Nature in Poland

16 April 2013 | Article

Poland’s biodiversity is among the richest in Europe. Its transitional climate which is influenced by oceanic and continental air masses, its favourable geographical position at the centre of the continent with no natural barriers to the east or the west, its varied geological structure, land and hydrographic make-up and soil types make it a good habitat for many plant and animal species. 

There is a very good level of knowledge about the biodiversity of Poland. It is estimated that the number of species in the country totals around 63,000, of which 28,000 species are plants and fungi and 35,000 animals (of which around 700 species are vertebrates). There are 485 communities of plants (using the Braun-Blanquet method), which characterizes the entire biodiversity of land, freshwater and marine communities. Around 12 % of them are endemic communities.

According to the Polish Red Book of Animals (2001), 111 species of vertebrates are endangered or vulnerable. Negative trends have also been observed with regard to 1,648 species of plant, where 29% of the endangered species are lichens, 20 % liverworts and macromycetes, 18% mosses and 15% vascular plants (Polish Red Book of Plants, 2001).

Poland is characterised by a rich mosaic of habitats which are the result of traditional lifestyles, particularly in agricultural areas. A considerable portion of agricultural areas has high natural value, providing refuge for threatened flora and fauna. Thanks to small scale agriculture, Poland has retained to this day local crop varieties and traditional breeds.

The following rare and threatened species listed in the European Union Habitats Directive are subject to protection in Poland: 80 types of natural habitats, 92 species of plants, including 7 whose specimens can be taken from the wild, and 143 species of animal (excluding birds), including 20 whose specimens can be taken from the wild. The current results of monitoring of species and natural habitats indicate that in the continental region (which makes up 96.2 % of the area of the country), the majority of species and habitats are in an unfavourable-inadequate conservation status. Species and natural habitats in the alpine regions (the Carpathians) are in a better conservation status, but this region accounts for only 3.2 % of the total area of the country. In both regions, the conservation status of species is more favourable than that of habitats.

Protected areas
As part of its integration with the European Union, Poland actively joined the Natura 2000 network programme, whose main aim is to create a system for the effective protection of natural habitats and species of importance at the European level. From 2004-2009, Poland sent the European Commission a series of proposed lists of areas, as a result of which (data from October 2009) 144 Special Areas of Conservation for birds have been designated (covering 15.8 % of the land area of the country) and 823 areas of Community importance have been submitted to the European Commission (covering 11 % of the country’s land area). The total area covered by Natura 2000 is 19.8 % of the total land area.

Despite significant growth in the number of protected areas and efforts to restore biodiversity, specific issues which need to be addressed include: some areas of great natural value have been omitted from the system of protected areas and hence do not receive adequate protection; there is lack of adequate tools for preserving biodiversity outside protected areas and of legal provisions to create environmental corridors; the protection regime for protected landscape areas is still weak. Another crucial issue is the difficulty in gaining public acceptance for the creation of new or expansion of existing protected areas, including Natura 2000 and national parks (e.g. Jurajski, Turnicki and Mazurski national parks, and expanding Białowieża).

Poland is not threatened by deforestation in the same way as in many other countries. Forests currently account for 29% of the total area (approx. 9 m hectares). An increase in the forested areas of the country has been planned. Afforestation works in Poland are the responsibility of the National Afforestation Programme, whose main aim, in conformity with the aims of the National Policy on Forests, is to increase the forested areas of Poland to 30 % by 2020 and 33 % by 2050.

Poland is characterised by a predominance of state-owned forests, which are not such an important feature in other parts of the European Union. 78% of Polish forests are managed by the state. Forests in national parks, municipal forests and other forests belonging to the Treasury constitute 4% of all forest areas. The remaining 18% are private. However, the protection, management and use of private forests give great cause for concern. They are fragmented, often poorly managed or neglected, and occupy an area of some 1.6 million hectares, or 18 % of all woodland in Poland.

Woodland ecosystems in Poland are the most valuable and most widely occurring element in all forms of nature conservation, which cover 32% of the area of the country. Almost half (43.5%) of protected areas are made up of woodland. The areas managed by the State Forests National Forest Holding contain the majority of the most valuable and most scenic areas and natural protection sites.

Threats to biodiversity
Nature in Poland has been negatively affected by human development at varying levels within the country: unevenly spread industrialisation and urbanization coexist with large areas characterised by traditional agriculture and extensive ancient forests (the Białowieza Forest is the best preserved area of primeval forest in Europe).

Poland has long traditions of protecting the natural environment. It has successfully set in place a series of mechanisms that favour the protection and conservation of biodiversity. However, it has not been possible to avoid the threats to biodiversity posed by modern civilisation. Particularly serious issues include: the strong degradation of the natural environment in areas previously and/or currently subjected to increased anthropogenic pressure, and the decline in biodiversity observed in intensively farmed agricultural land.

The gradual modernisation of farming in Poland, excluding large areas of light soils from farming and the general availability of modern crop seeds pose a threat to local populations and old varieties of all crop plants. Another factor that threatens biodiversity is the increasing pressure from tourism on areas of high natural value. Tourism, along with other economic activities, can degrade the environment, destabilise the way its resources operate, and thereby upset the mechanisms by which they can be used in the process of creating and offering tourist products. It is estimated that tourism makes a 5-7 % contribution to degrading the natural environment, compared with 60 % for industry and 15 % for agriculture.

The dangers from tourism are increasing in the most popular areas, places of large-scale recreation, where norms for permitted tourist impact are flouted. Areas that are under particular threat of this kind of degradation are the Baltic coastline, the Mazurian Lakes, and the Tatra and Karkonosze Mountains. Encroaching urbanisation and infrastructure development (in particular linear infrastructure) resulted in the loss and degradation of natural habitats through shrinking farmland around big cities.

Another problem is the increasing threat of invasive alien species, which is the result mainly of global trade, transport and tourism, which makes it easier for alien species to be introduced and multiply in the environment. Alien species have been considered a substantial threat to native biodiversity for many years. It is estimated that over 30 % of all fish and over 10 % of all mammals in Poland are alien species introduced deliberately or accidentally. The native flora is also affected by this problem. The flora of Poland consists of some 2,935 species that are or have become native species, 445 of them of alien origin, of which 290 species are kenophytes (plants introduced to Poland after 1500).