PRE-3. Białowieża Primeval Forest – forest landscape shaped by natural and anthropogenic factors

The Białowieża Primeval Forest is a forest complex covering over 1500 km2, located on the border of Poland and Belarus. This is the last relic forest of the boreo-nemoral zone in the European lowlands, which has persisted constantly since the last glaciation, and except for short periods of prehistoric settlement, its area was not used for agriculture.

The landscape of the region is built of moraine plain covered mainly with oak-hornbeam forests Tilio-Carpinetum, cut by shallow river valleys occupied by ash-alder riparian forests Fraxino-Alnetum, locally overlaid with aeolian sands settled by various mixed coniferous forests and pine forests – mainly Peucedano-Pinetum.

Compared to other European forests, the Białowieża Forest is distinguished by a large share of natural stands varied in species composition, age and stratification. Their centuries-long continuity enables the existence of many stenobiontic species and primeval forests’ relics. Trees of impressive size provide habitats to many epiphytes. The constant presence of fallen trees and deadwood provides niches for numerous epigeic, epixylic and saprobionic species. The habitat diversity results in a significant richness of flora, mycobiota and fauna. Many of them are endangered and protected taxa, which makes the Forest the most important refugium of primeval forests’ biota in the European lowlands.

The significance of the natural values of the Białowieża Primeval Forest is emphasized by the establishment of several forms of protection on its territory: the National Park (1921); 24 nature reserves (1961-2003); UNESCO Biosphere Reserve (1976); object of the World Heritage List (1979); Protected Landscape Area (1986); Natura 2000 area (2004).

The natural character of the Białowieża Forest results from its extensive use in prehistoric times. Than at least from the beginning of the 15th century, its forests were protected as hunting grounds for monarchs, which saved them from fragmentation and deforestation. The felling of tree stands appeared to a limited extent in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was only in the 20th century that the Forest was subject to intensive forest exploitation and management, but at the same time to increasing protection. Moreover, fields abandoned on its edge were afforested or underwent secondary succession.

All those factors made the Białowieża Forest a mosaic of forest patches of various character – from old-growth stands of similar to primeval forest character, through various intermediate forms, to monocultures of tree species inconsistent with the habitat, gradually settled by alien species. Thus, in many places human footprints as well as the different degree of natural forest regeneration are visible.

This excursion will focus on the three forest landscape types:

  1. Natural forest landscape – species richness, structure, spatial relations and dynamic processes of phytocoenoses, interactions between different groups of organisms.
  2. Forest landscape changed by different human activities – changes in habitat properties, fragmentation, geometrization, infrastructure impact, forms and phases of phytocoenoses degeneration, substitute communities, regeneration processes.
  3. Forest landscape on former farmlands – spontaneous and supported secondary succession, succession disturbances, penetration of alien species, forest management, disappearance of traditional cultural landscape.