From the valley to the forest: The man from Wales who has devoted his life to studying wolves in Poland
For Welsh biologist Tom Diserens, Poland’s Białowieża Forest is Europe’s Serengeti and Great Barrier Reef in one.
The 27-year-old who grew up in the north of Wales, near the Snowdonia national park, even goes so far as to claim it is the best natural history museum in Europe, calling it a time machine into the murky and distant past before humans started to leave their ever deepening imprint on the landscape.
Now, Tom is fulfilling a dream by carrying out scientific research into wolves in the forest and their impact on the ecosystem.
He explained: “In Europe, little noticed, we’re living through a most remarkable event in natural history: the return of large carnivores to our forests.
“Recently, and somewhat unexpectedly, strict legal protection has driven the recovery of their populations on a remarkable scale. Even countries as far west and as densely populated as the Netherlands and Denmark now have resident wolf packs.
“In just a few short years our forests have become a little wilder: fantastic beasts are returning to Europe.
“We have more in common with wolves than meets the eye. And I’ve always felt that if more people knew this, it could help transform public opinion, making the species far easier to protect.
“But as it is, accurate accounts of these mysterious animals remain rare. An interesting consequence of territoriality in wolves is that it creates a limit on population densities: wolves can never become overpopulated, as two packs cannot occupy the same patch of land.
“The Polish side of Białowieża Forest exemplifies this nicely.”
According to Tom’s blog, the Białowieża Forest is home to four wolf packs which have lived in the same four locations for the last 20 years.
And because there is no more room for any more wolf families, when the younger animals are old enough they migrate away, keeping the population stable.
At a talk to forest wardens on the behaviour of wolves at the Kampinos National Park Centre in Izabelin, near Warsaw, Tom who studied at Warsaw University told TFN that after spending the last year in the forest observing wolves on camera traps that he painstakingly set up all over the forest, he has come to love its diversity and richness.
He said: “I don’t think I’ll ever run out of things to explore and things to discover in the forest. Every trip into the forest is an adventure, an opportunity to explore what the universe has to offer.
“The rest of the forests in Europe have either been cut down or transformed radically into commercial forests that have lost all their natural character.
“However, Białowieża, because of its unique history of management, is Europe’s best natural history museum. You are not just seeing static exhibits, you are seeing the living breathing thing. Not a stuffed animal in a cage.”
Tom, who is half Polish from his mother’s side, grew up in the north of Wales and it was his father who originally got him interested in science and the outdoors.
“My dad was always dragging me out in the mountains. I didn’t appreciate it so much when I was a kid but in my teenage years I started to appreciate the time spent with my dad. I also watched nature documentaries on TV and all this persuaded me that it might be something that I’d like to do with my life, although I didn’t think it was possible. It was more of an idealistic dream,” he explained.
“My dad worked as an oceanographer, so when I was a kid he taught me how to think rationally and like a scientist,” he added.
Like for many young people, Tom’s path towards his dream was winding rather than straightforward. After graduating from university in the UK and getting bored of a corporate job in quality control, he went to Asia to travel. He then decided he wanted to explore his Polish side, so he moved to Warsaw and started a master’s degree in environmental management at Warsaw University. It was during that time that the seed of his fascination with wolves was sown.
“My supervisor was a real inspiration to me. He was studying wolf genetics, basically studying them in the forest and genotyping them to find out how they are related and how many live in certain areas. He put me in touch with the guys in Białowieża Forest. So I then applied for a grant with my PhD supervisor to carry out my own research, which we received, and now I am doing my PhD research into the impact of wolves on ecosystems,” he said.
Having studied the effect of wolves on smaller animals such as deer, he now plans to uncover what impact they have on medium-sized carnivores such as foxes and badgers.
To follow Tom through the Białowieża Forest, click on his Instagram