There are still places hardly touched by the civilization, like the wild and desolate Bieszczady Mountains with their spectacular pastures known as poloniny, and the inaccessible flood plains along the Biebrza River, home to many rare bird species, sometimes found nowhere else in Europe.
The most valuable gems of Poland's flora include the several hundred ancient oak trees in the Rogalin forest near Poznan. Every Polish schoolchild learns about the thousand-year-old Bartek oak near Kielce which was officially recognized in the 1930s as the biggest and oldest tree in the country. Bartek appears in many legends like the one about King Casimir the Great, eminent ruler of medieval Poland, who is said to have tried his subjects in its shade. In fact, however, Bartek is much younger than a yew tree in Henrykow Lubanski, north-east of Jelenia Gora, whose age is estimated as over 1250 years, which is more than the history of Polish statehood.
Conifers up to 50m can be found in the Bialowieza Forest, ruled by the European bison, Europe's biggest animal. Great brown bears live in the Tatras and the Bieszczady, while white-tailed and golden eagles, Poland's biggest birds of prey, wheel the skies.
Poles have a particular liking for horses, a common sight almost everywhere, and storks. Horses have always played an important role in Polish culture, economy and customs: they were used for riding, cart-pulling, hunting, farming and fighting. Poles spent much time in the saddle already in the early Middle Ages when they had to fight off countless attacks. Unsurprisingly, they were famed as excellent riders and horse-riding became a much valued skill in Poland. The remarkable charges of Polish hussars at Kircholm (1605) and at the Siege of Vienna (1683) have their place in the history of Europe. Polish cavalrymen were known far outside the country. It is a Polish emigre, General Kazimierz Pulawski, a hero of the American War of Independence, who is regarded as the father of American cavalry. The horse was so popular and common in old Poland that in 1746 one of the first Polish encyclopedias described the animal in the following way: "Everyone knows what a horse looks like".
Today horses are rarely used as draught animals, but you can still see them in many Polish farmsteads. In the 1960s there were over two million horses in Poland; now the number has dropped to a fourth of that and they are largely bred in the east part of the country. They prove irreplaceble during the occasional very harsh winters, when only horse-pulled sleighs can reach remote places cut off from the world by heavy snows. The animals are also beginning to play an important role in recreation, rehabilitation and sports. Horse-riding is quite a popular pastime in Poland. There are numerous stud farms and at many places you can rent a horse.
Passion for horses combined with centuries-long breeding traditions put Polish Arabians among the most valued horses in the world. They are bred at three state-owned stud farms: in Michalow, Bialka and Janow Podlaski. The auctions at Janow have long been attracting world's leading horse breeders like Shirley Watts, wife of the famous Rolling Stones drummer, whose acquisitions include the mare Pilarka, the first Polish World Champion. Polish horses fetch fairly high prices; for example, in 1981 the stud El Paso was sold for 1 million dollars, while in 1985, 1.5 million dollars was paid for the mare Penicylina.
Many Polish towns, institutions and organizations have the stork in their names, emblems or logos, which best shows how much the bird is revered in the country. It was also Poland's mascot at the Expo 2000 in Hanover. Storks feature in many Polish fairy tales and legends, they have often been given human names like Wojtek and a stork nest has always been believed to bring fortune to the homestead (for this reason, old cart wheels were once commonly placed on the roof to attract the birds).
Poland is called a stork haven or a "stork superpower" as it has the biggest number of white storks in Europe. While this species is no longer seen in Holland and Sweden, and it only occasionally appears in France, Poland boasts over one-fourth of its European population. This is due to the country's landscapes which abound in places suitable for nesting as well as to clean environment with plenty of food.
The location of stork nests varies throughout the country. In Warmia and Masuria storks tend to choose roofs, while in Wielkopolska they prefer trees. This is probably related to different types of landscape in every region. Over the last 20 years, and particularly over the last decade, stork nests on electricity pylons and industrial stacks have become an increasingly common sight. Consequently, many power plants decide to install special platforms on their low-voltage poles so that the nest base is located at a safe distance from the cables. There are even producers of ready-made stork platforms. The most unusual locations of stork nests are church roofs, fire-station towers, observation platforms for hunters, haystacks and even wayside crosses.
White storks occur almost anywhere in the country except for the higher parts of the Carpathians, Sudetes and the Swietokrzyskie Mountains. Most nests are situated in the vast valleys of the main rivers: the Vistula, Odra, Warta, Notec, Pilica, Biebrza and Narew, which provide diversified food. Almost 25 percent of the population live in the north-eastern part of the country. Recently Warmia has become a region with the highest density of storks in Central Europe.