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Poland’s rural poverty has preserved its wildlife

Posted in Animals, Birds, Conservation, Geography, Nature, Wildlife on Tuesday, 30 August 2011

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This edited article about Polish wildlife originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1047 published on 3 April 1982.

Lynx, picture, image, illustration

The Lynx by K Lilly

Poland’s current political problems have thrown a dark shadow over the many attractions of this large and often beautiful country, which borders the Soviet Union to the east and East Germany to the west. Poland has a continental climate, with cold winters and hot summers, while its varied geography ranges from wide open plains in the north to high mountains in the south, and this explains the variety of animals to be found within its boundaries.

Compared with the highly mechanised farming found today in Western Europe, Poland’s peasant farming, with its lack of mechanisation and pesticides, is highly beneficial to wildlife. As a result, white storks are a common sight stalking the fields, or nesting in the villages on their bulky nests.

Much rarer than the white stork is its black relative, but this shy bird is quite widely distributed in Poland’s forests, including the huge Bialowieza Forest which extends into the USSR. This wild area is the home of Europe’s largest mammal, the bison, which was once close to extinction but now survives thanks to careful protection. Europe’s largest deer, the elk, is also found in Bialowieza, and is slowly increasing its range and spreading westwards through Poland.

Thanks to so many areas of wilderness surviving almost untouched, many mammals which are now rare or exterminated from other parts of Europe survive in Poland. Brown bears and wolves, though very rare, still occur, while the lynx – a handsome, nocturnal hunter as big as a German shepherd dog – is to be found in the forests of eastern Poland, as well as in the Carpathian mountains in the south.

Lynxes are capable of taking a wide variety of prey up to the size of a roe deer; in the Carpathians their prey also includes young chamois. This is the same species of chamois as that found in the Alps and the Pyrenees, but the Carpathian animals tend to be bigger and heavier.

Two mammals exterminated in Britain in the Middle Ages are common in Poland – the wild boar and the beaver. Wild boar generally spend the day in thick woodland, but at night come out to feed on farmers’ fields, where their rooting can do considerable damage to crops. The beaver’s habit of chopping down trees and damming streams can also create problems, but in Poland there is still sufficient space for man and beaver to live together.

One of the more interesting mammals of eastern Poland is the flying squirrel, for this is the western edge of its range in Europe. Being nocturnal it is not commonly seen; by using its “wing-membrane” between its fore and hind legs it can glide considerable distances. Also on the western limit of its range is the spotted suslik, a small, thick-set ground dweller. It is an animal of the steppes, the extensive plains which reach across from Russia into Poland. Winters on the steppes are harsh, so the suslik hibernates through them.

Northern Poland’s landscape is dotted with lakes, a reminder of Ice Age glaciers which once covered the country. Their reeded fringes often hold nesting little bitterns, while the lakes themselves attract nesting black-necked grebes and a wide variety of ducks, including the handsome red-breasted merganser.

Poland is one of the best places in Europe to look out for white-tailed eagles, while the more widely distributed golden eagle occurs in the mountains. Though the golden eagle’s neck may shine golden in bright sunlight, it is a dark burnished gold, unlike the brilliant golden-yellow of the golden oriole. This beautiful bird is a common summer visitor to Poland, but it is more often heard than seen, for it is secretive and likes to hide in the tops of trees.

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