Back to nature: German’s national parks and the return of the wolves


Nature might not be the first idea when thinking about Germany. Engineering, industry, car manufacturing, the Autobahn, densely populated cities spring to mind. But then there are, of course, other stereotypes: Castles, rivers, the Alps, Lederhosen and tidy streets… Like many stereotypes, both pictures aren’t entirely wrong.

14.8 per cent of Germany is indeed urbanized and built on – as opposed to 12 per cent in England - but more than 31 per cent are left for actual forests and woodlands. In England, this natural land cover accounts for 23.8 per cent of the surface area, but 92 per cent of this is in private hands and not accessible to the general public. In Germany, only 48 per cent of the natural areas are in private ownership, and they are still usually accessible, even if they are used for forestry or agriculture.

Over the last decades, the German local councils, states and the federal government have worked hard to transform former industrial regions into green nature reserves – with great success (see our article about gardens and parks). In constant reforms of the “Bundesnaturschutzgesetz”, the Federal Nature Conservation Act, 106 nature parks were installed across the 16 states, some overlapping into neighbouring European countries, with an own EU authority overlooking these parks. These nature parks, comprising around 25 per cent of German territory, are closely supervised and bound by rules of natural conservation. The oldest among them, Lüneburg Heath Nature Park, was already installed in 1921, but grew to four times its original size since 2007. The largest nature reserve in Germany, with 1,520sq mi, is the Southern Black Forest Nature Park. And yes, this is the famous Black Forest that gave its name to Black Forest Cherry Pie, probably one of the most delicious among the huge number of amazing German delicacy exports. It is also the place where most of Grimm’s fairytales take place, a mystical place that is much more than just a nature park, but also turned into a full-blown national park.

Since 1965, Germany has introduced 16 of these parks that go further than “only” natural conservation. The national parks aim to create vast areas of basically untouched nature, where flora and fauna can develop protected and mostly undisturbed. This idea mirrors the ideology of US American national parks, but in a smaller, much more densely populated region like Germany it is nothing short of revolutionary.

The introduction of national parks created contradictions and challenges. In my hometown, the wolves are back. The very wolves that were the content of nightmares and the villains of fairytales now get to feast on sheep owned by farmers, under government protection. The arising conflict is two centuries old, when Romanticism and Industrial Revolution collided in the 19th century and changed the perception of wilderness and nature from being threatening to being threatened. Untouched nature suddenly was less of a commodity and more of a treasure to be preserved. Urbanisation and industrial revolution drove the idea of protecting nature and creating natural reserves.

Ironically, this approach came in huge parts from the US, a nation built on materialism, greed, growth and exploitation of natural resources. While colonizing the “wild west”, the young nation noticed the importance of preserving some of the fascinating landscapes and the amazing nature they conquered. Yellowstone National Park was the first untouchable nature reserve, quickly followed by the Yosemite National Park in California. The idea of preserving some of the vast nature that the settlers found when conquering North America was generally lovely – but makes the brutality of pushing native Americans into reservations even more obvious.

Other areas that were taken over by European settlers followed suit: Australia, Canada and New Zealand protected large areas as national parks throughout the second half of the 19th century.

The idea took longer to come back to Europe, where protection of nature also meant reforming used areas back into their original state. The thinly populated Sweden started to make Lapland off limits in 1909, shortly after followed by Switzerland, Spain and Poland. In Germany, the Social Democrat Wilhelm Wetekamp initiated the movement in 1898 in a speech on the Prussian Parliament, but it took until 1965 to actually install the first national park in the country. The Bavarian Forest was the first protected zone, featuring lakes, waterfalls, mountains and of course forests – the largest connected forest area left in Central Europe.

More than 40 years later this still caused friction. 2006 was the year of the “Problembär” (the problem bear), a term coined by Bavarian Prime Minister Edmund Stoiber to describe the issues with Bruno, a brown bear who caused property damage and killed sheep in the border area of Austria and Germany. In the press, poor Bruno was described as “bloodthirsty” and dangerous, until the Bavarian government approved of his killing. The Problembär, caught between nature conservation, urbanization and agriculture, shows difficulties that are quickly being blown out of proportion in Central Europe – while Canadians, for example, simply receive training in school on how to cope with the dangers of wildlife.

Nothing, however, stopped the growing number of German national parks, once the Bavarian Forest was installed as such. In the very North of the country, the Wadden Sea in three states has been protected, an outstanding area of beauty and rich wildlife, under threat from fishery and oil industry, but in recent times also by the needs to create renewable energy. Windparks and tidal power plants are hugely discussed in Germany that tries to purge all of its nuclear power plants and its coal dependency at the same time. In the East, the Baltic Sea does not offer tides and thus instead of Wadden Sea, the national parks in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern feature steep chalk cliffs and amazing forested beach landscapes in the Western Pomerania Lagoon Area National Park. East and West share the same beauty of sand dunes, beautiful beaches, sheep and health spas along the coast.

The reunification in 1990 saw the foundation of five new national parks, introduced by the last government of the German Democratic Republic in their last ever sitting. Among these five parks, the Saxon Switzerland (Sächsische Schweiz) is especially outstanding. Near the Saxon capital Dresden, the rocky canyon landscape of the Elbe Sandstone Mountains offers peaks of 556 metres as well as the valley of the Elbe river at just 110 metres above sea level, and this strong vertical division creates a wild, intensively fissured landscape. The national park crosses the border to the Czech Republic’s Bohemian Switzerland National Park, and huge parts of it are actual jungle that has not seen human intervention. In the middle of Europe, this is highly unusual.

Closest to being untouched are former military areas like the Hainich National Park that remained off limits for the general public during the lifetime of the German Democratic Republic. The result is an actual jungle, dominated by beech trees like they were common in medieval Europe. Like many other national parks, Hainich is even a UNESCO World Heritage Site, full of animal wild life in all native forms, from bugs to actual wildcats. To keep them as undisturbed as possible, a treetop path allows to watch life unfold below… if you are not scared of heights, that is.

The Harz National Park was divided between the two German nations until 1990 The nasty, highly militarized border left a huge stripe of untouched nature, proving that every evil also might birth some good. Further to the West, the Eifel National Park features volcanoes, trees and amazing routes for motorbikers.

It would be hard to believe that, with so many national parks right next to the coast in the very North of Germany, the fantastic landscapes of the Alps in the very South are not part of any national Park. And indeed, they are: The Berchtesgaden National Park offers the famous Watzmann massif, the third highest mountain of Germany and a paradise for alpinists. The nearby Königssee (King’s Lake) is better known for its stunning beauty and the number 1 musical hit of 1983 that you should definitely listen to before heading to whatever else this day has to offer you. It is part of the “Neue Deutsche Welle” movement in the 1980s, a pop music era that would probably deserve an own article sometime in the future.

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