Why I spent my holiday chopping bracken in the Zillertal Nature Park in Austria

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Holidays that ‘give back’ are becoming more and more popular, so although clearing bracken, or chopping back trees may not be your idea of a relaxing break – let me tell you why, having spent my break doing just that, I’d recommend it.

Zillertal is a region within Tirol, Austria. It’s around 40km from Innsbruck and contains the High Alps Nature Park Zillertaler Alps – a protected area of around 400 square km.  The altitude ranges from 1,000m at Ginzling to 3,509m at Hochfeiler. It’s an area of natural landscapes with 80 glaciers, rich biodiversity and unique crystal deposits

For centuries it has been farmed, mainly with dairy cows and goats. Grazing, and mowing the meadows for hay, has shaped the landscape producing the vibrant green alpine pastures that are so typify the region.

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I spent two days volunteering in the high Alps: One day clearing bracken on Schwemmalm Farm, around 1350m above sea level in the Zemmgrund valley, which contains the largest alluvial forest with gray alder in the Zillertal Valley; and the second days cutting trees at Lengauhof Farm in Ginzling.

The first day we drove into the park and met Theresia Penz who owns Schwemmalm Farm, from there we hiked about 20 minutes further into the park along the course of a river, picking (and eating) tiny wild strawberries as we went. We arrived at one of the pastures, where the pale brown cows, with their long lashes and tinkling bells, watched us as we headed for the slopes ready to cut back the bracken that prevents the herd from feeding in that area.

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Removing bracken actually isn’t as tough as it sounds – and one of the many benefits is the occasional discovery of the small, jet black salamanders hidden in the undergrowth.  We worked through the morning accompanied by the musical chimes of the cow bells and the roar of the river chasing its way over boulders to reach the valley floor.  Somehow hard work seems far less taxing when the air is sweet and the silence is broken only by nature.

After a morning of chopping and we headed back for lunch – in my case a plate of my favourite kaiserschmarrn with apple sauce.

The second day we were working closer to the town with Thomas and Brigitte Kern and their two daughters Nathalie & Magdalena – owners of the organic Lengauhof Farm. We were tasked with clearing a very steep slope of the tiny spruce trees that were beginning to populate the area. By removing the trees, we would open up the land for grazing.  Farming is strictly controlled here with the emphasis on low intensity. Cattle numbers are regulated depending on how much grazing area you have – unlike the UK where we generally cram as many cows into a field as we can get away with.

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The hill we were working on was so steep that as I stood upright, the land in front of me was less than a foot from my chest. Fortunately, goats and cows had been there before – creating small indents where you could put your feet and climb the slope, almost as though you were using a tiny, winding staircase.  We chopped away at the trees and pushed them away hoping that they’d roll down the hill. Well, I can tell you that spruce trees don’t seem to roll! Soon the slope was littered with the fruits of our labour. To get the trees down, we sat on our bottoms, legs out in front of us, and slid down the grass pushing great walls of tree branches in front of us.  Pluto, the farm dog, loved this and attempted to help by grabbing any sticks he could find.

At the end of the day we headed back to the farm house and drank coffee, whitened with lashings of the farm’s fresh organic milk, and munched our way through plates of the various cheeses they produce (my favourite was the hard goats cheese).  Brigitte, clearly very grateful for the help, took me to meet some of her young cows, who nuzzled me with their wet noses and licked my hand with their rough pink tongues. In return I scratched their foreheads and behind their ears – and they seemed happy with the trade.

By choosing to spend a few days volunteering, you’re helping these farms to protect the landscape and local wildlife – and maintain centuries old traditions. It also helps to encourage the continuation of low intensity and organic farming – something we have very little of in the UK.

If the warm glow you get from giving something back isn’t enough to convince you that a few days volunteering is a good idea, then let me add something else … it’s a great way to meet local people, to be invited into their homes and have the opportunity to talk to them about their lives and their views. And you’ll be doing it all in one of the most beautiful valleys in Europe.

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FACT BOX

Nature Park: http://www.naturpark-zillertal.at/en/home.html

Nature Park volunteering: http://www.naturpark-zillertal.at/en/nature-park-experience/volunteers-in-the-nature-park.html

Volunteering in the High Alps: http://www.austria.info/uk/austriantime/volunteer-work-zillertal

Nature Park Facebook Page: www.facebook.com/naturpark.zillertal

Austria Tourism: http://www.austria.info/uk

Alpenhotel Kramerwirt, Mayrhofen: http://www.kramerwirt.at/en/

Tirol Tourism: http://www.tyrol.com/things-to-do/events/all-events/e-volunteering-from-alpine-pasture-to-farm

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chantal Cooke is an award winning journalist, broadcaster and travel writer, and co-founder of PASSION for the PLANET  radio, and Panpathic Communications. Follow her on Twitter @ChantalCooke

 

 

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