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The

wild
woods

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Poland

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Hide away in the primeval forests of


northern Poland, one of Europes last
pockets of wilderness, where wolves, boar
and lynx all lurk in the undergrowth
Words Oliver smith | Photographs Mark read

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February 2012

Although rarely seen in


daylight, wolves roam freely in
the forests of northern Poland.
OPPOSITE Sun lights up the
stillness of Romincka Forest

February 2012

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t is the morning after the night


before in the Romincka Forest. All
around, the woods look worse for
wear after a messy night: clods of
earth kicked up by foraging wild
boar; chunks of bark stripped from
the trees by elk; timber chomped
up and dragged about by unscrupulous
beavers. Inspecting the damage is Romek
a forester who helps visitors track the areas
wildlife crouched by a patch of shattered
ice on a frozen stream. A pair of paw prints
show where an animal fell through the ice
before scrambling out and scampering off
into the woods. Wilki, Romek says
solemnly (it means wolves) before getting
to his feet and bellowing out a long,
sonorous wolf-howl that resonates around
the forest. It pays to be on good terms with
the neighbours in this remote corner of
Poland, one of the last tracts of wilderness
in Europe where these animals still roam
freely. Once upon a time, woodland like this
covered the whole continent. If you could
press a giant reset button on the European
landscape, these forests are the template
to which everything would return. The
monsters found here could hold their own
against the big beasts of America and Africa.
Even in Britain, you could expect to get
trampled by a bison less than a thousand

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Hunters travel from all across


Poland to visit the Romincka Forest.
right Elk are solitary animals and a
common sight in these woods

February 2012

It has begun to
snow as we follow
the wolf tracks
big, fluffy, Narniaesque snowflakes
ABOVE A herd of red deer
running through a fresh
layer of snow on a
clearing in Romincka
Forest. Stags have been
hunted in these forests
since time immemorial

years ago, mauled by a wolf as late as the


17th century and finished off by wild boar
chewing your innards well into the Middle
Ages. Nowadays the majority of Europes
wildlife could be classified PG at most but,
in recent times, the woods of Romincka
Forest have grown wilder. With the collapse
of Communism in Poland, industrial-scale
forestry and farming have petered out and

populations of wolf, boar, elk and even lynx


have all gradually shuffled back in. To the
west, one of the continents last remaining
herds of European bison are growing in
number. A one-tonne wrecking ball of a
beast, this animal can comfortably bulldoze
anything that dares cross its path.
It has begun to snow as we follow the wolf
tracks further into the forest big, fluffy,
Narnia-esque snowflakes making the
pawprints on the ground become fainter.
Above us, pine trees sway in the wind,
sending patches of sunlight scattering across
the forest floor, their boughs creaking under
the weight of the snowfall.
Romeck tells me about a night when he
howled to a wolf he spied pouncing on a
wild boar, only to hear a howl returned from
the darkness in response. He passed by my
car, so he must have known I was human,
he adds proudly. However, those who live
on the fringes of the forest arent such keen
admirers. Local farmers tell tales of one
particularly cunning wolf that grabbed
sheep by their necks and marched them oneby-one into the forest, where they were
promptly devoured. We approach a clearing
in the forest, and Romek stops. The Russian
border he announces, pointing to a red post
half-submerged in the snow, meaning that
we can go no further. During the Cold War,

Romuald Naruszewicz, or Romek, a retired


forester, at his home in the village of Zytkiejmy.
Left The marshes of Biebrza National Park, to
the south of Romincka

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One of the most


significant relics of
East Prussias past
was chewed up and
spat out by the forest
LEFT, FROM TOP One of Kaiser
Wilhelm IIs hunting stones,
recently cleaned and restored; a
male red deer blocks the road in
the Romincka Forest; Dr Andreas
Gautschi, who has written a
number of books on the history
of hunting in these woods

Soviet border guards left their sentry posts


to sneak off to dances in Polish villages,
dashing back to their positions before their
superiors could catch them. Today there is
little to see, other than a pair of wolf tracks
leading over the border into Russian
territory. A wolf doesnt need a passport,
Romek says grumpily, before turning back
into the woods.

omplicated borders are


an unfortunate fact of life
in the Romincka Forest,
where the frontiers of
Poland, Russia and
Lithuania meet. Not so
long ago, these woodlands
were part of East Prussia, what was once the
eastern frontier of the German Empire a
region known for its sprawling forests and
good hunting. Traces of this lost kingdom
can still be found: stations bearing German
place names on a dismantled railway line
or a stately home concealed among
Communist-era farm buildings. The former
inhabitants of East Prussia, however, are
long departed. As the Soviet Army
advanced on the region in 1944, almost
two million German civilians fled west
thousands of refugees drowned crossing
frozen lagoons as Soviet warplanes bombed
the ice from above. Stalin decided that East
Prussia now largely emptied of its
population would be split between the
Soviet Union and Poland, with the border
slicing through Romincka Forest.
One of the most significant relics of East
Prussias past was eventually chewed up
and spat out by the forest the Jagdschloss,
or hunting palace, of Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Today, an avenue of slanting red oaks leads
to the site where the Jagdschloss once stood
trees that were said to bow down before

