Białowieża is Europe's oldest and most untouched forestReuters

The Polish government has allowed a massive logging operation in Europe's last primeval woodland in order to beat back a beetle infestation - even though scientists, ecologists and the European Union claim the order will do more harm than good.

Around 180,000 cubic metres of Białowieża forest, designated a Unesco World Heritage site since 1979, are due to be cut down over the next decade, now that environment minister Jan Szyszko has given the go-ahead.

The forest is famous as Europe's last primeval or ancient woodland - a forest which has survived for millennia without being much touched or interfered with by humans. This leads to a unique ecological situation and unusually healthy biodiversity.

Environmental groups like Greenpeace are up in arms, as they had expected to lose a more moderate 40,000 cubic metres of forest in the fight against the European spruce bark beetle. They hope the government will fall foul of the EU's Natura 2000 legislation, and will incur stiff penalties. Meanwhile, they've delivered a petition with more than 120,000 signatures to the government criticising the decision.

"An attempt to fight the bark beetle with a chainsaw and an axe will bring more damage than benefits," said Robert Cyglicki, the head of Greenpeace Polska.

Białowieża, which covers a total of 580 square miles and is believed to be 8,000 or more years old, stretches over Poland's border with Belarus, where it enjoys far better protections. It is home to 20,000 animal species, including a small population of highly endangered bison.

The forest has been memorably described by the famous American ecologist Alan Weisman as "the misty, brooding forest that loomed behind your eyelids when, as a child, someone read you the Grimm Brothers' fairy tales. Here, ash and linden trees tower nearly 150 feet, their huge canopies shading a moist, tangled understory of hornbeams, ferns, swamp alders and crockery-sized fungi".