Landscape with Sheep and Stadium, Munich

Rare heathland habitats thirty minutes from city center


Froettmaninger Heide - urban nature reserve at Munich Arena  03


Recently I saw in a documentary these sheep next to the high-tech Herzog & de Meuron starchitect stadium in Munich (about twice the size of New York’s Citi Field) and had to find out what was going on.  It turns out the area is a nature preserve consisting of rare chalk heathland remnants and it is indeed adjacent to the stadium. Nothing in English has been written about the site, to my knowledge. The stadium by the way is as futuristic as it looks and I will write about it soon.

This type of heathland was once more common in Europe, although never greatly widespread. I’m not sure whether it’s a good thing or bad thing that the stadium is right alongside. On the one hand it’s great to protect nature so close to busy places. On the other, since they were building on a site where there wasn’t a stadium previously, you’d think they could have found someplace less environmentally important and fragile.

The site, the Fröttmaninger Heath, is one of a handful of similar small patches in a mosaic of villages, outer suburbs, small farms and former artillery ranges traversed by highways on the city’s northern fringe. The North Munich Heathlands Association, a partnership of local towns, vigorously protects them by means of an exhaustive ecological planning, research, and restoration program along with recreation management and a supermodern visitors center. And yet the combined size of the eight sites covers less area than JKF airport. I don’t recall ever seeing a comparable depth of documentation online for a US nature reserve except the very largest, such as Yosemite. It is publicly funded and not a private non-profit organization relying on donations.

Nature in Europe is interesting because their conservation works the opposite of ours. While we promote biodiversity by keeping people out of wild places and letting nature run its course, they do the opposite: promoting biodiversity by letting people in. When I first learned this it took me a while to wrap my head around the concept because we are so used to the idea of wilderness and wild places.

They have no choice because Europe ran out of wilderness a thousand years ago. I believe the only substantial old growth forest remnants left are in Poland. Yet the continent certainly has biodiversity. It arose from mosaics of traditional land uses such as farming, grazing, and forest product gathering, which enhance biodiversity by creating a variety of habitats ranging from open meadows to dense woods, as opposed to a more homogenous expanse of mature forest. These mosaics are disappearing due to the depopulation of rural areas and decline of agriculture. Standing back and letting everything revert to forest would reduce biodiversity, so traditional land uses are promoted wherever possible, which is how we end up with sheep herds in the shadow of the stadium.

Their word for all this is “cultural landscapes”, a term nearly nonexistent in North American ecology but common in Europe, where concern for their loss is as urgent as that for endangered species, at least among practioners. In places where it’s simply not possible to continue the traditional land uses, the tools of restoration ecology are applied, such as mowing, seeding, and thinning according to regimes tailored to the specific habitat in question.

The Munich heathlands contained not only rangeland for livestock but also tanning forests (Lohwald). Here, stripping bark for leather tanning had the effect of promoting a distinct forest structure and species composition, namely, forest with dense thickets of young trees that never reached the stage of tall mature trees shading an open understory. Restoration efforts address the loss of both of these human-created drivers of biodiversity as well as the impacts of heavy recreational use.

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