The Hidden Wilderness of Europe
Living in densely populated Britain, it is easy to forget that wilderness can still be found in Europe, albeit at its far-flung corners.
In Transcarpathia we were lucky enough to walk through one of the continent’s largest primeval beech forests. This means it has remained untouched by man since its birth at the end of the last Ice Age around 10,000 years ago.
We hiked for more than a mile up its steep slopes, shaded from the heat of the midday sun by the canopy of massive beeches, some several hundred years old. Our guide stopped at times to tell us about the various trees and the formation of the forest.
Just below the summit, we took a break at an extraordinary rock formation, a huge elliptical hole gouged through solid limestone by ancient forces unknown, although our guide said it was most likely to have been some prehistoric water course.
Wild animals have a refuge in the vastness of this forest. Bear and boar share it with creatures more familiar to British woodlands like deer and fox.
Except for the well-worn path our guide led us along, there was no sign of human interference, no ordered plantations, no chainsawed clearances, just the natural process of growth and demise that has continued for millennia and provides the perfect habitat for woodland wildlife.
Halfway up the mountain, our guide pointed out a deep hole, its entrance almost completely obscured by the vibrant undergrowth. He told us that a group of Jews had sought refuge from the Nazis by living there during the Second World War. The locals helped them out by providing them with food and drink, but, tragically, they were eventually discovered.
This story made us reflect on the different ways in which man has found use for the forest. Although it is a protected UNESCO site, the locals still use the dead and fallen wood on the margins of the wood for heating their homes and other odd jobs, a practice that is tacitly tolerated by the authorities in the interests of balancing the needs of humans and wildlife.
After a wonderful couple of hours in the cool, green shade of the woodland we returned down the hillside into the glare of the sun, the shimmering heat of early afternoon and the dancing wildflower meadows that the gentle farming methods of the area have preserved.