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February 2012

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the Kaiser as he approached for the hunt.
Its a very sad place, says historian Dr
Andreas Gautschi. Now, all that remains
is the forest and the birdsong.
A Swiss-born author, Dr Gautschi has
dedicated much of his life to researching the
history of Romincka, and he now lives with
his family in a village on the edge of the
forest. He shows me fading black-and-white
photographs of the Jagdschloss in its heyday
more than a century ago foreign dignitaries
posing in its banqueting hall, and German
aristocrats with twirly moustaches standing
triumphantly over fallen stags. In recent
times, Dr Gautschi has scoured the forest for
the Kaiser Stones monuments that mark
the sites of Wilhelms greatest kills and
heartily congratulate his majesty on his
huntsmanship. He tells me its likely that
there are more of these monuments waiting
to be found in the forest, lost in the
undergrowth and buried in moss. However,
few other locals share his interest in a
German emperor synonymous with
bloodshed in Poland. Kaiser Wilhelm was
not a good man, but he was a great hunter,
says Piotr Narloch. And good hunters are
part of the ecosystem of these forests, just
like all the other animals.
An insurance company executive
sporting a high-powered rifle and a
winning smile, Piotr is one of many
hunters from across Poland who visit
Romincka Forest. He and his camouflageclad companions spend cold nights in the
forest waiting for unsuspecting boar to trot
into their sights sheltering at Zytkiejmy
Lodge, a former East Prussian forestry
office with a pair of growling wolf heads
carved over the entrance.
Lunch here is served on a scale to
provide insulation ahead of cold winter
nights in the forest. Neatly arranged on the
table before us are steaming bowls of soup,
wild boar and venison sausages, stacks of
pancakes, slabs of cheese and an endless
heap of sauerkraut. Hunting isnt just
about killing or tracking animals, says
Piotr as he shovels sausages onto his plate.
I have two teenage daughters, so its good
shooting practice in case boys ever try to
sneak into my house.
Twilight sets in and snowflakes dissolve
on the windowsills of the lodge. Piotr and
his fellow hunters pass dishes around as
they exchange stories of their adventures
in the woods, recounting a tale of one
night when a wolf hijacked their hunt,
ambushing a wild boar before they could
shoot. Fortunately for the wolf, it enjoyed
diplomatic immunity hunting wolves
is no longer legal in these forests.
We slap our bellies contentedly, before
more dishes are brought in. I soon realise
that weve only eaten the first course.

Numbers of European bison


the continents largest land
mammal are on the increase
after they were hunted to the
brink of extinction

February 2012

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inclair Dunnett is a
Shakespeare-quoting Scottish
naturalist who has been
leading wildlife tours in
northeast Poland for nearly
30 years. Its natural to be
afraid of the woods at night,
he says. We humans are primates, and
primates arent designed to function after
sundown. Wolf, lynx and boar, on the other
hand, are all designed to work the graveyard
shift. After dark, you stand the best chance
of seeing these animals, and at night the
forest is at its rowdiest.
Sinclair drives me to a high seat a
raised shelter where hunters stake out
their prey, now often used by wildlife
enthusiasts who spend long nights peering
into the darkness through infra-red
binoculars. It looks like a garden shed
mounted precariously on six-metre-high
stilts, and the ladder wobbles as I climb. Up
here, human scent should go undetected by
the residents of the forest floor although
Sinclair mentions a German hunter who
spent a night on a high seat looking out
across an empty meadow, later glancing
behind to see a lynx waiting patiently at the
bottom of the ladder. Some people prefer
to get picked up before the night is out. Of
course, its not my place to ask them why,
Sinclair says, raising his eyebrows
cryptically, before climbing back into the
car and speeding back to the warmth of the
lodge. Gradually, a chorus of grunts, thuds,
snorts and belches can be heard from all
directions. Listening too closely can be
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February 2012

Gradually, a chorus
of grunts, thuds,
snorts and belches
can be heard from
all directions
ABOVE, FROM LEFT
Scotsman Sinclair Dunnett
has been tracking animals
in this region of Poland
since the days of
Communism; a wild boar
foraging on the forest floor;
cooking on a campfire in
Romincka Forest

deceptive. Its easy to mistake your own


heartbeat for the footfalls of an animal
approaching, or to jump at the cackle-like
snap of a branch breaking somewhere far
away in the forest. By the milky light of the
full moon, Romincka Forest looks even
more like the enchanted woods of European
folklore. Sinewy roots stretch above the
snowline and the skeletal frames of leafless
birch trees tremble in the wind. Stories like
Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and
Gretel might be fantasy, but in the days
when wolves and outlaws patrolled the
forest, they were a warning for children to
keep out of the woods. After a few hours,

a small roe deer trots into the clearing ahead


before abruptly turning and running, as if
having suddenly recalled an appointment
elsewhere in the forest. The real reason soon
becomes clear a gang of boar emerge from
the shadows and barge their way towards a
feeding station, knocking the trough around
and gorging on its contents. They briefly
jostle in the moonlight, guzzling loutishly,
before losing interest and scuttling back into
the undergrowth. Once gone, only distant
owl calls interrupt the sound of wind
rushing through the treetops.
Morning comes, and the boar tracks are
buried beneath a fresh layer of thick,
pristine snow. The forest is perfectly still
icicles sparkle in the first rays of the
morning sun, and only a solitary red squirrel
stirs. Soon, the rattle of a chainsaw fills the
air and the staccato sound of chopping
wood echoes around the forest. For
foresters, these few hours of daylight are
a brief opportunity to make their own mark
on the landscape and to tame the wilderness
as much as they can. Yet for most residents
of the forest, daylight will only mean a few
hours rest a chance to recuperate before
one more big night out. LP

Oliver Smith is contributing writer at Lonely


Planet Magazine. He wore eight layers of clothes
to stay warm during his night in Romincka Forest.
Join the BBCs Natural History Unit as they
track a pack of wolves over the course of a
year in Expedition Wolf, coming soon to BBC One.