (photo right), even if that is partly a result of human disturbances in the past (see above).

Lush forest with hornbeam, pedunculate oak, spruce and wych elm (right)

Białowieża is also one of the very few places, where all five extant species of large European herbivores live together: red deer, European roe deer (Capreolus capreolus), European elk (Am. moose, Alces alces), wild boar (Sus scrofa) and the largest wild animal of Europe, European bison6. Of the large predators, wolf and lynx (Lynx lynx) are present but not brown bear (Ursus arctos) 3.

Even though most parts of the Białowieża Forest outside the Białowieża National Park currently consist of managed forest, extending the national park to cover the entire Forest would create an extremely valuable protected area for the future8.

Climatically Białowieża is located where the fairly oceanic west European climate rather suddenly acquires continental features, with numerous species attaining their northern (e.g. hornbeam) or southern (e.g. Norway spruce) limits of their occurrence6. The mean annual temperature is 6.8°C and annual precipitation 641 mm 6. Late frosts are responsible for the absence of the beech, killing its flowers and young fruits11. The bedrock lies at a depth of 800 m, being covered by sediments of different ages6. The ground is generally flat, the local differences in height seldom exceeding 10 m. Elevations reach from 147 to 172 m.

21 tree species grow in the park: Scots pine, Norway spruce, silver birch (Betula pendula), downy birch (B. pubescens), black alder (Alnus glutinosa), European hornbeam, common aspen, goat willow, white willow (Salix alba), crack willow (S. × fragilis), bay willow (S. pentandra), bird cherry (Prunus padus), European rowan (Sorbus aucuparia), European crab apple (Malus sylvestris), pedunculate oak, small-leaved linden, Norway maple (Acer platanoides), European ash, wych elm, European white elm (Ulmus laevis) and field elm (U. minor) 2 6 9. Some sources mention 26 tree species but this is again a question of confusing Białowieża National Park with Białowieża Forest.

The most common forest type is a multilayered species rich forest on more fertile soils, with or without spruce, the other dominants being linden, hornbeam and oak3 6. Common hazel (Corylus avellana) is the most common shrub and the field-layer includes wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa), rue-anemone (Isopyrum thalictroides), fumewort (Corydalis solida), stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), touch-me-not balsam (Impatiens noli-tangere), wood stitchwort (Stellaria nemorum), greater stitchwort (S. holostea) and sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) 5. Pine dominates on sandy soils, with some spruce and both birch species, bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus), lingonberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea), heather (Calluna vulgaris) and mosses dominating the understory6. In transitional conditions, oak and aspen join the latter community6. In a moister variety of the transitional forest, spruce attains dominance and the proportion of pine is markedly smaller6; this type, with bilberry, lingonberry, ferns and mosses abundant in the understory, looks and is very much like hemiboreal forest hundreds of kilometres to the north (photo below). Pine also grows on bogs6. There are also wet eutrophic carrs (swamps) forming 10% of the Białowieża National Park, where trees, mainly alder, grow on hummocks above stagnant water (at least in early spring) 6. The streamside forests are mainly composed of alder, ash and spruce; these can be seen particularly along the Orłówka Creek6, which flows its full length inside the Orłówka Unit. True floodplain forest with white and crack willow is lacking from the Białowieża National Park, the creeks being too boggy and small6.

Boreal-looking forest with spruce, pine (with coarse bark) and bilberry

“Outbreaks of I. typographus – the main reason for contemporary disturbances” 2. When S. Miścicki wrote that in 2012, the most massive bark beetle outbreaks had been in the periods 1919–1923 and 2000–2004 2. An even more severe outbreak was just about to begin12 and has continued till today (as of 2020). Spruce killed by the beetle are very abundant. The warming climate will likely sustain the outbreak further. Wind damage is another major disturbance factor13. Local fires were formerly a typical phenomenon but were successfully contained after c. 1800 14. The last major fires occurred in 1811 and 1834 2. Pine regeneration was quite abundant in post-fire periods15. Since 1890 it has been negligible2. There has also been a long period of oak regeneration failure2. One hypothesis states that oak regeneration took place under the shelter of fire-initiated pine stands in moderately fertile or fertile habitats2. In the absence of fire, those habitats are occupied by shady broadleaf stands where shade-intolerant oak (and pine) cannot regenerate (photo below).

