I’ve listened to the wildwood, that song from the old times that still grows in wolf-filled corners of eastern Poland. Black woodpeckers drum there, and red squirrels dodge pine martens in trees that stretch towards the stars.
Białowieża Forest is older than any human empire. It is the European Yellowstone: a wildlife metropolis that forms a benchmark of what the wilderness used to be. Nature is not a fixed condition – it is not so very long since huge areas of the continent were under ice – but in the current epoch, the natural climax vegetation of much of lowland Europe is forest.
In Britain, we have a type of Białowieża that exists in a thousand fragments. We call them ‘semi-natural ancient woodland’ which, technically, refers to any wood that appears on 17th century maps. They are not wilderness, and many have been coppiced for timber over the centuries, but they are nevertheless relatively natural and support an immense range of living things. For all intents and purposes, they are irreplaceable. You cannot knock down an old native wood and replace it with a few saplings; it will take hundreds of years to regain the same biodiversity. If it ever does.
Surrey’s wildlife-rich grasslands and heathlands are celebrated, but it is also Britain’s most wooded county – and much of it is ancient. The carpets give its age away.
…which can be white or pink
And then, there is the music. Whatever is happening in the human world, the woods continue a conversation all their own.
I know a meadow where every step makes the air sweet with crushed thyme.
This is not Surrey, although it greatly resembles it. We do have some precious fragments of untarnished wildflower meadows in the North Downs, and I’m fighting to protect them. One of the things that gives me energy in that battle is the memory of another, wilder meadow, one where I was privileged to spend eight weeks last year, tracking wildcats and bears through fields that have never known a tractor’s fumes.
This is Romania – to be exact, Transylvania, the horseshoe of farmland ringed by the snow-capped Carpathian Mountains. It is almost the last place in Europe where farming is still genuinely environmentally sustainable. Tiny, family-owned farms grow a few vegetables, and there’s still time to take cattle for a walk.
Harvest needs a horse.
At Transylvania’s heart are the 12th century Saxon villages, built by the kings of Hungary with fortified churches to hold back the Ottomans and Tatar invaders. During the project, I stayed in seven of them, learning the landscape while collecting data on carnivores who leave fieldsign as blatant as this:
The scratches are the handiwork of a brown bear, Europe’s largest carnivoran south of the Arctic. Transylvania has a widespread bear population, and although I don’t trust Romania’s official figures for wildlife, bears are certainly doing far better in these orchid-rich meadows than in the rest of lowland Europe combined.
So, I’ll recount my stories from all seven of the Saxon villages over the next few days. Travel back in time to a world where horses outnumber cars and wildcats drink from unnamed streams…