Two days after I return from my trip to the Lungau region of Austria, I receive an email from Jodi, my guide there. ‘I found it!!’ she writes, her shriek of excitement all but bursting through my computer screen. Attached to her email is a picture of a non-descript, but fabulously rare, prehistoric moss, diphasiastrum issleri. I find myself smiling at the vague absurdity of it all, as I realise this news has made my day. This creeping cedar is found in just a few places around the world, one of which is Lungau. It gets botanists terribly excited. It was perhaps more widely known 100 years ago or so, as its spores combust into a spectacular fireball when ignited, a property that made the plant a sought-after commodity in the early days of flash photography.
Jodi and I had spent a fruitless hour rooting around a rocky plateau below a col at 1900m known as the Gollinganger, prodding hopefully underneath stones. ‘It was around here I saw it,’ Jodi had laughed, acknowledging the needle in a haystack nature of locating the uncooperative moss.
What we did find though, was plenty of evidence that a scheme to preserve and enhance the biodiversity of this remote region was paying dividends. I felt as though I was in a walk-in Impressionist painting. Bearded bluebells, gentians, corn flowers, red campion (in the local dialect this is translated as ‘donkey fart’) decked the fields.
HIGHS AND LOWS
The Lungau region has a supremely eclectic range of landscapes. It ranges from 600m on the valley floor to peaks that nudge 3,000m; from marsh and alluvial forested valleys to cultivated meadows, peat bogs and woodland areas at higher altitudes, and glaciers.
Golden eagles and bearded vultures patrol the skies, while migratory black bears are occasionally spotted and wolves are on the point of return. We’ve all heard about the global decline of bees, so I was delighted to see so many colonies in every valley.
‘The map of Lungau looks like a hand, but a hand with seven fingers,’ Jodi had explained. ‘Each of these “fingers” is a valley that heads north from the glacial plains’. Three mountain ranges represent the fingernails, so to speak: the rolling green Nockberge to the south; to the north and west are the Low and High Tauern, a wonderfully chaotic jumble of jagged limestone peaks and more craggy igneous rocks.
In 2012 all this landscape was designated a biosphere reserve (the full name – deep breath please – is the Salzburger Lungau and Kärntner Nockberge Biosphere Reserve). Not only do biosphere zones emphasise the wildlife and landscapes they contain but also the way they are managed, with support for traditional or low-impact rather than intensive methods of farming.
Lungau has a core zone fiercely protected from development; adjacent to this is a buffer zone where livestock rearing, agriculture, logging, and tourism are permitted, provided they are environmentally sustainable.
Half of Lungau’s 850 farms are organic; of the remainder, 46 per cent are not organic but do not use commercial fertilisers; just three per cent make limited use of sprays and fertilizers.
More than 95 per cent of farmers in Lungau belong to ÖPUL, the Austrian program to promote environmentally compatible methods to protect the natural habitat and agriculture.
The biosphere designation is triggering several innovative environmental projects. Among the more eye-catching of these is the ‘Eat the Alps’ scheme, which aims to regenerate many of Lungau’s glorious meadows that are suffocated by evergreen trees marching across the landscape.
The spruce, fir, and pine trees that dominate large portions of montane forest are in some respects part of the iconic image of the Alps.
According to WWF International, forests below the timberline are considered relatively natural, and serve as important refuges for rare species as well as corridor areas for many others, such as deer, bears or wolves.
PART OF THE PROBLEM
Yet, in some areas these trees are part of the problems facing the region. All too often, deforestation is a major headache for environmentalists; in contrast, in many parts of the Alps, too much tree growth is a cause of concern. In regions such as Germany’s Bavarian Alps, sheep grazing was largely discontinued in the 1950s, allowing shrubs to encroach and turn species-rich grassland into monocultural landscapes of pine forests.
WWF says that, with increasing industrialisation and globalisation, traditional land management practices are no longer economically feasible. As a result, remote farming locations are being abandoned while the more favourable zones are intensified.
This trend has led to a decrease in biodiversity as species-rich mountain pastures are either converted into heavily fertilized ‘green deserts’ or overgrown by forests.
Several important species, such as the pasque flower, carline thistle and the smooth snake have declined across the Alps. This phenomenon didn’t recognise international borders, and affected significant parts of Austria, said Herby, Jodi’s partner – a local guide, carpenter and ranger. ‘In South Tyrol all the fields have gone, there was just not enough money to farm that way. Agricultural schemes became less important, more trees were grown.’
EAT TO SURVIVE
The ‘Eat the Alps’ scheme is promoted by the biosphere and aims to reverse this process by reintroducing grazing animals and making the whole scheme economically viable by the simple technique of eating them.
‘The key is to introduce sheep and cattle to graze the scrub trees, stopping them from maturing,’ explained Herby. ‘It’s mainly grandparents taking the livestock up the valleys in the summer months with their grandchildren, producing milk and meat.
‘That will let the native vegetation – the flowers – grow. But to do that you need to persuade farmers to have more sheep and encourage local people and tourists to eat them.’
True to his words, when I later follow up my visit with a phone call, Herby is en route to Italy with a ‘biosphere crate’ of Lungau food products he is looking to export to drive demand.
More and more Lungau farmers now mow their field late in the season. ‘With industrial farming the biodiversity disappears, the flowers don’t bloom and you only get green grass,’ said Herby. ‘Each flower has about ten insects behind it, we’ve been losing insects, grasshoppers – it’s quite a big thing.’
