New life on the death strip

The Green Belt

For more than 40 years Germany was divided into East and West by a 1.400 km network of fences and guard towers. It was one of the world’s most heavily fortified frontiers, consisting of high metal fences, barbed wire, alarms, watchtowers, automatic booby traps and minefields. For decades this area was inaccessible – there was a 5 kilometres wide area running parallel to the boundary to which entry was heavily restricted. Despite the inhumanity of the inner German border it had one benefit: in this environment more than 600 rare and endangered species of birds, mammals, plants and insects found a last resort being untouched by humans.

Old border patrol strip in winter.

After the reunification in 1989 conservationists from the BUND proved the value of this region by collecting data and recording species. Soon it became clear that the bio-diversity of the former German-border was so rich and unique that it should be conserved and protected by the German Government. The idea of the Green Belt was born.

Today the German Green Belt reaches from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Franconian Forest in the south, a corridor of more than 1.200 km, with over 100 different habitats that gives home to the rarest species in Central Europe like i.e. lynx, wildcat, river otter and black stork.

Lake Schaalsee was once part of the inner german border. Today the lake and its numerous bays are the centre of UNESCO Biosphärenreservat Schaalsee.

A red deer in a moor on the former border strip in Northern Germany

A last resort for the most endangered

The northern part lays within the border between Schleswig-Holstein and Mecklenburg Western Pomerania. It’s characterized by numerous lakes, small water bodies, swamp- and beech forests that are mixed up with cultivated parts of fields, wet meadows and pasture. Most of the landscape is under protection and part of UNESCO biosphere reserve Schaalsee, a lake that was once divided into two halves by the inner German border. 

A November morning.
A November morning at  the lake.

A juvenile white tailed eagle balancing on a tree trunk.

The most interesting (animal) species in this area are also the ones that are hardest to photograph: white tailed eagle, european river otter and black stork. Furthermore this part of the Green Belt is also a roosting place for whopper/tundra swans in winter and for common cranes in autumn. Not to mention the immense diversity of insects and plants there are also many other species which are on top of the list of most wildlife photographers like i.e. kingfisher, moor frog, firebellied toad, common bittern and goldeneye duck. Some of the areas around the lake are highly protected and prohibited to enter, but there are open trails with good opportunities and the possibility of great sightings. 

Cranes on a foggy September morning.

A very rare sighting: An european river otter just leaving the water to take a stroll over a dead tree trunk.

A wigtail looking for food

Swamps, lakes, ponds and forests

The landscape was formed by the Weichselian glacial period which left a corrugated moraine landscape. While first human settlements can be traced back to the Neolithitic period, the biggest human influences were made in the 15th century when most of the beech woods were chopped for saltworks around the city of Luneburg. Today only 18% of the area is covered by woods – most of them are alder marsh forests and beeches. In early spring the forest floors are covered with early bloomers like tumbleweed and in some areas also rare liverworts grow.

A tawny owl in one of the beeches at the river of Schaale.
A tawny owl hiding in an old beech.
Liverwort (Hepatica nobilis)

Tumbleweed cover the forest floor in spring.

Winter guests

Plenty of winter guests and migratory birds can be observed in autumn and winter in this region. Whopper swans and cranes search for food on harvested fields while in cold years large numbers of wild ducks and coots crowd the last open waterholes on lake Schaalsee and thus putting themselves on the menus of white tailed sea eagles.

Wild Ducks in Winter (Germany)
Hundreds of wild ducks scared up by a white tailed eagle in winter.

Whopper swans on a field in winter.

Roosting cranes at night.

A young white tailed eagle watches his environment attentively.

(left:) Autumn colours (right:) Whopper swan

From Lake Schaalsee to River Elbe

South of lake Schaalsee the river Schaale is the natural outlet. Together with its tributary the River Schilde it winds through a landscape of beech forests, wet meadows and swamps until it flows into the river Sude that finally leads into the river Elbe. In this region european beavers have become domestic again and river otters can be observed regularly. In the clear waters of the rivers more than 22 different species of freshwater fish exist.

The river Schaale in autumn.

The river was once a waterway for timber transport to the saltworks of Luneburg from the 16th to the 19th century.

Dead trees forming natural bridges for mammals.
Dead trees forming natural bridges for mammals.

A red fox on a dead tree trunk.

A river otter in river Schaale in winter.
A river otter during winter in River Schilde.

Racoons, originally from Nort America, have become domestic during the last 60 years.
Racoons, originally from North America, have become domestic during the last 60 years.

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