When the river connects and not divides

Podyjí National Park is the smallest national park in the Czech Republic and forms a unit with the Thayatal National Park on the Lower Austrian side across the border, protecting unique habitats along a 40-km-long, deep, meandering valley carved by the Dyje river (Thaya in German). The Dyje river serves as a border river between the Czech republic and Austria here. The story of the establishment of the national park is the same as Šumava National Park, which we visited a few days ago. Podyjí was established in 1991 after the fall of the Iron Curtain, covering a total area of 63 km² in the Czech-Austrian border zone which was under strict military protection during the communist era.

We have been following the course of the Dyje river for a while before entering into the national park. Our route took us through vast agricultural lands, a sea of crop fields on a rolling landscape. Therefore, while getting closer, we were quite excited to see how such a landscape can host a national park. Then, suddenly the trail fell steeply down to the valley of the winding river. We were suddenly riding through lush – though often very young – forests of oak, beech, hornbeam and other deciduous trees.

In Znojmo, at the National Park Administration, we are meeting with the park´s zoologist Zdenek Mačát, who is also coordinating research projects and Natura 2000 management within the national park. Leaving our bikes behind for a while, Zdenek takes us on a guided tour through several sites of the national park. 

Keeping traditional knowledge and land management alive 

On the south-eastern edge of the national park, between the Znojmo and Hnanice, there is a unique zone of steppe heath. These heathlands are remnants of the old cultural landscape in the area, and were shaped by centuries of gradual deforestation of the original oak forests to use the land as pastures for livestock. These heath areas provide home to a remarkable biodiversity, The Podyjí heathland mosaic is among the biotopes with the highest species diversity, and such extensive heathlands cannot be found anywhere else in the Czech Republic except here. Heathlands are an example of a natural habitat, which was created through human activity in this area, and therefore cannot survive without management – without grazing and mowing, it would quickly turn into forest. Zdenek tells us that unfortunately, traditional, low-impact agriculture is long abandoned in the area. It doesn’t pay off for locals to keep livestock and maintain pastures with them anymore. This profession has died out here, and has been overtaken by large-scale intensive agriculture. Therefore, the national park administration has decided to manage these areas with respect to the historical activities, through either grazing or mowing. In two selected areas, herds of wild horses have been released two years ago, supported by the Czech NGO Česká krajina within the EU funded project Military LIFE for nature. These horses have been successfully keeping the heathland habitats intact for future generations, and just recently, the first European ground squirrels seemed to have colonised the area as well. Therefore, the national park´s plan is to gradually introduce grazing into more of its heathlands in the upcoming years.

Heathlands are not the only ecosystems where the national park is bringing back traditional land management methods, in combination with modern conservation approaches. Selected forest areas are managed through coppicing, which creates a favorable habitat for species that are adapted to open woodlands. 

A view that takes you back in time

Zdenek then takes us up to a scenic viewpoint in the quiet zone (here, tourists are not allowed to leave marked trails) of the national park, looking down at the canyon-like Dyje valley. The Dyje carved many meanders lined with rock formations in this landscape. Zdenek explains that the values ​​of the park lie exactly in the unique geomorphology and overall preservation of the Dyje canyon. Several remnants from history are still visible here. We glance over to Austria on the other side of the Dyje, and the line of the Iron Curtain is easily recognisable from the distance. The entire Podyjí National Park area was off limits to the public, and only trusted communist functionaries were allowed to enter the militarised zone. Travelling even further back in time, a few bunkers with thick concrete walls from before World War II, built by Czechoslovakia as protection against Nazi Germany also remind us about how many things this land and its inhabitants have seen before it finally became protected not for military defense reasons, but for its biodiversity. 

Breaking borders for nature and people 

After its establishment, Podyjí National Park started to lobby heavily for the protection of the other side of the Dyje river, which lies on Austrian soil. Their point was straightforward: nature doesn’t follow political borders, and the ecosystems within the Dyje canyon cannot only be protected from one side. Their efforts were eventually successful, and in the year 2000, Thayatal National Park was proclaimed on the Austrian side of the border. Since then, the two national parks have been closely cooperating in their activities focusing on research, monitoring, visitor management and others. Currently, Podyjí National Park is facing increasing visitor numbers, with annually up to 500.000 visitors registered in the park. Therefore, among others, the two national parks are working on a concept on how to redirect some of the visitor flow into Thayatal. Their management approaches don´t always align, however, both parks are committed to a joint way forward in protecting this unique natural habitat. In fact, they are one of the transboundary parks recognised by the Europarc Foundation

A river under control

It is important to point out that there are two large hydropower dams on the edges of the protected area, which of course have a negative effect on the biodiversity in the Dyje. The dams, which were created several decades before the national park was established, affect the overall temperature conditions in the river and are also a serious obstacle for migrating fish. Zdenek tells us that due to the overall cold inflow of water from the dam upstream, the Dyje turned into a trout habitat, and the later creation of the Znojmo Dam completely displaced typical species from the Dyje. Still, 32 species of fish can be found here, however, with fishing still allowed in selected areas of the national park, fish populations have to be closely monitored and restocked.

A national park protecting traditions 

Podyjí National Park is embedded in a highly agricultural landscape. For centuries, small farmers have cultivated their fields, meadows, orchards and pastures. This type of management was replaced by the collectivisation of land during the middle of the last century. Agricultural cooperatives utilising modern technology took over, which enabled the introduction of intensive agriculture. Therefore, the administration of Podyjí National Park devotes great attention to working together with local farmers and maintaining a heterogeneous land management combining traditional land management methods with the protection of this region´s uniquely rich biodiversity, and all this working hand in hand with Thayatal National Park. After a long history of division, the Dyje finally connects nature, people and countries. Go and see for yourself!

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