UNESCO World Heritage Hainich National Park
What would the world look like without us? If there weren’t any people, just nature, completely untouched. Beech trees as far as the eye can see, the air filled with a fungal, earthy aroma. The Hainich region is one of the last remnants of the ancient woodland that once covered large swathes of central Europe. At around 130 square kilometres, it is Germany’s largest unbroken area of deciduous forest. Its southern section is a national park, which became part of the UNESCO World Heritage Primeval Beech Forests of the Carpathians and Ancient Beech Forests of Germany in 2011. Although at first glance its natural landscape might not seem quite as spectacular as chalk cliffs, coral reefs or canyons, it is nevertheless unique and provides a very special habitat for many rare species.
A 500 metre treetop walk winds its way through the crowns of the tall, ancient trees. Up here above the ‘roof’ of the primeval forest you get a view of the delicate upper leaves of the lofty deciduous trees. The air seems cleaner than on the ground, the light feels different, the bird song closer. You gain new insights into an otherwise inaccessible ecosystem.
Hainich forest changes colour with the seasons. In spring, Corydalis cava flowers everywhere in an abundance of vibrant violet, and wild garlic transforms stretches of forest floor into a carpet of white.
The wildcat is probably the Hainich’s most famous inhabitant. These elusive animals roam through the undergrowth on velvet paws and can only be spotted by experienced, patient observers. It’s a bit easier at Hütscheroda wildcat village, where they can be viewed in an enclosure.
Is it possible to treat natural heritage with respect while exploring it on foot or by bike? A carefully laid-out route network makes it easy, as it leads walkers and cyclists through a forest that is allowed to be wild.
The Root Cave exhibition deals with the aspects of forest life that normally remain hidden, by showing what goes on beneath a giant tree. Visitors are ‘reduced’ to the scale of an earthworm in order to gain some very special insights.
Seeing, hearing and feeling – at the National Park Centre, visitors can immerse themselves in the amazing treasures of the Hainich region through interactive multimedia exhibits and learn how important it is for all of us to preserve them.
An ever-evolving world heritage
Old stories about the Hainich tell of ancient fortified refuges that offered protection inside the deep forest in times of war. Archaeologists have unearthed traces of neolithic settlements. The upland part of the forest is ancient woodland, dating back to the last ice age.
But it wasn’t just ancient history that led to the region achieving world heritage status. There is also the fact that the southern section of the Hainich was a restricted military area from 1935 to 1991, first for the Wehrmacht and later the Soviet army. Although they did clear some spaces, they left large parts of the forest completely untouched. From 1991 onwards, the forest began to slowly reclaim the cleared areas, and its natural growth has continued unhindered ever since. The southern part of the Hainich with its ancient beech forests is now Thuringia’s only national park and has held World Heritage status since 2011.
Some forestry does still take place in the Hainich, but only outside of the national park, and using traditional methods that are in harmony with nature. The forest owners and foresters ensure that the forest biology remains sustainable, providing an impressive example of an ecologically valuable commercial forest.
A walkway through nature
The walk around the treetop trail at Hainich National Park is 540 metres long and takes as much time as you care to spend on it. The trail winds its way through the tops of the tree. At its highest point, a viewing tower, it is about 40 metres above ground, normally very much the realm of the birds. When the wind is up, the giant trees sway gently. It’s not that noticeable on the trail itself, unless you happen to be trying out the rope bridges or the climbing ropes. In addition to the opportunity of testing your own agility and your head for heights you will also gain fascinating insights into a world of bats, woodpeckers, wildcats and Purple Emperors along the way.
The treetop trail is suitable for people with restricted mobility, with a lift providing step-free access. Once at the top, there are only very gentle inclines on an otherwise even wood floor to negotiate, so no problems for buggies or wheelchairs either.
A look in the basement
Normally we tend to walk between the trees on the forest floor. But in the Hainich National Park we can also explore the level below that. There’s lots to see in the Root Cave at the National Park Centre. We encounter springtails, coneheads, wheel animals, roundworms and other lifeforms that we wouldn’t normally notice. But they do very important work. A whole army of these creepy crawlies takes care of the organic waste that accumulates in the forest, turning fallen leaves into humus that’s rich in nutrients. Trees exchange water, nutrients and also information! Beeches form partnerships with mycelia, or fungal networks, that sustain both of them. The forest floor is a perpetual building site, where material is broken down, transformed and recreated around the clock. It is a habitat tremendously rich in species, with a gene pool whose biodiversity has still not been completely scientifically documented.
Where the wildcats are
The Hütscheroda wildcat village is home to Carlo, Toco, Franz and Emil, four representatives of the European wildcat species. Normally it’s not easy to catch a glimpse of this elusive forest dweller, so this is a welcome opportunity. The four males live in spacious, natural enclosures. You might say they are ambassadors for their relatives in the forest.
The wildcat village is not a zoo for native wildlife. It is an information centre that raises awareness of the endangered wildcat and provides information about measures for its protection. Friends of the Earth Germany has developed a plan to save the animal with its ‘wildcat safety net’ project. It is campaigning for corridors and ‘green bridges’ to link forests, which would allow wild animals to once again roam over large distances and expand the gene pool, as well as reintroducing the wildcats to areas where they have become extinct. In the Hainich, this has worked well.
So Carlo, Toco, Franz and Emil are on a mission. And they’ve recently been joined by a lynx couple, Kaja and Looki, to keep them company. They also like to live where the wildcats are.
By the way, European wildcats are not feral domestic cats. They were roaming our forests long before the Romans brought the first house cats with them across the Alps. Up until the 20th century they could be found all over Europe. Nowadays they are one of our endangered species.
Always on the right track
Although the Hainich National Park is a primeval forest that doesn’t mean you need a machete to fight your way through it. There are a number of well-signposted trails available. All you need are some stout walking shoes or a bicycle. You could start with one of the many circular walks. The Hünenteich Trail comes complete with a frog choir. Other options available include looking for traces of Germanic settlements, stalking wildcats or marvelling at the ancient ‘Betteleiche’ oak. For recommendations and descriptions of circular trails please see the national park website.
If you prefer to explore the great outdoors on a bike, then the national park cycle routes offer you plenty of options. Starting in the Werra Valley, the Yellow Route leads right across Hainichwald forest from west to east until it reaches the Gartenstadt district of Bad Langensalza. The Red Route runs north to south, through historical Mühlhausen right into the heart of the forest, to the geographical centre of Germany.
But perhaps you’d simply like to get away from the daily grind for a bit, top up your energy reserves and breathe more freely? Then you might want to follow the example of the Japanese and try shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. But you don’t need to go all the way to Japan, you can do it right here in the Hainich.