30th Jun 2012 12:41pm | By Sasha Heseltine
Track down moose, bison and even beavers in the remarkable countryside of Poland’s Podlaskie Voivodship
It’s morning and I am geared up for action in the far-flung east of Poland’s beautiful Podlaskie Voivodship. Biebrza National Park is 60,000 hectares of marshy flatlands, gentle river valley and moose-concealing pine forests.
This is a landscape of wetlands and peat bogs, bordering the Biebrza river and home to hundreds of different bird species, thousands of insect species, 900 moose, red deer, wild boar, hares, rabbits and even wolf packs and solitary lynxes. It’s going to be a good day.
I rock up at the HQ of Biebrza National Park at Osowiec-Twierdza to meet conservationist Kate Ramotowska, who runs Eco-Travel, a company that has taught eco-tourism visitors for 20 years.
Heading off by 4WD along the snow-strewn park’s lone road, we abandon the jeep and creep through the pines in search of the elusive moose. About about the size of a horse, with bobbly, Shrek-like antlers, they have long, comical faces and soon one peeks shyly around a tree at us. And another. And then more and more.
But it may not be this way forever; with each protected moose in the Biebrza forest consuming 20kg of pine leaves daily, there is an ongoing feud between conservationists and forestry commission, who want to cull the animals.
After an awesome morning of catching moose off guard, spotting majestic red deer and following the tracks of wild hares through the icy undergrowth, we lunch on smoczki (pork meatballs) in the park’s wood-panelled hostelry at Dwór Dobarz. Here, we discover the weather conditions are perfect to take a hot-air balloon trip to spot some more wildlife.
Kate notices I’ve gone green. “Here, have this. It’ll help the nerves,” she says, handing me a shot of local Zubrówka vodka, flavoured with bison grass.
And perhaps it does, because I’m soon propelled into a wicker basket and we are off, swept along by a bright yellow-and-red balloon, the only splash of colour in the gun-metal skies.
The pilot releases the burner and we swoop 2kms up over the Biebrza river valley and the flat marshes bordering the pine forest, drifting high above the treetops and looking down on grazing moose and boar.
The next morning, I’m at Białowiez˙a National Park, which was established in 1921, but now has 60 per cent of the land lying across the Belarus border.
The area belonged to Russia until 1919; Tsar Nicholas II used it as his private hunting ground, eradicating the existing herds of bison and laying waste to pretty much all wildlife in the area.
Today the park is home to protected herds of European bison – reintroduced in the 1950s and now flourishing, with 480 living wild – plus the remnants of Europe’s last great primeval lowland forest.
I set off on a 4WD safari to track down the creatures. We search for them among the pine trees, spotting red deer, white eagles and harriers before eventually tracking down a herd, their great shaggy heads nodding as they bask in weak winter sunshine.