The key, suggests Dr Andrea Fischer of the Institute for Mountain Research, is that Lungau has to strike the balance between being a natural and a cultural landscape. ‘You see a landscape produced by a kind of land use, other species come in and get used to it. It becomes a philosophical question. Twenty years ago, they stopped growing hay in the uppermost parts of the Lungau – when this kind of farming decreases, nature grows back. The most serious issue for Lungau is that it has some species that have adapted to the tundra climate. It’s important to keep them, treat it like a Noah’s Ark.’
The hope is that the biosphere designation will enable sympathetic schemes to be rolled out more widely in the area. I saw evidence of it at first hand as Jodi and I dropped down the Lessach valley empty-handed after our moss-hunting expedition. We also had empty stomachs. ‘Let’s stop at an alm, I’ve one in mind,’ said Jodi.
Austrian alms were new to me. Despite the name, they are unrelated to almshouses. A combination of meadows, smallholdings and wooden top-heavy huts, the closest analogy I can think of is with a Scottish croft. The houses have oversized, cylindrical guttering, made from single hunks of wood; these drains are called ‘usch’, presumably because they help to ‘whoosh’ the plentiful rainwater down the valley.
These were once rudimentary dwellings for summer shepherds but are now popular with hikers and tourists, and often sit on the dense network of walking paths that have evolved from the tracks of itinerant shepherds.
In the summer months, many farmers head up to their mountain alms, where they bake their own bread, make butter and cheese and cure ham.
We were served soup filled with shredded pancake (a lot nicer than it sounds) followed by giant, chopped pancakes (well, walking at altitude can make you hungry). They’re called Kaizerschmarrn – which translates as ‘emperor’s rubbish’ – and are stuffed with raisins and plum sauce before being topped with icing sugar.
‘The Eat-the-Alps scheme has no laws, it’s the attitude of the farmers that enforces it,’ Herby told me. ‘They want to get away from industrial farming methods. In tourism, it’s people like us that must help them by buying the products – otherwise there is no point in them doing it, they can’t do it by themselves.’
Some alms are more homespun than others and because the cows eat different kinds of grass and every alm has an ancient secret family recipe, you’ll never eat the same cheese twice. Further down the valley, at Sepp’s alm, recently reopened but in the same family for generations, I accepted the offer of a cup of buttermilk. It’s a rawer, more pungent version of what I’ve drunk back home. ‘It tastes like cows’ udders,’ said Jodi, who sticks to tea.
The texture of the buttermilk remained on my teeth hours later as I returned to my base in St Martin’s on the valley floor of Lungau. There’s a delightful collection of eco-chalets here, run by Jodi and Herby. I was delighted to discover that Herby does drive a small electric car (if only it was a VW Beetle) and is pushing an e-bike and e-car hire scheme, with charging points now found in the distant corners of Lungau’s valleys.
Many rural ventures are little more than greenwash, but here, in St Martin’s things stack up: the cottages are powered by solar energy and plant oil, insulated with sheep’s wool and the garden and pond are surrounded by native herbs and flowers that I could pick and either add to my dinner or use to scent my Heidi-style chalet. Fresh rolls were delivered and hung outside my door every morning.
Yet Lungau faces other challenges, including that of climate change. Last autumn the Austrian Academy of Sciences published a 1,000-page report, documenting the impact of climate change on the Austrian Alps.
The report found that average temperatures had risen in Austria by almost 2°C since 1880, compared with the global average of 0.85°C, and that this rise was mainly man-made. Without adaptation, the report warned, ‘Austria’s vulnerability will increase’, particularly in areas such as agriculture, forestry and winter tourism.
Dr Fischer, who peer reviewed the Academy’s climate change paper, says that the Lungau region, paradoxically, actually stood to benefit from climate change – though no-one could be quite sure how extensive those changes were likely to be.
‘Lungau is very special in Austria,’ she says. ‘It is very cold and dry and that has not been historically good for agriculture. There’s good agreement that with climate change it will become warmer in the next few decades. That means that agriculture will become easier.
‘But,’ she adds, ‘Lungau is unusual – the valleys can be –20°C and up in the mountains it can be 0°C, the mountains are much warmer. This inverted meteorological system means it is quite difficult to apply the climate change model to Lungau.’
I get the strong sense that the rest of the world is passing Lungau by, and that by and large its people are actually quite comfortable with this.
Across Lungau, chores are often governed by superstition, and hay can be collected, or windows washed, according to phases of the moon. I passed a memorial documenting the once popular pastime of witch burning, which unofficially is said to have carried on until the early 19th century.
‘People here would worry that the rest of the world was going one way and we were going the wrong way, going backwards,’ said Herby.
‘But it’s we who are going in the right direction,’ he continues, ‘with local and regional food and a strong sense of local identity. The people here should see it as a big chance – make yourself rare, set yourself apart from the mainstream, and people start looking at you. The rest of the world will follow.’
When to go
The best months to visit the Lungau are June to September, when the snow has cleared, hiking is straightforward and wildlife and wildflowers are abundant. On 24 June, the region observes the Prangstangen, a traditional festival where hay poles are decorated with flowers and paraded through the villages, a tradition that dates to the Middle Ages.
Several airlines fly to Salzburg and Klagenfurt from regional UK airports. Rhino Car Hire offers a discount of up to 15 per cent for guests of St Martin Eco Lodge Chalets (visit www.rhinocarhire.com/pricebuster/St-Martin.aspx). Prices at the chalets start from €155 per night for a six-bed chalet.
This story was published in the November 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine