For anyone who has wondered what it was like to be Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel wandering through a great European forest surrounded by trees and nature, and with the looming threat of large predators all around – a week with Vadim and Ira at the Naust Eco Station in Naliboki Forest will more than answer your questions.
The term ‘encyclopaedic knowledge’ is often used to describe anyone from London taxi-drivers to professors, Vadim Sidorovich not only combines an extraordinary route-finding ability through the seemingly pathless wilderness of the Naliboki forest, and is a bona fide professor from the National Academy of Science in Minsk, but he has also written the enormous three volume guide to Naliboki’s flora and fauna, physical geography and history.
A week at the Naust Eco Station is no holiday camp. Do not think of a morning drive out on to the Africa plain and ticking off the Big 5. Firstly, Vadim is a scientist researcher and does not believe in box-ticking tourism, if you come to Naust you are expected to have a deeper interest in the animals, their habitats, their ecosystem and how they interact. Secondly, seeing mammals in a forest is not the simple task it can be in Africa. Bears, lynx, wolves, bison and elk are the big 5 here, but they are shy, largely nocturnal and much better at seeing us then we are at seeing them.
The solution to this is time and perseverance – and oddly, camera traps. There is a huge difference between seeing a photo of a wolf in the wild, and seeing photos of wolf and a lynx walking along a log which you had moved into position with Vadim only a few days before. Or seeing what the camera you have just reached in the forest has recorded in the past week.
My two brothers and I spent the first week of October 2017 at Naust Eco Station walking the Naliboki with Vadim, learning about the forest, its history (Belarus has long been part of the European battleground from Napoleon to WWI and II, and the forest has a long-history of partisan hideouts, not least the Bielski Brothers group featured in the film Defiance with Daniel Craig). Signs of dug-outs are everywhere with the occasional old ammunition piles too.
Following WWII the Soviets took control and systematically drained the forest, disrupting its ecosystem – but the re-establishment of beaver colonies and their dams has begun to re-swamp it and reinstate the environment. We spent one perfectly still evening overlooking a small river, and at dusk were rewarded with an otter swimming by, followed a short time later by a purposeful beaver heading downstream too.
The days in the forest were long, setting off pre-dawn ‘ranging’ in Vadim’s 4x4 Lada, and returning after dusk. Having spent up to five or six hours walking through different forest habitats – silver birch groves, tall pine stands, and oak and beech woods. Each with a different look and feel. And all with glorious autumnal mushroom cover.
Vadim could spot signs of recent animals, droppings and footprints, scratchings and dens as well as tell us of recent activity from lynx and wolves he had seen in the areas we were visiting – and every now and again the tempo rose with the sound of an elk thrashing its way through the trees. We probably spoke too much (it is difficult to keep silent for 4 hours at a time with all this beauty around you) to see everything we could; but there were snatched glimpses of wolves disappearing into the undergrowth (no more than a second’s flash of activity) on a couple of occasions; short sightings of elk; we were unlucky not to see the bison, of which we saw so much sign, for more than a minute or two in the evening’s dusk from the car.
One evening brought the fabulous sight of the sky filled with cranes gathering prior to their autumnal migration south.
After nearly 70 hours in the field our time was up and we were returning from our final forest tour when Vadim slammed on the brakes, and peered into the middle distance: a wolf! Not more than 150 metres away – a perfect sighting. Thrilled, we watched for several minutes as it loped away, occasionally stopping to look back at us. Perseverance had brought success – and elation.
Returning to the Eco Station was always a pleasure. Weary from long walks in the forest, Ira always had amazing food ready and waiting, all prepared with great skill on the wood-fired stoves. The lodge is warm and comfortable with electric light and sockets, cool beers in the fridge and a satisfyingly hot shower (and sauna available too). Vadim insists on an outside loo, exasperated at the modern world’s insistence on the unnatural practice of ‘going’ inside your own house…., it is something that takes a little getting used to, especially in the middle of the night, but is integral to understanding the woods perhaps.
A week in Naliboki with Vadim and Ira is a fascinating pleasure, full of new experience and learning. This short review only scratches the surface – we also kayaked and you can sleep out overnight to increase your chances of spotting the predators. Only go if you are truly interested in the ecosystem, and happy to put the work in to understand and see it – but if you do you will be richly rewarded, and meet some special people in Vadim and Ira.
Birds seen at Naliboki October 2017
Black Woodpecker, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Middle Spotted Woodpecker, Grey-Headed Woodpecker, Woodcock, Capercaillie, Tawny Owl , Hazel Grouse, Black Grouse, Nuthatch, Treecreeper, Blue Tit, Marsh Tit, Willow Tit, Great Tit, Chaffinch, Siskin, Robin, Blackbird, Mistle Thrush, Song Thrush, House Sparrow, Goldcrest, Wren, Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff, Pied Wagtail, Starling, Great Grey Shrike, Yellowhammer, Reed Bunting, Woodpigeon, Carrion Crow, Raven, Jay, Mallard, Crane, Grey Heron, Common Buzzard, Common Kestrel, Hen Harrier, Goshawk, Spotted Eagle, White-tailed Eagle, Short-Toed Eagle, Osprey, Sparrowhawk
Birds seen elsewhere in Belarus
Jackdaw, Rook, Common Gull, Hooded Crow
Animals seen in Naliboki Forest October 2017
Roe Deer, Red Deer, Elk, Polecat, European Beaver, Otter, Red Fox, Blue Hare, European Bison, Hedgehog, Pine Martin, Wolf, Red Squirrel (in Minsk!)
Common Frog, Grass Snake, Edible Frog