Mountain pasture management in the Sölktäler Nature Park
SUBMITTED ORGANISATION :
University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna (BOKU), in collaboration with the Sölktäler Nature Park
DATE OF SUBMISSION :
In Austria, being a very mountainous country, central elements of the cultural landscape (= SEPLs) are mountain meadows and pastures. They not only have a very rich biodiversity, with a large number of (endangered) species and diverse habitats, but are also important sites of agricultural production, tourism, culture, tradition, knowledge, and sustainable land use. For both locals and tourists, mountain pastures represent Heimat (identity, homeland), comparable to the Japanese satoyama. Due to socio-economic reasons, however there is a general trend of abandoning the extensive use of high mountain pastures, which then develop into forest land. In the Sölktäler Nature Park (two trough valleys in the Niederen Tauern/Styria), mountain pasture farming is still practised in a traditional way. Once the food of poor people, the strong smelling Styrian cheese (produced during the summer on the mountain pastures) is nowadays a culinary standard-bearer and a delicacy renowned countrywide. The management body of the Nature Park promotes public relations to strengthen public awareness of the relevance of mountain farming for the conservation of bio-cultural diversity and mountain pasture landscapes, and supports sustainable tourism, local mountain pasture products, re-valorisation of old customs, traditional knowledge and trading routes, organizing training courses (e.g. to hand on mountain farmers´ traditional knowledge and skills), volunteers´ activities for nature conservation, botanical/faunistic excursions and lectures and related scientific research.
Almwirtschaft (mountain pasture management); Alps; Austria; mountain farming; Sölktäler Nature Park; sustainable land use; Styria.
Dipl.-Ing. Dr.nat.techn. Pia Regina Kieninger studied Landscape Planning and Landscape Protection at the BOKU and completed her PhD on rural development in Japanese rice-terrace landscape. Expertise: rural development; transformation processes in rural areas; landscape governance; environmental management; overaged societies; socio-ecological production landscapes (satoyama); bio-cultural diversity; visual anthropology. Ao.Univ. Prof. Dipl.-Ing. Dr.nat.techn. Marianne Penker is associate professor and deputy head of the Institute for Sustainable Economic Development, Department of Economics and Social Sciences, BOKU. Expertise: regional development; implementation research; property rights; regional governance; landscape governance; institutional analysis; collective action; local food systems; geographical indications. Dipl.-Ing. Volkhard Maier, studied Forestry at the BOKU. Since 2009 he has been manager of the Sölktäler Nature Park. He develops and manages projects in the fields of regional development, nature conservation, education and tourism.
Austria is a country of mountains. Around 70% of its federal territory, more than 50% of its total agriculturally utilised land (BMLFUW 2014A) and 38.4% of the agricultural holdings (STATISTIK AUSTRIA 2012) are located in mountainous areas. Mountain farming therefore is highly relevant from an economic, social, ecological and cultural point of view.
Central elements of the Austrian cultural landscape (SEPLs) are mountain meadows and pastures.
The European Alps (with a 1,200 km west-east expanse from Nice in France to Vienna in Austria) are one of the largest and highest mountain chains of the world and listed by the WWF among the 200 most important ecological regions worldwide with high relevance for the conservation of biodiversity (WWF 2005). Mountain pasture management Almwirtschaft) is therefore supported by diverse activities from the state and civil society.
After the Ice Ages, the influence of big mammalian herbivores prevented the forest from spreading out area-wide (see HOLZNER 2007B & C; MANDL 2002). For about 4,000 years,humans have used these “natural” pastures to graze their domestic animals and thus enlarged grassland areas and repressed both, wild big herbivores, as e.g. the wisent, and the forest (IBID.). Without the human influence, today’s timberline would be actually much higher (= potential timberline) (see Figure 1).
Why are mountain pasture regions perceived as important?
Mountain pastures have a very rich biodiversity with a high number of species and of different (micro-) habitats. The pastures in the subalpine zone (Mittelalmen and Hochalmen) are of particular ecological relevance (HOLZNER 2007B). As “high altitude steppes”, they represent refuges, where Ice Age relicts, e.g. the edelweiss (see Figure 2), ptarmigan, and marmot (see Figure 3) have survived until today (IBID.). After the Ice Ages, as already mentioned, at first big herbivores, later humans with their grazing animals have helped to keep these areas forest-free. With their low vegetation they provide optimal conditions for “edelweiss & co”. In the lower areas, the vegetation pressure is too strong and in the alpine zone, the climatic conditions are unfavourable. The sub-alpine zone is also a refuge for species from lower (montane) areas, which are threatened by intensified agriculture practices or afforestation (IBID.).
