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.
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.
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.
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.
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.