by Yehor Yatsiuk
How should a primeval forest look like? This May I was happy to see Urwald Rothwald in the Dürrenstein Wilderness Area and here are some of my impressions.
I study forest animals and take part in forest conservation actions in Ukraine. Before this visit I thought that nature of a country located in the heart of Europe, like Austria, should be well transformed. During the long history of civilization here people had enough time to reach even the most remote places and transform them in accordance to their needs. But the reality appeared a little different: high cliffs and vast slopes, overhanging roads and villages, seemed very hard to reach. Even if it was possible to cut trees on them, people should not visit some slope forests very often. As a result, in mountain part of Austria I saw beautiful combination of well-settled river valleys, less transformed alpine meadows and completely wild cliffs. However, forests are in use here for a long time, and it is amazing how these two patches of primeval forests, Großer and Kleiner Urwald, could be preserved here. Only a combination of luck, including land claims between two medieval monasteries and efforts of some not indifferent people preserved this economically valuable forest for us.
In my opinion, primeval forests worth seeing for everyone interested both in nature and in history, because this is the example of landscapes surrounding our ancestors for most part of their history. Primeval forests shaped people way of life and behavior.
The first thing you see in the primeval forest are, off course, big trees. These up to 60 meters high and more than one meter in diameter firs, column-like beeches are recognizable. Interesting to see how huge trees can grow seeing no cuttings. But other traits of primeval forest are also important. All these big trees will inevitably die and fill storage of dead wood in the forest. Here you can see dead trees in different shapes and sizes. At least, they look iconic. But if you take a close look, it appears that they harbor reach life from small fungi and insects to rodents and woodpeckers feeding on them. Only in unmanaged forest we have an ability to track the full way from live tree to just bunch of rot disappearing in forest litter, with changing communities of small creatures throughout their decay.
Primeval forest is non-uniform. This difference from surrounding managed forests is clearly seen when you observe Rothwald from the opposite slope: dense tree stands interlace with glades and treefall gaps, sometimes there are more spruces, and some places are shadowed by light green because of dominance of broadleaved trees. Making way under the forest canopy you constantly cross different patches more or less covered with forest undergrowth. This patchiness creates full set of conditions for different forest animals, promoting higher forest biodiversity than in managed forests, and also greater stability.
Maybe the most remarkable thing, distinguishing this forest from lowland primeval forests I ever seen, is a possibility to clearly see causes of long-term natural dynamics. All forests change somehow in long term: in managed forests the main cause is human clear cutting, changes in natural forests can be driven by herbivorous animals, fires, running water etc. Here I saw how avalanches act. Their traces are clearly seen on mountain slopes and it is clear that their power is remarkable. The power of moving snow is able to break huge trees and clear place for new undergrowth, creating the abovementioned heterogeneity.
Everywhere in the forest you can see how important snow cover is. Small spruce trees escaping deep snow by growing on fallen logs, young beech trees with dead lower branches in ravines because of long-lasting deep snow cover demonstrate complexities of surviving in such snowy conditions.
But even in the heart of a primeval forest we can encounter different human traces from remains of horse trails to modern markings and stuff left by researches. That’s truth: regardless of all restrictions, it is hard to retain any territory in the center of Europe from visits of people. We see that in densely inhabited Europe it is impossible to support big and completely wild territories supporting wild nature. More fruitful strategy is rather learning to coexist with wild nature core closely, leaving more niches for wild organisms next to us. Territories like Urwald unconditionally worth protection as reference points to see how natural process can develop, and to popularize this knowledge. For me I could say that visiting these primeval forests changes mind.
In the end I would like to add that before my visit here I tried to find any information about remained primeval forests in Europe, and it appeared a hard task. Any single resource incorporates data about locations, description and history of last untouched forests in Europe, but such kind of resource could be helpful both for research and education purposes.
Photos: Yehor Yatsiuk