…and search we did.
I’ve just returned from a week in the cold and snowy far south-east of Poland, looking for Europe’s great mammals and, specifically, the lynx.
For a long time I have had a great yearning to see the European wildernesses that point to the way Britain may once have been. It saddens and frustrates me that we have lost so much of our natural landscapes and wildlife; in fact, we have lost very nearly all of them. The English, Scottish and Welsh countryside that many of us cherish are at very best utterly poor pastiches of natural landscapes; often human-shaped green deserts where the wild challengers to us have been wiped away and less notable species vastly diminished due our negligence. This trip presented an opportunity to see what we have lost and, possibly, what we could regain.
The trip commenced with a Ryanair flight Stansted to Rzeszow; there I met the rest of the small group of seven guests and our two tour leaders, Jan and Detlef. On exiting the small but smart airport, we emerged into the cold and harsh Polish winter, loaded up the van and headed off deep into the countryside. There was snow on the ground, covering rooftops and clinging to trees, with huge icicles hanging from the eaves of houses, the like of which I haven’t seen in the UK since my childhood.
It was a three-hour journey to the first of our two homes for the week and we got a nice start to the trip with a good view (a first for me) of a Ural owl perched in a roadside tree. When we arrived at the hamlet of Maniow, we had a light soup lunch (we had a lot of soup during the trip!) and we were then shown to our accommodation for then next three nights. We all (singles or couples) had our own individual domkis on the side of the hill above a main house where we had our meals. These were lovely little wooden summerhouse-type buildings with a large lounge, small kitchen and shower room downstairs and two bedrooms upstairs, one with a balcony overlooking the valley. At the centre of each domki was a large woodburning stove which (apart from a small heater in the shower room) was the only heating for the building. The stoves were lit on our arrival and were kept topped up with wood when we were out, but it was a special added element to the trip for us to keep them going overnight so that the domkis were still warm when we woke each morning.
After settling in, we went out for our first look around the local area, travelling around by mini-bus and getting out for walks in amongst the snowy forested hills. As the dark began to close around us, we loaded back into the mini-bus and Jan and Detlef used a bright spot lamp to try to find wildlife as we drove along the forest roads and tracks. This achieved some significant success with foxes and roe deer seen at first and finishing with another first for me; a wildcat. This is a species I’ve wanted to see in the wild for a very long time and one I hadn’t expected to come across – a real bonus on the first day. On returning to our new home, we had a very good and large evening meal. Large meals were a common theme throughout the trip with usually soup to start, a very substantial main course (usually meat, potatoes and veg), followed by a (thankfully) small sweet.
On the first morning, having woken in the early hours and gone downstairs to feed the fire, we settled into a pattern for the next six days. Heading out early before breakfast to scan for wildlife from vantage points or by driving the along quite rural roads and tracks, and stopping for walks. We would then return to the accommodation for a large breakfast (and many pancakes!) before heading out again for day. We would either return for lunch and going out in the afternoon or stay out all day until past dusk, finishing the day with more spotlighting.
We didn’t have much luck with mammals in our first location despite visiting a number of sites and going for a long walk each day. However, the snow helped to give us an indication of the vast amount of wildlife activity in the area with so many tracks left behind. There were deer tracks everywhere, both roe and red, but we also came across plenty of wolf prints and those of a male and female lynx, coming together for a few weeks over the mating season. Birds on the other hand, while small in number, were more visible and I saw my first ever pygmy owl and nutcracker, as well as more Ural owls.
It wasn’t until the last evening before moving onto our second location that we found the first of our target big mammals. As the light was starting to fail on the way back to our evening meal, two of us spotted large dark shapes standing out against snow covered woodland – we had found bison! We didn’t have a long view; as the mini-bus came to a halt, the five animals slowly melted into the surrounding undergrowth. They lingered just within the wood for a short while giving us tantalising glimpses of their massive bodies before heading further into cover.
The day of our move onto our second base started with a long walk along snowy forest tracks looking for birds and more bison. The sun came out as we strolled along bringing a break in the freezing cloudiness we experienced throughout the trip – at that moment, there wasn’t anywhere I would rather have been – walking in a beautiful winter wonderland, with the sun shining down on the sharp white snow, looking for wildlife in a rich and complete natural environment. As we rounded a corner we came across another of the many bison feeding stations we visited. There was food put out for the animals but it was only a flock of small birds, mainly coal and marsh tits, taking advantage. However, we found more signs of bigger animals with scratch marks from brown bear claws high up on a tree trunk and the remains of a red deer taken by the wolves.
After lunch we made the one hour journey to our second centre, a hotel in the village of Ustrzyki Gorne. It was tough going on the road as we had to make our way over a high snow-filled pass and the mini-bus struggled, slipping and sliding its way up and down the hills. However, without incident we arrived at the hotel, checked in and then headed out to check a few locations around our new base. After driving up another steep hill we saw ravens fly up from beside the road; we had stumbled across a double wolf kill. We staked out the location for an hour or so but the wolves had disappeared and we had to leave as the light started to fail. Not for the first or last time on the trip, we were stopped by the Polish border guards who patrolled both areas in which we stayed. Our bases were very close to the border with Ukraine and at one point we were only 50 metres from the river that forms the dividing line between the two countries. As they always were, the guards were friendly and efficient, they often seemed surprised that we were on a holiday to see the wildlife that they see on a regular basis.
