The Danube

On the far Eastern border of Austria, the landscape is flatter and more open than in the more Alpine body of the country.  This is the start of the Pannonian Plain which reaches far into Hungary and then to the Baltic and Carpathian Mountains. 

On my last visit here in 1995 my host Carl Manzano described this little corner of Lower Austria as at 'the end of the known world'. Then it was Carl's work with the pocket-sized farms I wanted to see, trying to understand his great success encouraging the usually conservative Austrian farmers to adopt new conservation practices.

The land here with its immaculate chocolate box farms and their ancient strip fields is akin to the English medieval open-field pre-enclosure farms. The land is bordered to the north by the Danube, Europe's second greatest river. 

20 years ago, on the far bank of the Danube, we were overlooked by the Soviet era tower blocks in Bratislava, at the time only a regional city.  This was the riverine stretch of the Iron Curtain and here it was at its leakiest. This great river and picture-perfect farmed landscape then was a still-raw reminder of the great division that had so harmed Europe for much of the 20th Century.

Last week, I returned to the area and Carl was, once again, my host.  Now he is Director of the Donau-Auen National Park which protects 93 km2 of the riverine woodlands on this stretch of the 2860km long Danube. The national park was formed in 1996 following a major dispute about the area's future.  The woodlands and wetlands had been threatened by a hydro-electric scheme, but in the end, the Chancellor halted the works and agreed to the new National Park. 

Today, the national park is the only protected area that connects two European capital cities, Vienna and Bratislava.  Bratislava is now wealthier and westernised and the transport corridors that flank the Danube power the fast-growing Central European economy. 

The history of the eurasian beaver is a remarkable conservation story of near catastrophe followed by triumph.  Hunted for fur and the oily territory-marking secretion castoreum for perfume-making, fewer than a thousand animals survived in Europe 120 years ago.   

Paddling through a backwater of the River Danube last week, we heard the unmistakeable heavy splash made by a beaver’s oar-shaped tail. A young animal was feeding on water-lily shoots by the far bank.  After a reintroduction programme 30 years ago, beavers are now thriving on the Danube and the European population is probably over a million.  

Economically and politically, the area has re-gained its pivotal place in Central Europe. Before the First World War, these woodlands had been the favoured imperial hunting grounds for Archduke Franz Ferdinand (whose unfortunate visit to Sarajevo had such difficult consequences) and whose empire stretched as fareast from his hunting lodge as it did west.  Franz Ferdinand was an enthusiastic hunter (but not so good at dodging the lead) and his hunting lodge reflects his interest

New roads have now been built across the landscape and the number of visitors who cycle and boat in the national park has increased markedly.  200 years ago the Danube here was a ' braided river' with channels, wet forests, islands and shingle banks.  Much of this has gone, but the long-term plan is to restore more of the diverse habitats making this a more natural river.

The Danube is one of the most international rivers in the world, with 10 European countries playing parts in its sustainable use and all seeking to use its hydro-electric generating potential, transport corridor and tourism pulling power. 

The Danube is a convincing case for European political and environmental cooperation and the river is managed under a pan-European Convention.  Carl Manzano has also been building a network of the Danube's protected areas, over-coming the political, bureaucratic and institutional reasons why two banks of a river and the green places along its banks can't be managed in a coordinated way. 

This is now one of the richest river habitats for wildlife and beavers, white-tailed eagles and black and white stork populations are recovering strongly. On my visit, we saw beavers, grass snakes and many birds I associate with Central Europe.

It was a privilege to see Carl's work recognised this week with the prestigious European Union Natura 2000 award at a meeting on the banks of the Danube attended by the world's conservation leaders.

The award reflects Carl's strategic and effective leadership over a ten year period in building the Danube's protected area partnership.  I saw in this award the quiet leadership qualities that I'd seen in him 20 years before that then had won him his followers amongst Lower Austria's farmers.   

In all of the debates about the (admittedly many) downsides of the European Union, we shouldn't forget the excellent work that has been done to improve river water quality, support the protection of special habitats and recover once-dwindling populations of wildlife. 

The Danube woodlands here are protected from further damage, are ecologically -richer and there's a visionary plan for their future.  Gone are the days when this was a militarised border, dividing people. Today, residents and visitors from the cities cycle the excellent Danube cycle path or sail or paddle on the river, increasingly oblivious of its once more sinister past. 

My thanks to the University of Derby for supporting my attendance at the 'Little Sydney' Conference which enabled me to visit the Donau-Auen National Park.

Posted on: June 2nd, 2015