Furthermore, mountain pastures are habitats for game, with hunting being a strong economic and socio-cultural factor in Austria. The tourism industry valorises the picturesque flair of the mountain pastures. For the inhabitants and tourists, mountain pastures represent places of culture, identity, traditional knowledge, festivals and sustainable land use. They are Heimat (identity, homeland), comparable to the Japanese satoyama [please refer to the IPSI homepage]. Another argument posed in favour of alpine pastures is the irreversibility of once reforested mountain pastures (see Figures 3 and 11). It is nearly impossible to bring the old status back within a reasonable time frame. However, who can be sure, if not times might come when we will need these pastures again?
Figure 2: The Edelweiss (Leontopodiumalpinum) in the European Alps is the only species from the genus Leontopodium. In Central and East Asia, from where it migrated west during the Ice Ages, there being many different species (DR. BERNHARD DICKORÉ, CITED IN HOLZNER 2007B). The Edelweiss is protected by law. It is a very well-known plant in society and a symbol of the Alps, pictured i.a. on coins and stamps, used as a logo (e.g. for sport and alpine clubs, airlines and bus companies), coat of arms and emblem of the army. Traditional clothes or pieces of jewellery are also sometimes decorated with an illustration of the Edelweiss.
Figure 3: The habitat of the marmot is the area just below the potential timberline: the vegetation period is long enough to enable the young marmots to mature, there is sufficient nutritive fodder, the underlying soil is deep enough in order to build frost-free holes for hibernation, and the vegetation height is short enough to provide an open view to see predators in time (HOLZNER 2007B). Without grazing management, however the habitat of the marmot will become overgrown with krummholz and the marmot will disappear (IBID.). (©Pia Kieninger, in HOLZNER 2007B, modified).
The Sölktäler (Sölk valleys)
The Sölktäler are two trough valleys, the Greater and Lesser Sölk Valley. They are located in the Niederen Tauern (the “Low Tauern”, mountain chains of the Central Eastern Alps), in the Austrian province of Styria (see Figures 4 & 5). By 01 January, 2015, due to a municipal structural reform, the former three communities of Grosssölk, Kleinsölk and St. Nikolai were merged into one single municipality called Sölk with about 1,550 inhabitants (STATISTIK AUSTRIA 2013).
Due to siliceous bedrocks, the landscape is characterized 1 by very steep slopes, deep rivers and numerous waterfalls (see Figure 6). The highest peak reaches up to 2,747 m (THE NATURE PARKS OF AUSTRIA S.A.A).
¹ Only on one mountain pasture can all pastoral animals still be found (EXPERT INTERVIEW, REGIONAL MANAGER MOUNTAIN PASTURES 20 JUNE, 2011).
Due to the socio-cultural, ecological and economic relevance of mountain farming and mountain pastures, subsidies are given by local (EXPERT INTERVIEW, MAJOR 3, 21 SEPTEMBER, 2010; PERSONAL INFORMATION, MANAGEMENT BODY NATURE PARK SÖLKTÄLER, 11 JUNE, 2015), regional, national and EU authorities. Qualitative interviews with mountain pasture managing farmers (in the study “Goat-Grazing and Biocultural Diversity – A transdisciplinary system approach. How to optimize pastoral land use from an ecological and socioeconomic viewpoint?”, see Projects) however showed that even more important than these subsidies are the socio-cultural relation to and passion for this particular landscape, the pride of sustaining traditions and culture inherited from one’s ancestors for the next generation (see thereto also HOLZNER ET AL. 2007D) and the esteem they perceive from society: “It is important to think in terms of generations. We have to take our children to the high mountain pastures now so that they can start to establish a relationship with them and strike roots. We have to infect them as soon as possible with the mountain herdsman’s bug.” (EXPERT INTERVIEW, MAJOR 2, 22 SEPTEMBER, 2010). “Totally unknown people hug me sometimes and say: `Thank you, that I can experience this nice day here. Please continue keeping this unique landscape´” (EXPERT INTERVIEW, FARMER 6, 05 SEPTEMBER, 2010; IPSI/IGES 2014). Furthermore, the health of animals, promoted through a mountain pasture summer (see thereto also WALLNER ET AL. 2007), one’s own joy to stay in Nature and – in case of serving cheese, milk, etc. – the additional income are relevant reasons.
Figure 10: Tuchmoaralm, in the Kleinsölktal (Lesser Sölk Valley), with farm cabins used for milking and milk processing, as well as offering home-made dairy products to visitors.
Figure 11: Lafenbergalm in Kleinsölk (Lesser Sölk Valley), overgrown with alder and rhododendron.
Nature Parks are valuable protected cultural landscapes formed and shaped by human influence (agriculture) over a long time span. The Nature Parks in Europe have existed since 1932. They are regulated by the nature conservation laws of the respective countries.