The next morning we headed back to the double wolf-kill site, to find a further deer had been killed by wolves overnight just a short distance down the road. We were given the opportunity to get out of the mini-bus and take a look at what remained of one of the earlier carcasses. After sliding and stumbling across the rough and snowy ground we found a small flock of tits feeding on the virtually bare red deer skeleton. They were mostly coal tits but as we waited they were joined by two crested tits, all feeding on the remaining frozen flesh. Jan kindly went back to the mini-bus for my camera and I took some of the most spectacular photos of my life; taking shots of ‘cresties’ is rare enough, but taking shots of them feeding from inside the remains of a wolf kill was a once a lifetime opportunity I wasn’t going to miss. The following are some of the results…
It was on our penultimate day that we struck lucky with our mammals. In the afternoon, we drove to a couple of vantage points, high above a valley floor. At the first, we had our first good, prolonged views of bison with a mixed herd of 15 feeding in the open snowy fields. We watched them for quite a while before some of us decided to walk to the next view point. On the way I found a white-backed woodpecker but all hell was breaking loose when I eventually caught up with the rest of the group. The eagle-eyed Detlef had, somehow, spotted a lynx sat relaxing in a gap in the woodland on the opposite side of the valley about 600 metres away. We spent three and a half hours watching it, observing its every small move; at one point we thought it had wandered off only for it to return to its original position. Overlooking the river valley with a long view of forests broken by large meadows, at one stage we had a wealth of wildlife in front of us; the lynx, roe deer, red deer, a fox and eventually a herd of bison appeared from over a hill and descended down to feed on more hay left out for them. These were pretty magical three and a half hours and ones that I’ll never forget. Eventually, we had to leave as the forest tracks didn’t look great for night driving, and regrettably had to leave the lynx behind, still sitting in the same spot at which we had first spotted it.
Our last day was spent looking for wolves and like many of the other days they always seemed to be a few minutes ahead of us. The previous day a forest worker had told us we had missed them by 30 minutes! We found plenty of prints, the largest I have ever seen, and I could almost feel their presence around us but it wasn’t to be and we went home without seeing them. In the morning we found a wolf kill in a river, Detlef flushing over fifty ravens from the location as he went down the hill to find it. That afternoon, we went back to the two viewing points of the previous day and found even more bison, more than 50 (a big herd) but, not surprisingly, the lynx had gone. We spent the last hours of daylight scanning the valley for wolves, seeing a grey-headed woodpecker, but as the snow started to come down more heavily once again, we headed back for a last night at the hotel.
This trip really did deliver a real experience of rural and wild Eastern Europe at the height of winter. It was bitterly cold at times, around -15c with windchill on one morning stood at the top high mountain pass. It showed us nature at its most raw, finding five wolf kills over course of the trip. It delivered views of the target species that I went out to find (lynx and bison, owls and woodpeckers) plus one or two bonuses (wildcat and wild boar). It gave us great vistas of snowy landscapes, of hills, mountains and valleys, of meadows, woodlands and forests. It gave me photographic opportunities I could only have dreamt of beforehand. Overall, the trip delivered on so many levels that the lack of wolves was in the end only a minor disappointment.
Well, Poland perhaps has lessons for us, and perhaps also the rest of western Europe. The places I visited over the past week show how populations can live alongside the indigenous large fauna, particularly carnivores, without the need to control their populations down to unsustainable levels. However, there was something I didn’t quite fully grasp while I was there; I understand that much of the land is not under commercial agriculture but is kept in its current form by EU subsidies to farmers who manage the land within the national parks to maintain their landscapes and wildlife.
The trip was booked through Naturetrek, their ‘Poland’s Mammals – In Search of the Eurasian Lynx’ trip, the details of which can be found here.
The two Belgian tour leaders, Jan Kelchtermans and Detlef Tibax, were excellent and they constantly tried so hard to find the wildlife we wanted to see. The best memory from the trip? Well, I’ve been on quite a few wildlife holidays now but I’ve never before seen such an enthusiastic response of a tour leader when they had spotted the key species for the trip. The sight of Jan coming to tell me that a lynx had been spotted is one I won’t forget in a very long time! I had been trailing behind the group, taking photos of a white-backed woodpecker, and he came to find me, smiling, shouting, running and skipping towards me in a mildly hysterical way, rather like he’d scored the World Cup winning goal. He was so excited but still took my camera from me for safe-keeping so that I could sprint to the sighting spot down the snowy and icy track; the touch of a brilliant guide who loves to share his passion for wildlife with others.
Poland was excellent and I was very sad to leave but I will return – perhaps to rent another domki for a week.