Can A Volunteering Holiday In Austria's Zillertal Nature Park Really Make A Difference?

31/08/2016 13:15 | Updated 31 August 2016

Clearing bracken, or chopping back trees may not be your idea of a holiday - but before you dismiss it, let me tell you why, having spent my break doing just that, I'd recommend it.

Zillertal is a region within Tirol, Austria. It's around 40km from Innsbruck and contains the High Alps Nature Park Zillertaler Alps - a protected area of around 400 square km. The altitude ranges from 1,000m at Ginzling to 3,509m at Hochfeiler. It's an area of natural landscapes with 80 glaciers, rich biodiversity and unique crystal deposits

For centuries this area has been farmed, mainly with dairy cows and goats. The steep valley sides producing rich grass for the cattle - but a tough environment for the farmers. In the past these high Alp farms were maintained by large families, working on the land, keeping it clear, mowing the meadows for hay, bringing the cattle down the mountain in winter and leading them back up for the short summer season. But as families have become smaller, and moved away lured by life in the big cities, the farms have become difficult to maintain.

Which brings us to a volunteering holiday in Zillertal.

I spent two days volunteering in the high Alps: One day clearing bracken on Schwemmalm Farm, around 1350m above sea level in the Zemmgrund valley, which contains the largest alluvial forest with gray alder in the Zillertal Valley; and the second days cutting trees at Lengauhof Farm in Ginzling.

You may wonder why you'd volunteer to work on a privately owned farm - what benefits is that delivering other profit into the farmer's pocket? The reason is simple; it helps protects the local habitat and the plants and animals that call it home. If these farms failed, or the land was neglected, the alpine flora, some of it very rare and found only in these valleys, would disappear. As would many of the insects and other creatures. And we'd lose the iconic mountain meadows and landscape of the Tirolean valleys.

We have similar issues in the UK. For example, the North Surrey Downs near where I live, is also a manmade landscape; like Zillertal it has been created by centuries of grazing cattle. If we stopped managing the Downs, and allowed the trees to encroach we'd lose this chalk grassland habitat and the rare flowers and butterflies that live there. And Surrey would be visually very different.

So by volunteering, you're helping these farms to protect the landscape and its inhabitants. It also helps to encourage the continuation of low intensity and organic farming. Austria already has the highest percentage of organic farming within EU - let's help them maintain that. And perhaps we should be thinking about a similar approach in the UK where almost all our grassland is intensively managed (damaging the environment and often polluting our waterways).

So if the warm glow you get from giving something back, from helping to protect the environment and conserve the wildlife isn't enough to convince you that a few days volunteering is a good idea, then let me add something else...

Volunteering in the High Alps Nature Park in Zillertal is also a great way to meet local people. Not just the perfunctory conversations with the receptionist at the hotel and the waiter in the restaurant, but people who work away from tourism. You'll be invited into their home and you'll have the opportunity to talk to them about their lives and their views.

If you really want to experience a place - get to know its land, and get to know its people. And what better way to do that than by giving a few days of your time to volunteer in one of the most beautiful valleys in Europe.

Nature Park

Chantal Cooke is an award winning journalist, broadcaster and travel writer, and co-founder of PASSION for the PLANET radio, and Panpathic Communications. Follow her on Twitter @ChantalCooke


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