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The Gesäuse forest

Every forest is its own special world. The Gesäuse National Park is home to a primeval forest, geologically defined by the rapid waters of the Enns river, which carves through woodlands and mountains.

Author: Katharina Zimmermann

It feels nice and cool under the tall trees. They create their own ecosystem that makes even the summer heat bearable. Soft soil cushions your heavy hiking boots, and with every step the mysterious world of the woods opens up further to reveal its little wonders. It doesn’t take long for the natural beauty to swallow you up. At the Gesäuse National Park, in the province of Styria, fallen trees provide 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 notice that the forest does not have a cleaned-up look - it appears wild, since nature is left to its own devices.

A thriving ecosystem

It had rained the previous day. Black clouds rolled in over the Hochtor Range and cloaked the imposing rock faces, giving them a menacing beauty. Thunder roared through the valley all the way to the town of Admont. Rain is nothing unusual in the Gesäuse during summer: the water of the Enns river bores its way through the boulders and brings a rush of cool air into the valley, resulting in temperamental weather. But that particular morning the leaves and pine needles sway in the warm rays of the sun. The forest ground is still dark, however, and an occasional droplet of water trembles down the beech leaves. The decaying wood of a moss-covered tree stump draws your attention and a closer look reveals a miniature forest growing inside it. Nature, with its love for detail, attends to both the large and the small.

Unspoilt forest

  • National Park Gesäuse © Stefan Leitner National Park Gesäuse © Stefan Leitner
  • Tree Trunk © Andreas Hollinger Tree Trunk © Andreas Hollinger
  • The forest from above © Stefan Leitner The forest from above © Stefan Leitner
  • Enjoying the view © Stefan Leitner Enjoying the view © Stefan Leitner

Unexpected discoveries

The forest air smells of old, wet wood and it is still a bit damp. You might have to put one of the layers back on that you had shed out in the sun. Although the Gesäuse is known as the university of mountain climbing, its craggy limestone peaks are far away: solitary, you stride across the forest floor, and your feet carry you ever deeper into the supposed wilderness. But the air suddenly brightens up: a clearing covered with yellow-flecked flowers appears, and it immediately feels warmer and drier.

Just the right moment to plop down on a bench at the edge of the woods and take a little break. Re-energize with a sip of water and take a moment to sit back and observe. Spider webs cover the blades of grass and a small gust of wind sets them in motion. In the distance, a mountain stream gurgles its lulling incantations.

The 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 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. Humans also 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 per cent 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 per cent of all woodlands are protected or are classified as primeval forests.

  • Austria’s largest primeval forest is the 135 sq miles 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: it contains one of the country’s largest beech forests and provides a habitat for some 10,000 animal species.
  • The Danube-Auen – consisting of 65 per cent alluvial forest, 15 per cent meadows and about 20 per cent 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/Lower Austria), which was recognized by UNESCO in 2015, the emphasis is on biodiversity and an ecologically sustainable utilization 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.

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