Poland: a land of only factories, high rise blocks and mines? Think again. Almost 30% of Poland is covered by forested areas, a figure that has increased steadily since 1950. It’s well spread across the country too, with huge and rich areas in every region, from the coastline on the Baltic Sea, to the southern mountains 700km away.
Over half of the area is covered by evergreen pine trees, but over the past decades foresters have also developed huge areas of deciduous trees, including oaks, ashes, maples, maples, elms, birches, beeches and poplars. It’s home to a rich ecosystem of animals and flora. This year so far, I’ve seen many deer, wild boar, birds of prey, woodpeckers, red squirrels and a beaver in or around forests. There are also countless varieties of wild mushrooms, medicinal plants, berries and herbs.
Until the end of the 18th century, the mighty forests were feared by many as dangerous and lawless places, filled with bandits and were – in a time filled with superstitions – rumoured to be full of evil spirits. Likewise Pre-Christian, Slavic traditions named dozens of ‘demons’ who were feared but also revered, due to their supposed ability to bring power and wealth. Later, they were quite literally ‘demonised’ by the newly arrived Catholic church, who took steps to replace any positive associations with these pagan traditions. Now, luckily the scariest thing you can find is probably groups of teenagers and overgrown-teenagers acting out scenes in popular ‘military sports’ such as AirSoft.
There are also some modern-day struggles and debates around the forests, particularly on the subject of fly-tipping (dumping rubbish illegally); a known problem, to the dismay of many Poles. In the forests around the coastal city of Gdańsk alone, they remove up to 2,000 tonnes of waste from forests each year, at a cost of several million zlotys. I’ve come across several local organisations that organise voluntary litter picks, but this seems small fry and the need for greater action and law enforcement is clear. Forest fires are also a risk and many are seen each year, despite efforts of the Forestry Commission and other public organisations to educate people and keep the trees and visitors safe.
That said, the forest is one of Poland’s great treasures, with an important ecological role – particularly important in a country struggling with smog and other pollution issues. With increasing protection plus a lot of national pride for its preservation, its future looks bright.