No human settlements, no big roads, no electricity lines, no fields. Nothing but woodland. It is wild enough even for the shy wildcat to roam around.
Hainich National Park has a global importance. It has been protecting one of the last large remaining European mid-mountain beech forests on limestone since 1997 – and in its heart an expanse with very old beeches, a primeval woodland in the making that belongs to the UNESCO World Heritage. Here, nature has the liberty to develop according to its own rules, free of human intereference.
Hainich offers a natural spectacle of a special kind. Magnificent deciduous trees reach up towards the light while others are in the process of decay. Rare animals bring up their young. Orchids grow in the shade of dense canopies.
In managed European forests, fir and pine dominate. Not so in Hainich's primeval forest, the largest German national park characterised by deciduous trees. With only three percent coniferous woodland, more than thirty species of deciduous trees compete here for a place in the sun. Most successful is the European beech. Its smooth, sturdy trunk carries a spreading crown. Under this dense roof, not much greenery flourishes in summer. In the autumn, when Hainich is ablaze in a multitude of gold, yellow, red and brown, the European beech swaps its green dress for a dark red one. This typical European native can grow up to 40 m high and 400 years old. And did you know: Our alphabetic characters have evolved from oblong strokes that our ancestors inscribed in beechwood boards. Several boards, put together, made up a wooden book long before the paper version.
When one of the giant beeches falls over, following a storm or due to old age, there is a gap that is filled not only by the leisurely growing offspring of the beech itself, but also by fast-growing ash. The ash, however, is not always successful. Only in wet areas, ash and European alder can establish themselves against the otherwise dominant beauty. Sycamore, common oak and sessile oak, wych elm, Norway maple and service tree, the latter a species that rarely grows elsewhere as abundantly as here, come second after the ash and vie with each other for their share the in the race for the precious light. The ash is the strongest competitor of the beech in Hainich and grows up to 45 m and 200 years old here. Its characteristic feathery leaves make the ash easy to identify. The ash also features in the creation myth of Germanic mythology. "Ask/Esche" means "first man" and gave the Vikings their original name: "Aschemanen".
The morbid charm of rotting tree trunks, wedged windslash, splintered tree stumps, proliferating moss, dazzling bracket fungi – dead trees characterise the image of the primeval woodland. But deadwood is only seemingly dead. It is nursery and retirement home, workplace and larder, concert hall and catwalk for the dating game. Standing up or lying down, big or small, freshly fallen or decayed – dead trees are full of live.
Nature has got all the time in the world. A tree grows, flowers and spreads seeds – year after year. Until it dies. This can take years, decades or centuries. A rebirth is guaranteed – fungi, moss, lichen, beetles, ants, woodpeckers and other live in and from it. The forms and stages of deadwood are as diverse as the organisms that populate it. Insects and cavity nesters make themselves comfortable in the rotten wood. Cavities in trees and root wads of fallen trees are welcome homes for mammals. An army of wood eaters cuts the dying trees into pieves and breaks them down for microbes. They in turn fragment the wood into its raw material. Plants born thereafter feed on the minerals released by this process.
The amount of deadwood reveals a lot about the authenticity of a forest. The same goes for the diversity of its structures. Dense woodland and light clearings, thornbushes and swampy ponds, canopies and shrubs – numerous structures mean numerous life forms.
The more diverse structures a woodland has, the greater is the diversity of the plants and animals populating it. In Hainich, many endangered and rare species as well as common ones can be found. Demanding woodland inhabitants such as wildcat and Bechstein's bat find ideal living conditions here.
But even a primeval woodland does not grow without any laws. The woodland features trees of different ages evenly spread throughout – death and birth are not taking place everywhere at the same time. Whenever there is a gap in the national park caused by windslash or pest infestation, pioneer species shoot up – until the beech puts them in the place, most of the time at least.
Other habitats of the national park are equally rich in structure and inhabitants. Just over half of its area is wild primeval woodland with imposing tree giants and bizaare deadwood formations. Hainich National Park is a mosaic with flowing crossings – two thirds forest, one third open areas, in parts with shrubs, hedges and the first young trees. Bushes and small water bodies lace the neglected grassland of the fringe areas. Large-scale vegetation encroachment merge with deciduous forest rich in species and structures.