Bill Oddie: spare that tree!


There are some things in this ravaged world that are surely sacrosanct, whether they are man-made or natural. Defacing and demolishing the Taj Mahal is inconceivable. Using the Grand Canyon as a landfill site or converting Ayers Rock into a dry ski slope – never. Or extensive logging in Białowieza Forest in Poland. Except that this is happening. 

I have been to Poland once, some years ago when Stephen Moss and I were filming Bill Oddie Goes Wild. Wild? Frustrated, more like. For the first three days, it rained solidly. Our only excursion was to what looked like a palace to meet what appeared to be a Prussian general, complete with plumed helmet, medals, epaulettes and an enormous upturned moustache. 

Poland’s Białowieza forest is home to a stunning array of birds and animals, but it’s slowly being destroyed by logging. Photo: Ralf Lotys (commons.wikimedia.org).

He spoke with that ominous drawl that important people use when you are asking them for permission for something. “So,” he growled, “you are from the BBC?” I wondered which answer would be most diplomatic. I opted for “Yes.” “Mmm,” he mused, “the BBC were here last year filming our bison.” “Let’s hope they behaved themselves,” I quipped. “The BBC, not the bison.” His tone became a tad suspicious: “Why are you filming them again?” 

Stephen responded: “We won’t be filming bison; we are filming birds.” The general seemed so affronted I wondered if we had mortally insulted him. His tone was of disbelief: “You won’t be filming our bison? Just birds? What birds?” Stephen began reading out the list of desirable species: “Great Snipe, White-backed Woodpecker, Common Rosefinch, White Stork ...”

The general soon lost interest. He handed over a signed document granting us permission to film. He then politely showed us to the door, past an enormous photographic mural of wall-to-wall bison. He shook his head and muttered “bison”, as if he couldn’t believe we were rejecting Poland’s star mammal in favour of some scruffy little warbler. But I reckon our Aquatic Warbler sequence was more entertaining than any muscle-bound ungulates. 

Warbler hunt
Our guide was Marek Borkowski, a man of nature if ever there was one. On our fourth day, the rain abated and Marek convened our forces for an expedition in search of Aquatic Warbler. 

Marek led, driving his defiantly dilapidated four-by-four, an authentic relic of the Second World War. The rest of the group followed us in a much sprucer vehicle. We splashed and skidded in the aftermath of the recent downpours, finally sloshing to a halt at a place where we could scan across what at a glance looked like a huge reedbed, but in fact included areas of bullrushes and something more grassy, like sedge. The cover wasn’t high, but it was dense and a tiger could easily have hidden in there. 

I wasn’t surprised when Marek climbed onto the jeep’s roof and urged the cameraman and me to do the same. My ascent was not elegant and I had to be pulled up by the hood of my anorak. 

Tripods and scopes at the ready, we scanned with binoculars, looked and – more crucially – listened. Marek pointed in the direction of the song, which I could barely hear. We learnt that the best technique was to look for a potential perch and hope that a warbler would eventually shin up it. In effect, you ask yourself: “Where would I be if I were a warbler?” 

On our final day we were taken to the place that is home to a share of Poland’s bison: the Białowieza Forest. Hard to say, but impossible to forget. There are birds and animals aplenty there, but what we wanted to capture was the atmosphere, the character and the beauty of the forest itself. The trees, the shapes, the colours, the shafts of light piercing the leaves, the almost living shadows, some comforting, some scary. 

Many of the trees are so ancient that the canopy is as high as the ceiling of a huge green cathedral. I found a suitably photogenic log and perched cross legged on it, giving a passable impression of a hobbit. Somewhere in the distance, I heard a woodpecker drumming. But what was really magical, to quote Paul Simon, was ‘the sound of silence’.

Białowieza is truly magical, what’s left of it. In recent years, more and more trees have been stripped out by logging companies. At the present time, the Polish government is considering granting permission to escalate the logging in this UNESCO World Heritage Site eightfold. Desecrating a cathedral – surely that is sacrilege?