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A waterfall

Matthias Schickhofer

The Gesäuse: One of the last havens of biodiversity

Nature is in dramatic retreat across Europe in the „great die off“. The variety of species is in steep decline and habitat is being destroyed. The Gesäuse National Park is a beacon on light in the darkness.

By Chris Cummins

It’s a misty day in deep autumn. Mist is swirling over the Hartelsgraben gorge, a steep walled side-valley in the heart of the Gesäuse National Park in Styria. It’s seeping between the trees and clinging to the rock face.

I’m walking with conservationist and photographer Matthias Schickhofer along the course of a stream that runs fast over moss-laden boulders. It’s so loud we almost have to shout; the roar of the river is reverberated by almost massive walls of rock on each side of the valley.

„This Fire of Autumn“

It is the trees that Matthias, author of „Unser Urwald“, wants to highlight. There’s a mixture of spruce, larch, sycamore. The deciduous trees have exploded into vivid autumnal colours, and, amazingly, they even climbing up the almost vertical rock faces; making the cliff a kaleidoscope of yellows, oranges and reds as well as the green of spruce, fir and moss.

river scene

Chris Cummins

„This is a vertical wilderness“

“This is one of the last remains of wild forests in Austria", he enthuses. „If you look up these steep slopes, there are lots of little ledges where probably no man has ever laid a foot. This is a vertical wilderness.“

Wind-blown seedlings have found their way onto the tiny ledges of the rockface. Roots have sprouted and saplings have turned into trees that have enjoyed a happy isolated life for hundreds of years. The landscape is so inaccessible that they were well out of the reach of loggers even before this valley was protected.

The Biodiversity Crisis in Europe

This small pockets of pure nature seem especially precious following the publication this autumn of the EU’s latest State of Nature report. This is an assessment of biodiversity made every 5 years, and this year it made for particularly grim reading:

80% of key habitats in Europe are rated by the EU Environmental Agency as being in poor or bad condition, and only a quarter of European species have good conservation status.

If you can’t remember the report, that is understandable. This woeful year 2020 has been jam-packed with alarming and depressing news. When these quite stunning statistics were released, they were buried under an avalanche of ill-tidings. But they demonstrate that we are in the midst of a biodiversity crisis that is related to and equally alarming as the climate crisis and will outlast the COVID-19 crisis. We ignore it at our peril.

the mist in the Gesäuse

Chris Cummins

They also show, according to Matthias, that it is hypercritical of us to point accusatory fingers at the destruction of nature far off in South America, Africa and Asia while we do little in our own back yard.

„These are the last havens“

“In Europe most of the forests and most of the wild areas have been degraded, have been managed and lot of nature has been destroyed,” complains Matthias. “This situation at the moment is really bad. A lot of European politicians say the Amazon should be saved, that Brazil should not log the forest. Yes, that is true, but at the same time we also need to do our homework, we need to protect our old growth and primary forests as well, such as the forest in this valley. These are the last havens for a lot species that are almost extinct in Europe. They have a right to live and we have to protect them.”

The Quest To Understand

National Parks are strictly protected areas where species can survive and replenish and so the crisis makes them more important than ever. They are important laboratories too. Since human intervention is kept to an absolute minimum, scientists can observe and better understand natural ecosystems.

beautiful river

Chris Cummins

I’ve been brought into Gesäuse by ranger Andreas Hollinger, who was born in nearby Admont. On his head he wears a Styrian hat and on his sleeve he wears an obvious passion for this rugged region of foaming white water and towering cliff faces.

The Gesäuse was created as a national park in 2002 and since then, explains Andreas, our understanding of the vibrant nature harbored here has been hugely improved. It has now been established that 200 endemic species are at home in the Gesäuse; species that exist nowhere else on earth.

An Ice Age Miracle

As we approach from the west, looking down from the Frauenberg, the dolomite cliffs of the Gesäuse look like an impenetrable wall. Indeed it was this topography that allowed the unique ecosystem in the Gesäuse to flourish. In former ice ages the Ennstal was covered with a glacier which at places was 1000m thick, but the glacier couldn’t force its way through the natural stone gates of the Gesäuse and so ice-free zones survived where insects and plants developed that are unseen anywhere else on the planet.

A daddy-long-legs

Christian Komposch/ Gesäuse National Park

Dramatic But Modest

We’re not talking about the sort of iconic mammal species that are painted on the banners of conservationists’ fundraisers. The Gesäuse is home to more modest species that the poets ignore: beetles, daddy-long-legs as well as small flowering plants that flourish high up in the craggy landscape.

But Andreas Hollinger says that suits the Gesäuse, which despite its dramatic landscape, is a modest region that asks you to come and look closer and to take your time. Visitors to the Gesäuse National Park, says Andreas, should let themselves be absorbed gradually on its uncrowded and mystery-laden pathways.

A Mauerläufer

Hannah Assil

Andreas likes to explore the region as a climber on the lonely sheer walls on the south flanks of the Große Buchstein. There he gets a view of shy animals that most of us would miss. His favourite is the Mauerläufer (Wall Runners in English), small grey birds that hover like butterflies close to the cliff-faces looking for bugs.

A Flash of Colour

When resting they are perfectly camouflaged to the grey dolomite cliff faces and therefore hard to spot. But when they open their wings to fly they reveal red wine coloured stripes that light up the sky and delight the local climbers.

the river from above

Matthias Schickhofer

A River Emptied Of Fish

Even in this relative wilderness, however, all is not well. The stream that we follow in the Hartelsgraben empties into the Enns, a river which is now dangerously depleted of fish.

Part of the problem, explains Andreas, is that so much water is taken upstream for snow-making machines in the ski-resorts closer to the river’s source. Worse are the various hydroelectric power plants which cause disruptions in water levels that makes breeding difficult for fish species.

A river

Chris Cummins

It is just another example that not just Europe as a whole but also Austria specifically is failing to protect biodiversity.

The Styrian Court of Audit, in a report published this month, has said, for example, that the region around the Gesäuse is logging more wood than is ecologically sustainable.

Help may be at hand on from Brussels. The EU would like to see the protection of such waterways and forests increasingly prioritized over their economic exploitation. This year, with its Biodiversity Strategy 2030 the European Commission pledged to “set in motion systemic change” in the way nature conservation policies are managed at EU level.

By 2030 30% of land in the EU should be within nature protection zones and 10% should be strictly protected. The Commission estimates that at least €20 billion will be needed each year to meet the objectives of the Strategy, which includes cutting pesticides

a beetle

Stefan Leitner Gesäuse National Park

We Can’t Afford To Give Up

But will the action match the rhetoric? Ten years ago, with similar fanfare, the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2020 was launched, also aimed at halting the destruction of nature and restoring biodiversity. Almost all the targets have been missed. In most countries the situation got worse rather than better. So what makes anyone believe that things might improve in the next decade?

“This is a bit similar to the climate discussion where some people don’t give up,” says Matthias. “It’s the same with the biodiversity issue. We have to struggle to protect it as best we can.”

The Gesäuse

Chris Cummins

A Loss Of Leadership from Austria

Austria is a country that is demonstratively attached to its natural environment – mountains and rivers are explicitly mentioned in its national anthem. It depresses Matthias that this country, in his view, has lost its leadership role on the issue

“Austria used to be a forerunner country when it comes to environmental protection, after all these national parks and bio-reserves were established,” he says. “But I think that Austria has lost that status. In the past 20 years nothing has really moved forward. We have Natura 2000 which theoretically protects large areas of Austrian ecosystems but, in fact, this protection just exists on paper and there is a severe lack of implementation and enforcement.”

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