In Austria the first Nature Park was founded in 1962 (NATURPARKE 1 STEIERMARK S.A.). The Austrian concept of Nature Parks, anticipating the idea of the UNESCO Biosphere Reserves – combines sustainable regional development with nature conservation and has four pillars (THE NATURE PARKS OF AUSTRIA S.A.B.):
- Regional development
“A Nature Park is a protected landscape which was created by the interaction of people and nature. Very often these landscapes took many centuries to form into their current shape, and they thus need to be conserved and maintained by the people who live there. In Nature Parks this cultural landscape of special aesthetic appeal is opened up for the visitors through special arrangements and accessed as an area for recreation.” (THE NATURE PARKS OF AUSTRIA S.A.B.).
In Austria, there are currently 48 nature parks, on an area of 500,000 ha, with over 20 million visitors per year (THE NATURE PARKS OF AUSTRIA S.A.B.). The Sölktäler Nature Park (277 km2) was founded in 1983 (NATURPARKE STEIERMARK S.A.; THE NATURE PARKS OF AUSTRIA S.A.A.).
The role of the Sölktäler Nature Park in mountain pasture management The Nature Park definitely has improved public awareness of the relevance of mountain farming for the conservation of bio-cultural diversity and of mountain pasture landscapes. Nowadays, the mountain pastures are regarded as the flagship of regional summer tourism (due to lacking ski lifts, winter tourism is only of minor relevance). The Nature Park managers promote sustainable tourism based on local mountain pasture products, such as the very intense, low-fat grey cheese Steirerkas (see Figure 12). Once a food of the poor, the traditional handmade Steirerkas is nowadays a precious delicacy and culinary emblem of the area. Annual volunteers´ activities for nature conservation, such as the clearing of overgrown pastures (removing shrubs) by the youth of the Austrian Alpine Association (ÖAV) and the Nature Park are a big support for the maintenance of the mountain pastures. Furthermore, the Nature Park management organizes botanical and faunistic excursions and lectures as well. They support and are involved in scientific research. TheNature Park managers also arrange specific courses for tourists on mountain farmers´ traditional knowledge and skills (see Figure 13). In 2013, a brochure of all mountain pasture cabins open for visitors was edited by the Nature Park to support tourism and farm income (NATURPARK SÖLKTÄLER).
The re-vitalisation and re-valorisation of traditional skills, old customs and trading routes across the Sölk Pass is of course an attraction for the tourists, but also very relevant for local identity.
Figure 12: One of the most famous local products: the Steirerkas (Styrian grey cheese) has a – Japanese tourists: pay attention! – very strong taste! As the demand is higher than the supply, the cheese is only sold to visitors to the cabins and not available in the valleys’ stores or local markets.
Figure 13: The Mountain Pasture Management Diploma (Almdiplom) is awarded to participants successfully finishing their entertaining course on mountain pasture skills, such as milking, cheese making, cutting firewood, etc.
Mountain pastures and meadows are central elements of the Austrian cultural landscape, and are highly valued not only by locals, but also by visitors from far away. The future existence of these peripheral and steep grazing areas at high altitude however depends on agricultural land use, which though is hard and time-consuming work with few economic incentives. In order to motivate farmers to continue mountain pasture management, regional, national and EU authorities provide financial support. Results from the study “Goat-Grazing and Biocultural Diversity – A transdisciplinary system approach. How to optimize pastoral land use from an ecological and socioeconomic viewpoint? in the Sölktäler Nature Park” (see Projects) and in other areas in Austria (see HOLZNER ET AL. 2007D), show that for mountain pasture managing farmers, immaterial values also play an important motivating role. This includes their pride in and passion for the traditional mountain pasture landscape, its bio-cultural diversity and uniqueness, its typical products and traditions as well as the responsibility to hand over a holding and the use rights inherited by a long succession of many ancestors to the next generation. Mountain pasture management is part of their self-concept and inseparable from their life. Subsidies have helped to increase the awareness among not only farmers themselves, but also in society for the ecological and cultural relevance of mountain pastures and the farmers’ worthwhile contribution to nature conservation. The societal appreciation and recognition of the mountain farmers´ achievements hold great significance for them. For several years, the local Nature Park managers have been strengthening this awareness of mountain pastures by means of educational, conservation or recreational activities and public relations. The promotion of regional products (e.g. by a Sölktäler Nature Park local brand) supports the local farmers and is an additional attraction for tourism, which is an important source of income for the Sölktäler. Due to its proximity to and good contacts with the local population, the Nature Park management can provide a variety of promising approaches for the sustainable development of the mountain pastures.
Research in the Nature Park Sölktäler
Several scientific studies, participatory research projects, surveys, documentaries, master theses, excursions, etc. cover a diversity of topics, such as the local flora and fauna,ecology, geology, sustainable land use management, tourism, forestry, or biomass for renewable energy production. They have been supported by the Nature Park management body and the local population of the Sölktäler.
