Ponds and bison

We were picked up at 7.15 this morning by Sophie and Jakob, and went to help them with the famous ponds. We didn’t know much about them this morning but we do now!

We drove through small forested valleys in the misty sunshine. As we came around one corner we saw a pack of wild boar with loads of piglets in tow heading towards the car. Apparently they get fed here, so when they see the pick-up truck they always head over in the hope of a free breakfast. We had been told that the wild boar here have a reproduction rate of 230% per year, and seeing all those piglets confirmed it for us. The boar are fed to stop them destroying crops over the winter, which keeps them happy, and also keeps the hunters happy, so everyone’s happy as far as I can tell. Except the ones that get shot I suppose.

Wild boar with piglets

Wild boar with piglets

We were heading along a forestry track when Jakob spotted a baby roe deer looking at us through the trees. It was a great safari!

Baby roe deer

Baby roe deer

When we arrived we found a small stream and several shallow hand-dug ponds, which were absolutely full of Elodea – a water plant that was introduced to Europe from America in 1836 and quickly spread across the continent, choking slow-moving waterways, outcompeting native species and removing nutrients from the system.

The job for the morning was to remove the Elodea, and another unwanted species – the grass in the picture – from the pond. We got some sexy waders and a rake each, and in we went!

Looking good!

Looking good!

It was hard work raking up big clumps of Elodea, checking them for fish and invertebrates, then chucking the plant material up on the bank. We could all see it was a pretty futile effort in the long run. Elodea will root from fragments of material, and there was no way we were going to get rid of all of it from the pond. I expect some of the stuff we chucked up the bank will just fall back in if it rains in the next few days as well. It’s a breathing space at best, and at worst we just went in and wrecked whatever habitat there was in the pond by raking through the bottom and removing all the hiding places. On the other hand if the Elodea is left to dominate the pond, it will choke out everything else anyway! Tough problem, but an interesting one!

Before

Before

During

During

After

After

Once we’d finished dredging the pond we went back to the Prince’s castle where Jakob and Sophie are staying for Sophie to swap cars. It was pretty spectacular, all those bread trees obviously paid off!

The Prince's residence

The Prince’s residence

We went back to Olaf’s place to drop off the tools, and took the chance for a photo. Olaf says he can’t smile unless he’s had a couple of beers, but I think he almost managed it here!

Olaf, Jakob and Sophie with Anna

Jakob, Sophie, Anna and Olaf

We said bye to the interns and wished them luck with their year working in the forest. I’m slightly jealous of them, although I don’t envy all the pond clearing they’ll have to do. It reminded me a bit of the movie Holes.

Anna and I went back to the campsite for lunch, after which Olaf came to collect us and took us to Wisent Welt for the bison tour. We met 30 employees of the local water company who were on a work day out. We wandered round the enclosure with Olaf telling us about the history of the area. It was totally deforested for timber and charcoal burning, and was subsequently replanted with spruce and beech for timber. Now, the spruce is still dominant but there are some areas where mixed forest is being allowed to come back.

As we got near the end of the walk we came across the bison relaxing in the shade in a small valley. It was great to see them again after the Netherlands experience, although it was different to have a fence in between you and the animals. The bull was obviously massive, but somehow looked smaller behind the fence. I think it’s a good stepping stone for people to start to accept these animals though – especially to help people be less afraid. The bison are so chilled out, they didn’t really take any notice of us at all, although we got quite close. I think the biggest problem will be that people try to feed them!

Big bull

Big bull

Tourist

Tourist

After saying goodbye to our tour-mates we sat down for a beer and a chat with Olaf and the other Bison Ranger, Joachim. I was interested to know Joachim’s career path since Bison Ranger seems a bit of a niche; it turned out he worked with big farm animals before. We asked Joachim how he saw the bison project developing now that a population has been released into the wild here. He said that he hoped they would just become part of the fauna of Germany, like the red deer and wild boar. He thinks this would have to include hunting of the bison. Because the bison tend to form herds of females that are serviced by only one bull, the breeding programmes at the moment often have a surplus of young bulls. He thinks this will also be the case in the wild. So the young bulls will be good candidates for population control through hunting. We wondered what would have happened to those young bulls historically, whether they might form bachelor groups, but the Rangers didn’t know. We also asked about damage to property, and Joachim said that the red deer already cause some damage, but because they are hunted, people don’t tend to mind too much. He thinks this will eventually be the same with the bison.

Been a tough week!

Been a tough week!

We asked Olaf about the ponds, who built them and why. He said that the Prince (who is now in his eighties) was sent to Sweden during the war, where he saw a lot of ponds and bird life. When he came home he decided he wanted the same thing, so he started digging. Olaf said that when he started work as a lumberjack around 35 years ago he saw a guy digging in the woods with a spade. He asked his colleagues “Who’s that idiot?” to be told “Shhh, that’s your Prince!”. When the Prince’s son was old enough he was taken to the woods to help digging “whether he liked it or no”. The Prince has had a great result from his ponds; the black stork has now returned to the area and there are now six breeding pairs. All he has to do now is figure out how to get rid of the waterweed….

After our beer, Olaf showed us the visitor centre and seminar room, which is decorated with paintings done by Olaf’s father. They’re really good! Apparently there isn’t much work as a lumberjack over winter, so Olaf’s dad started painting, and now 50 years later he’s great! Olaf said that his dad has massive chunky workman’s fingers, but when people ask how he can paint with those hands he says “I use a brush….”.

We got dropped at our campsite by Olaf and his wife, and decided it’d be rude not to have another beer. So that was four beers before dinner. Tomorrow is the festival for the area’s shooting (not hunting) clubs in town so we agreed to meet up again at midday to watch the procession. Now we just have to stagger to the tent.

– Dave

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