Biodiversity monitoring on the Kölblam

Science guides alpine grazing practices

A couple of weeks ago, our reporting took us to the Gesäuse National Park, near the geographical center of Austria. High in the limestone mountains of the region, Dr. Andreas Bohner has been measuring the effects of alpine agriculture on the biodiversity and soil chemistry of the pasture lands. Several research plots have been maintained for about 10 years to show changes over time, and the research also helps guide management practices for the pastures, especially within the national park. We also visited a high-tech weather and climate monitoring site on top of the Stoderzinken, where a variety of instruments help show how climate and other factors affect mountain ecosystems. The weather station includes a gage for measuring precipitation intensity. Long-term data from the instrument will show whether intense precipitation events are increasing, as projected by most climate models. The site also features a unique water-collection station, where melted snow and rain percolate as they would naturally through the topsoil. But some of the water is then captured so it can be chemically analyzed. One ongoing research project aims to measure Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a group of more than 100 different chemicals that are released from burning coal, oil, gasoline, trash, tobacco, wood, or other organic substances.

Where have all the farmers gone?

Along the Alpine Trail …

Alm wall
An ancient stone wall marks the edge of an Alm pasture in the Weißenbach Valley, a headwaters tributary in the Salzkammergut Lakes region of upper Austria.

High along the Weissenbach above Strobl, in the headwaters of the Traun River, the stone wall at pasture’s edge has been there so long it’s become part of the landscape, with swirled layers of moss and granite a testament to how Austrian mountain dwellers have sculpted the high country for centuries. We discovered the wall after visiting a mountain dairy in the Postalm Region. The high plateau is one the largest contiguous grazing zones in this part of the Alps. In the winter, the pastures are downhill and crosscountry ski trails. As part of the the special reporting project on sustainable mountain agriculture supported by the Earth Journalism Network and Internews, we’ve traveled across Austria’s mountains to speak with farmers, environmentalists and scientists about the importance of preserving these cultural and natural landscapes.

We also try to stop and let the landscapes touch us visually, understanding how the care by alpine farmers helps keep the land healthy, promoting biodiversity and soil stability in the face of ever-increasing severe rainstorms in the area. A few weeks ago, we tracked down Siegfried Ellmauer, formerly the offical Alm inspector of the Upper Austrian state government. For 12 years, he not only worked to sustain existing grazing allotments, but spearheaded a grassroots restoration project to revive about a dozen of the region’s highest Alms. We spent several hours interviewing Ellmauer at his mountain farm and Gasthaus above Spital am Pyhrn. In this video excerpt, he speaks about the quality of the produce from alpine agriculture, and about how there’s a need to maintain the open pastures for environmental, cultural and social regions. Politicians may pay lip service to the idea of supporting the small grazing operations, but reality looks different, as national policies seem to align more with the big-is-better theory of economics.

Many of the dairy products and meats like smoked hams and sausages are consumed right where they are made, by tourists and hungry hikers who venture into the mountains. Maintaining small operations like the Schnitzhof Alm dairy, with just a few dozen cows, is not easy in the age of globalization, but operating a cozy restaurant and deli counter is a way of spreading the word about the sustainable, local food they produce.


There also a strong cultural aspect to alm life. Ringing the cowbell above the table signifies that you’re buying the next round, which means the accordion player will certainly sing another song, Many of the lyrics of the ditties praise the natural virtues of the mountain landscapes — special rare flowers, crystalline rock, clean air and icy streams. When we visited the Herrnalm on the Dürrenstein Mountains in Lower Austria, we sat with this group of friends who had wandered to the Alm for an afternoon of social music and drinking locally made apple cider and wine.

The cowbells on the pastures offer a simple melody for passers-by, but they many different tones enable the herders to track individual animals through forest or patchy mountain fog.


There’s new life on the Austrian Alm

Will cheese-making give way to yoga?

The Postalm regions claims one of the largest concentrated areas of alpine pastures.

In the Schnitzhof Alm dairy, workers rotate and clean wheels of fragrant cheese. After several months of aging, the product is sold in thick wedges to hungy hikers in the restaurant upstairs.

The video was shot through a wire mesh door kept closed to prevent unwanted contaminants in the cheese room.

The milk comes from 24 cows that graze moist green pastures all around. Many of of Austria’s high mountain grazing regions support a locally based micro-economy that benefits the environment and promotes the sustainability of the traditional summer pasturing practices. But not all of the Alms have been able to fight the rising economic tide of globalization and centralization. While official government policy is to promote mountain agriculture, there is also political pressure to produce at a scale that’s viable in the global economy. How to do both remains a challenge.

Austria’s mountain farms and pastures are an integral part of the cultural and environmental landscape. Driving cattle up to alpine grazing meadows, called Alms, started as soon as humans began keeping cattle, and the first officially recorded mention of an Alm came in 1212, more than 800 years ago. The rapid changes of climate and global politics and economics have sent waves rippling through institutions that have existed for centuries, and the mountain pasture way of life in Austria may be endangered.

Many of the long-time herders who track their flocks over the hills say they’ve felt the changes. Spring has been coming several weeks earlier than just 20 years ago, which means driving the cattle up the mountain much earlier. That changes the timing of when workers are needed in the dairy farms, and also affects the timing of the bloom in the hay and pasture fields. In turn, those changes may affect insects and birds that also depend on finding food at a certain time.

Economically, the new world of the European Union and global free trade has marginalized the products from the Alm economy. Big feedlots can certainly produce more concentrated amounts of beef more quickly than the laborious process of fattening cattle on mountain grasses. But is that what the world really needs?

In any case, some Alms have adapted by shifting their focus to recreation. In the Krippenstein Mountains of Upper Austria, the Gjaidalm has focused on offering wellness retreats, yoga workshops and foot massages, and there’s a petting zoo, with pygmy goats and pigs. But the pastures around the hut (first tended in the Bronze Age) only see a dozen cows per year, well below the official allotment. That means the grasses aren’t being grazed enough to maintain plant diversity.

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