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The Gesäuse forest

Every forest is a small miracle. The Gesäuse National Park, in the Austrian province of Styria, is home to a primeval forest geologically defined by the rapid waters of the Enns River carving through its woodlands and mountains. The scenery is wild and inspiring, not to mention a real draw for those in search of alpine recreation.

Author: Katharina Zimmermann
 

Your skin immediately feels cooler as the space beneath the trees has its own ecosystem that even makes the oppressive heat of summer tolerable. Your heavy hiking boots are cushioned by the needle-covered ground, and with every step the magic world of the forest, with all its distinctive little characteristics, opens up. After only a few metres you’re swallowed up by this beautiful area, left to exist and thrive in its pristine natural state. In Gesäuse National Park, at the heart of Austria, trees that fall over naturally are intentionally left on the ground, providing a habitat for all sorts of creatures that live in dead wood, such as the rare alpine longhorn, a protected beetle species. Attentive hikers will also notice that the forest doesn’t have a ‘tidied up’ look - rather, it looks ‘wild’ because here, nature can still do what it likes.

Nature’s ever-changing ways

When it rains and black clouds roll in over the Hochtor Range and saturate the imposing rock faces, it gives them a somewhat menacing beauty. Rain is nothing unusual in the Gesäuse during the summer, and the waters of the Enns River bore their way through the boulders, bringing with them a rush of cool air into the valley that results in variable weather patterns. Many mornings, however, while the forest floor remains dark, and here and there small drops of water still hang on the beech leaves, the pine needles and other foliage sparkle in the warm rays of the sun. Upon a closer look at the decaying wood of a moss-covered tree stump, a miniature forest growing here reveals itself. Nature, with its love of detail, attends to both the large and the small.

Where pristine forests thrive

  • Mountain Stream © Stefan Leitner Photography Mountain Stream © Stefan Leitner Photography
  • National Park Gesäuse © Stefan Leitner Photography National Park Gesäuse © Stefan Leitner Photography
  • Tree Trunk © Andreas Hollinger Tree Trunk © Andreas Hollinger
  • Walking through the forest © Stefan Leitner Photography Walking through the forest © Stefan Leitner Photography
  • The forest from above © Stefan Leitner Photography The forest from above © Stefan Leitner Photography
  • Forest, National Park Gesäuse © Andreas Hollinger Forest, National Park Gesäuse © Andreas Hollinger
  • Enjoying the view © Stefan Leitner Photography Enjoying the view © Stefan Leitner Photography
  • The forest in fall © Andreas Hollinger The forest in fall © Andreas Hollinger

Unexpected discoveries

In the forest, the air smells of old, wet wood and it is still a bit cool and damp (dressing in layers is highly recommendable here). Known as the university of mountain climbing, the Gesäuse mountains with their craggy limestone peaks, solitary and thoughtful, feel far away as one strides across the forest floor following the red-white-red markings, ever deeper into the wilderness. But then, it suddenly grows brighter and a lovely clearing covered with yellow-flecked flowers appears; abruptly it becomes warmer and drier. It’s just the right moment to take a break on a bench at the edge of the woods and have a good look around. The blades of grass are blanketed with spider webs, which a small gust of wind sets in motion; in the distance, the soft gurgling sounds of a mountain stream to be crossed by narrow bridge a bit later.

The lush vegetation of the forest

  • Forest, National Park Gesäuse © Katharina M. Zimmermann Forest, National Park Gesäuse © Katharina M. Zimmermann
  • Fern in the forest © Katharina M. Zimmermann Fern in the forest © Katharina M. Zimmermann
  • Wild strawberries © Katharina M. Zimmermann Wild strawberries © Katharina M. Zimmermann
  • Forest, National Park Gesäuse © Katharina M. Zimmermann Forest, National Park Gesäuse © Katharina M. Zimmermann
  • Moss covered © Katharina M. Zimmermann Moss covered © Katharina M. Zimmermann
  • Trail though the forest © Katharina M. Zimmermann Trail though the forest © Katharina M. Zimmermann
  • Forest flowers © Katharina M. Zimmermann Forest flowers © Katharina M. Zimmermann

Where can one still find primeval forests?

Perhaps one cannot see the forest for the trees, but one can see a primeval forest. Here, trees do not stand in rank and file, rather, they grow wherever and however they like and people do not interfere with the dynamics of this ancient vegetation. If a tree falls over, it is simply left there, thus not only making room for young plants but also creating a new habitat for fungi, insects and moss. Everything becomes part of a natural cycle.

In Europe, some 6.4 percent of forests are considered primeval forests, most of which are found in the border region between Poland and Belarus as well as in Russia. In Austria, about 3% of all woodlands are protected or are classified as primeval forests.

Primeval forests in Austria

  • Austria’s largest primeval forest is the 3,500ha Rothwald (Lower Austria). No trees have been felled there by humans for some 500 years – this is an incredible sight.

  • The Natural Forest Preserve Rohrach (Vorarlberg) is something like the Wild West of Austria: this ravine is so densely wooded that it is extremely difficult to access.

  • The stand of huge trees in the Radurschl Valley (Tirol) is among the largest Swiss-pine forests in the Eastern Alps.

  • The Rauris Primeval Forest in the Hohe Tauern (Salzburg) is the only high moor in the Alps. The landscape is marked by numerous lakes, moors and ponds, between which old spruce trees grow.

  • Mighty trees can be found in the largest unbroken forest area of the northern Kalkalpen Mountains in Kalkalpen National Park (Upper Austria).

  • One does not have to search very long for beech trees in the Kamp Valley (Lower Austria): it contains one of the country’s largest beech forests and provides a habitat for some 10,000 animal species.

  • The Danube-Auen (Vienna and Lower Austria) – consisting of 65% alluvial forest, 15% meadows and about 20% water surface – is home to innumerable mammals, fish, amphibians and reptiles, as well as 800 plant species, which can grow undisturbed here.

  • One primeval forest is located very close to the Austrian capital. At the Wienerwald Biosphere Reserve (Vienna and Lower Austria), which was recognised by UNESCO in 2015, the emphasis is on biodiversity and an ecologically sustainable utilisation of the landscape.

  • Some 6,000 years ago, our continent looked much different: Europe was densely covered with mixed oak forests. The dense oak forests in the province of Burgenland are living reminders of this era.

On nature's trail

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