Dry grasslands and deadwood

Orchids, emerald lizards, dry grasslands & co. - the biodiversity in the Wachau is remarkable.

Some nature reserves and natural monuments along the World Heritage Trail such as the Höhereck, the Michaelerberg and the Steinige Ries take you into a lively flora and fauna. Nature conservation expert Hannes Seehofer knows his way around there like no other.

Dry grassland, that sounds a bit sad. Like a scrubby grass area where nothing grows any more. Unattractive flora and fauna, laypeople might think. But as so often in life, also for dry grassland things are different than you think. "I always describe it as a low-nutrient dry poor meadow characterised by special vegetation. In spring, for example, cowbells, feather grass - also called Steinfeder - and rare orchids bloom here", says Hannes Seehofer, who has been in charge of nature conservation projects in the Wachau for twenty years. Wine-lovers associate the Steinfeder with the wine of the same name that comes from the region - "the lightest quality level in the Wachau wine-growing region, a fitting name for the Urgesteins wines", as Seehofer, who is also a winemaker, notes. But Steinfedern are also these feathery grasses romantically blowing in the wind. Cowbells, on the other hand, are violet-coloured flowers whose shape reminds you of a cowbell.

In spring and early summer, they and other colourful flowers such as the yellow stonewort, the blue grape hyacinth or the pink scabiosa flood the dry meadows of the Wachau, which are then bursting with blossoms. In the increasing heat waves and in autumn, the dry grasslands found in Spitz, St. Michael, Dürnstein-Loiben, Rossatz and Krems are then really just yellow steppes.

Yes, the Wachau is famous for its biodiversity.

This is due to the geology and the favourable climate on the Danube, as well as the landscape itself. "If the Wachau were flat, there would be no dry grassland either, it would all be farmland or vineyards", says Seehofer. The mosaic-like, small-structured landscape, which can only be cultivated with a lot of strenuous manual labour, is what makes the Wachau so attractive and unique. There is nothing like it anywhere else.

You would hardly believe it, but there are over 20 species of orchids in the Wachau alone. "Particularly attractive is the Adriatic strap-tongue, whose shape reminds you of a long candle. It can grow up to half a metre high and has long tongue flowers - hence the name", says Seehofer. It can be found, for example, at the Höhereck, a 10-hectare nature reserve east of Dürnstein, which must be specially protected because of the rare plant and animal species - and therefore may not be entered.

The Höhereck Nature Reserve

Höhereck is one of Seehofer's most beloved nature reserves in the Wachau. It lies directly on the 12-km-long stage 1 of the World Heritage Trail from Krems to Dürnstein. Besides stone feathers and cowbells, lots of interesting animals screech and flee through the grass there. One of them is the green-patterned lizard - a little fellow. "If the weather is good, there is a very good chance of seeing one or more", says the biologist - who also has a big heart for birds, an ornithological inclination, so to speak, which he and other birdwatchers can live out here in the "Wachau - Jauerling Bird Sanctuary".

The Höhereck is also home to a variety of feathered species such as woodlarks, bee-eaters, rock buntings, cirl buntings, various species of woodpeckers and the "particularly attractive, orange-coloured hoopoe with its magnificent feathered cap", says Seehofer enthusiastically. The winegrowers are concerned about this useful insectivore and have even put up nesting boxes for it in the vineyards. Of course, there are also insects at the Höhereck. Almost 100 species of butterflies can be found there, and Seehofer names the Easter lucia butterfly, a colourful butterfly that is threatened with extinction and named after its only food plant, the Easter lucia, as a highlight. A little gourmet.

And then there are the sheep in summer.

"From July to September, we have over 100 sheep to look after, grazing on the dry grasslands", says Seehofer. The sheep eat the grasses, which then don't need to be mown. "If nothing was done there, the dry grassland would become overgrown". Maintaining the open areas is very time-consuming, also because they are difficult to reach, usually only on foot. You have to enjoy being outdoors for this job.

Another particularly beautiful natural monument is the Michaelerberg.

The natural monument is located on the 10-km-long stage 3 of the World Heritage Trail from Weißenkirchen to Spitz. There, you pass a beautifully situated dry grassland, the Pfennigfleck. “It is surrounded by near-natural mixed forest and is also a fantastic viewpoint from which you can look down on Spitz”. Seehofer particularly points out here that there is a strict ban on campfires due to the adjacent forest. "In the Wachau, we have very little rainfall and very dry phases. Lighting fires here is really dangerous". To show consideration for the vegetation and wildlife, it is also important to dispose of rubbish properly.

A wide variety of butterflies flutter around on the Michaelerberg, and wild bees also buzz energetically through the often blue sky. Mantises with their triangular, very mobile heads - almost alien-like - can often be seen here. And if you're lucky, you might spot the rare saw-worm lurking motionless for prey. And knowing that it’s something special, the mouse-sized grasshopper feeds unapologetically on smaller specimens of its own species.

Deadwood dwellers in the Steinige Ries nature reserve

Another tip from Seehofer is the Steinige Ries - a nature reserve in the municipality of Rossatz, located on stage 11 of the World Heritage Trail from Hofarnsdorf to Rossatz on the southern bank of the Danube. "The Steinige Ries is characterised by craggy, truly bizarre rocks and an imposing, untouched oak and hornbeam forest, which is very special". The green lizard and the Aesculapian snake, which can grow up to two metres long, also have their habitat here. Rare beetle species such as the large oak beetle or the jewel beetle can also be found here. "Such beetles need old material; they live in deadwood. That’s why the amount of deadwood in the forest is very important for these beetle species", Seehofer concludes. Deadwood; that too sounds a bit sad. But here, too, appearances are deceptive. There is life pulsating inside.