Green Shoots from Old Roots – Reimagining Eifel cultural landscapes

Given its proximity to where we live, the upland plateau of the Eifel, located to the South of Aachen is one of our most popular choices for day trips. In recent years it has become increasingly frequented as a tourist destination, particularly since the recent creation of the Eifel National Park. However this wasn’t always the case; even in relatively recent history, the Eifel was best known for its long harsh winters, biting winds, high rainfall and featureless misty moorlands. Known locally as the “Venn”, parts of the Eifel, therefore acquired a dark and sinister reputation, making it the favourite haunt and setting for crime writers.

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However, these same harsh conditions have been responsible for the creation of a fascinating and unique cultural landscape, which has endured for the last 300 years or so. Desperate to protect their fields, homes and livestock from freezing winds and winter snows, local people, planted a dense network of hedges, thereby creating the distinctive “Monschauer Heckenlandschaft”. Following many years of neglect, the inhabitants of the region are now once again beginning to see the potential of the “Heckenlandschaft” as a valuable resource for sustainable development – including for woodfuel, ecotourism, biodiversity and environmental education.

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One of the best places to appreciate the characteristic landscape of the “Monschauer Heckenlandschaft” is the small village of Eicherscheid,  which is situated at 550m on an upland plateau, close to the regional center of Simmerath. In many respects, Eicherscheid typifies the characteristic cultural landscape of the region, with half timbered houses which are protected by high beech hedges, known as “Haushecken”. In addition there are numerous small fields surrounded by beech boundary hedges, or “Flurhecken”. These include many hedgerow trees which were managed to provide shelter and protection for livestock and as a source of raw materials. Within the community there are over 70 high hedges around the village dwellings and over 100km of field boundary hedges, many of which go back hundreds of years.

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Eicherscheid is well known for its active community. In 2007, the Community was awarded the “European Village Renewal Award” in the competition “Our Village has a Future”. Since then, the village has also frequently been a competition winner in State and National competitions. The unique conservation status of the landscape has contributed significantly to the area. The hedges providing a valuable cultural asset and an attractive backdrop for hiking, cycling and green tourism related activities. The community were fortunate enough to recognised this unique landscape as an underdeveloped resource for education, sustainable development and for the promotion of green and cultural heritage tourism. Consequently, it was decided to develop a project with the aim of promoting and enhancing the cultural landscape.

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The community therefore developed a plan to create an 8km interpretive trail to promote the cultural and natural heritage of the “Heckenlanschaft” to visitors. The resultant “Flurheckenweg” provides a series of interpretive “stations” with information about landscape history, land management, natural heritage and human activities. The aim was also to create an interactive learning experience for kids and families which would encourage children to explore the landscape through creative play. For this reason the route includes an “outdoor classroom” area and special themed child-friendly interpretation panels.

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The project is part of a wider initiative looking at the sustainability of the landscape, with consideration of how the Heckenlandschaft might provide, for example, renewable energy through provision of biomass and also community growing space for organic production and cultivation of traditional, local fruit tree varieties. Attention has also focused on retaining the traditional landscape character and features of the urban area through the management of the high “Haushecken” around dwellings which is quite labour intensive in itself (woe betide the incomer or local resident that wants to plant a Laurel or Thuia hedge).

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The cultural landscape is not just restricted to the hedges themselves. The community of Eicherscheid also contains many other interesting heritage features associated with the natural environment. Most notably, in front of the Parish Church of St. Lucia, near the centre of Eicherscheid, is a 400 year old lime tree which forms a distinctive and much loved local landmark within the village. The three stemmed tree is one of the oldest trees in the Aachen area and is known to the Eicherscheid locals as “Ar-Lengd”. There are also many old traditional orchards in the area with distinctive local fruit varieties which are characteristic of the region. In addition to maintaining the hedges, the community are also trying to restore and promote the use of these old fruit trees to maintain cultural traditions and preserve local agro-diversity.

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In addition, cultural landscape elements include species-rich meadows, small broadleaved woodlands and copses, landmark trees and ancient trackways or “hollow ways”. These have been worn down by countless generations of travelers, peddlers, soldiers and pilgrims through the  millennia and have provided important routes between towns and villages long before the invention of motorised transport. Along these ancient routes, there is also a rich human heritage including many wayside crosses and shrines, old mills, dams and historic healing wells. Many of these features have been restored by the community as part of the larger project to interpret and promote the historic cultural landscape as a whole to visitors. There are also many interesting old folk tales and legends associated with these routes, which the locals are bringing to life for new generations to enjoy.

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Although many of the hedges themselves are the responsibility of individual owners, there is also now a concerted effort underway to restore these and bring them back into active management. Left unmanaged for too long, the ancient trees would start to deteriorate and the hedges themselves would no longer provide benefits for the protection of livestock or for sheltering unique local plant and invertebrate communities. The proactive management of the hedges also provides a steady source of timber which can be used for small construction projects and for firewood. The community have been looking at the from the perspective of providing biomass energy on a larger scale.

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The plateau areas of the “Heckenlandschaft” are incised by several deep river gorges of the River Rur and its tributaries. These are characterised by extensive tracts of regenerating semi natural beech and oak gorge woodlands, although some of these were replaced by conifers, particularly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth Centuries.

Many of these unique woodland areas on the steeper slopes are of high nature conservation significance and are consequently designated as Natura 2000 sites, forming part of a Europe wider network of important conservation areas. By comparison with the more exposed uplands, these ancient woodlands provide sheltered and secluded microclimates suitable for a whole range of specialist species to thrive.

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IMG_0031In other parts of the Monschauer Heckenlandschaft, localised rewilding initiatives are under way, through the felling and clearance of non-native conifer trees and the damming of previously planted areas to create new extensive zones of wet moorland suitable for colonisation by damp loving species.

These initiatives are being given a helping hand by the growing population of European beavers found across the area. Although small in size, these creatures can exert a huge impact and effectively engineer the whole landscape through construction of dams – thereby raising water tables and creating new types of habitat. Usually the beavers are most active in the morning and evening which makes that the best time to spot them going about their business.

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Beaver: Per Harald Olsen, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

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All in all, the best way to enjoy the hidden delights of the Monschauer Heckenlandschaft is to get out and about on foot. In addition to the ever popular Flurheckenweg, which circumnavigates the village of Eicherscheid itself, a whole series of routes have been developed as part of a partnership initiative between the local community and the tourist authority.

Many of these routes are more testing in nature with significant changes in elevation and will take walkers into hidden gorges, past waterfalls and through native woodlands; well away from the more frequented routes close to the village. The dramatic contrast between the steeper gorges and the network of small fields and hedges on the plateau makes these walks all the more fascinating and enjoyable.

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A great time to explore the Heckenlandschaft is in April when days are warming, the woods are filled with bird song and a carpet of spring flowers brings life and colour to the landscape after the dreary monochrome months of winter.

Just last weekend (over Easter), in nearby Mützenich, we enjoyed walking through superb meadows filled with brilliant, wild daffodils; so characteristic of undisturbed parts of the Eifel region. Later this month, the vibrant green leaves of the beach trees will come bursting out, in a veritable explosion of life.

Now, who said that the Eifel was a dark, sinister and barren wasteland ?

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This entry was posted in Aachen & Euregio, History & Culture, In Europe, Trees & Greenspaces, Wild Places and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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