- Mountain project. Project leader: BIOEUPARKS; 2013-2016.
- Successional studies after debris flows on alpine pastures in the nature park of the community Kleinsölk. Project leader: Holzner, W., BOKU – Institute of Integrative Nature Conservation Research; 2012-2014.
- Documentary: Two years after the landslide event 2010 in the Kleinsölk valley (Sölktäler Nature Park, Styria). Project leader: Kieninger, P., BOKU – Institute of Integrative Nature Conservation Research; 2012-2013. Trailer
- Green Mountain – A Sustainable Development Model for Green 1 Mountain Areas. South-East-Europe-Program project. Project leader: Province Macerata; 2011-2014. www.greenmountain-see.eu
- Integration and implementation of a landscape plan. Project leader: Sölktäler Nature Park, Maier, V.; 2011-2013.
- Goat-Grazing and Biocultural Diversity – a transdisciplinary system approach. How to optimize pastoral land use from an ecological and socioeconomic viewpoint? Project leader: Holzner, W., BOKU – Institute for Integrative Nature Conservation Research; 2010-2011. https://forschung.boku.ac.at/fis/suchen.projekt_uebersicht?sprache_in=en&menue_id_in=300&id_in=8293
- Integrative Nature Protection. Project leader: Maurer, B. & Maier, V., Sölkäler Nature Park; 2008-2011.
- Cultural Landscape Management. Project leader: Ressel, M., Sölkäler Nature Park; 2004-2007.
- Centre Nature Park-Landscape. Project leader: Ressel, M., Sölkäler Nature Park; 2001-2004.
+) Master theses:
- Bilovitz, P.O. (2001): Epiphytische Flechten im Naturpark Sölktäler [Epiphytic lichen in the Sölktäler Nature Park]. Supervisor: Mayrhofer, H., University of Graz. [in German]
- Greimeister, W. (2003): Botanische Untersuchungen von Grünflächen im Naturpark Sölktäler in Abhängigkeit von Konservierungsform und Höhenlage [Botanical studies of green areas in the Sölktäler Nature Park according to the form of conservation and altitude]. Agricultural Research & Education Centre Raumberg-Gumpenstein. [in German]
- Königshofer, I. (2004): Erhebung von Heilkräutern im Naturpark Sölktäler [Investigation of medicinal herbs in the Sölktäler Nature Park]. Supervisor: Guttenberger, H., University of Graz. [in German]
- Winter, S. (2005): Einfluss der Bewirtschaftung auf die Pflanzenvielfalt der Almen im Schwarzenseebachtal (Niedere Tauern) – Geschichte und Gegenwart [Management influence on plant diversity of high mountain pastures in the Schwarzenseebach-valley (Niedere Tauern) – History and present]. Supervisors: Holzner, W. & Kriechbaum, M., University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna. [in German]
- Poelzl, M. (2007): Wiesen im Naturpark Sölktäler [Meadows in the Sölktäler Nature Park]. Supervisor: Holzner, W., University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna. [in German]
- Tobias Köstl (2010): Landscape and vegetation succession of an abandoned alpine pasture – Perspectives for recultivation of the Lafenberg Alm, Styria. Supervisor: Holzner, W., University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna.
The University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna (BOKU) was founded in 1872. The acronym is from its German name “Universität für Bodenkultur” [soil culture] and refers to its original focus on agriculture and forestry. The BOKU has 15 departments, ranging from natural sciences, engineering to economics and social sciences. 12,126 students study there in 9 Bachelor’s, 25 Master’s and PhD programmes; 18% of the students are from abroad, 4% from outside of the European Union (as at 31 December, 2013, see BOKU S.A.). The BOKU “perceives 1 itself as a teaching and research centre for renewable resources”, wants to help to “make a considerable contribution to the conservation and protection of resources for future generations” and “to increase knowledge of the ecologically and economically sustainable use of natural reso
In remembrance of Emer. Univ.Prof. Dr.phil. Wolfgang Holzner (see Figure 14), botanist, ecologist, Japanologist and pioneer of Austrian cultural landscape conservation. Among other things, he was also very active in pastoral management research, not only in Europe, but also in Asia. The direct involvement of people in nature conservation research and practical conservation projects was his chief concern, and he was very interested in the different cultural approaches towards conservation activities worldwide. His attachment to the Sölktäler Nature Park was based on an intensive long lasting cooperation and friendship. The Sölktäler, being a case study for IPSI, would be very much in his spirit. Wolfgang Holzner passed away on 29 October, 2014.
Figure 14: Prof. Wolfgang Holzner (right) with the mountain farmer Franz Reiter, visiting his high mountain pasture Moditzen in the Grossen Sölktal (Greater Sölk Valley) in 2011.
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