Two pines (left and right), regenerated after an ancient forest fire. Also pedunculate oak (large trees, background), spruce (right centre) and hornbeam

The trees, including the conifers, reach their maximal dimensions in moist deciduous forest on fertile soils6. Two species attain their greatest reliably measured heights in Białowieża National Park (as of 2023): aspen (41.4 m) and silver birch (36.4 m) 16. The tallest tree of Białowieża National Park is a 51.8-metre Norway spruce, with a girth of 323 cm 16. All these measurements were made in 2011. The largest tree of Białowieża National Park is the “Maciek” Oak, with a girth of 745 cm (in 2016), a height of 40.8 m (in 2011) and a volume of 60 m3 9 16. Note that the volume of 80 m3 given on is only an estimate, 60 m3 having been achieved with a laser scanner9. The “Maciek” may be Europe’s largest forest-grown broadleaf tree. The age of the oldest oak is estimated as 400 years 6. There is a website by T. Niechoda dedicated to the great trees of Białowieża National Park at Use the Polish version with an online translator as the English version is not complete.

The Orłówka Unit is possible to visit only with a licensed guide along the roads and paths. The standard tour, covering only the southwestern corner of the Orłówka Unit, leads to a fallen giant oak, “Jagiełło”. However, it is possible to hike through almost the whole western half of the Orłówka Unit, access to the eastern half being limited to researchers9. A long hike will be rather expensive though. A list of the licensed guides with contact details can be found at Białowieża National Park has been the subject of regular, intensive research since its establishment. For example, the entire Orłówka Unit is covered by a grid of sample plots2.



  1. Bernadzki, E., Bolibok, L., Brzeziecki, B., Za̧jaczkowski, J., & Zybura, H. (1998): Compositional dynamics of natural forests in the Bialowieza National Park, northeastern Poland. Journal of Vegetation Science, 9, 229–238.
  2. Miścicki, S. (2012): Structure and dynamics of temperate lowland natural forest in the Białowieża National Park, Poland. Forestry Vol. 85, No. 4: 473–483.
  3. Kuijper, D. P. J. et al. (2010): Bottom-up versus top-down control of tree regeneration in the Białowieża Primeval Forest, Poland. Journal of Ecology, 98, 888–899.
  5. Bobiec, A. (2000): Rich deciduous forests in Białowieża as a dynamic mosaic of developmental phases: premises for nature conservation and restoration management. Forest Ecology and Management 130, 159-175.
  6. Faliński. J. B. (1986): Vegetation dynamics in temperate lowland primeval forests. Dr W. Junk Publishers.
  7. Mikusiński, G. et al. (2018): Is the impact of loggings in the last primeval lowland forest in Europe underestimated? The conservation issues of Białowieża Forest. Biological Conservation 227, 266–274.
  9. Pers. comm. (2019)
  10. Koop, H. (1989): Forest Dynamics. SILVI-STAR: A Comprehensive Monitoring System. Springer.
  11. Ellenberg, H. & Leuschner, C. (2010): Vegetation Mitteleuropas mit den Alpen. Ulmer.
  12. Grodzki, W. (2016): Mass outbreaks of the spruce bark beetle Ips typographus in the context of the controversies around the Białowieża Primeval Forest. Leśne Prace Badawcze, 77(4): 324–331.
  13. Bobiec, A. (2002): Living stands and dead wood in the Białowieża forest: suggestions for restoration management. For. Ecol. Manage. 165, 125–140.
  14. Mitchell, F. J. G. & Cole, E. (1998): Reconstruction of long-term successional dynamics of temperate woodland in Białowieża Forest, Poland. J. Ecol. 86, 1042–1059.
  15. Niklasson, M. et al. (2010): A 350-year tree-ring fire record from Białowieża Primeval Forest, Poland: implications for Central European lowland fire history. J. Ecol. 98,1319–1329.