The great divide – that Iron Curtain separating Western Europe from Eastern Europe – is now known as the European Green Belt – who would have thought it? That border defence symbolising the ideological and physical boundary dividing Europe from the end of World War II in 1945 until the end of the Cold War in 1991 has now with the foresight of a German doctor become a Nature Reserve.
above: Panoramic image of Danube pictured in Ritopek, suburb of Belgrade, Serbia.
Growing up within sight of the wall a young West German boy with an interest in nature used to roam the boundary and hinterland jotting down and recording all possible wildlife sightings – and as anyone with a hobby knows it slowly grows into a passion until it is a part of their life. Dr Kai Frobel became a man, a family man, a doctor, an ornithologist and conservationist – and as such realised the significance of these so-called restriction zones and the way the ‘Wall’ had been constructed.
Border post watch tower, rusted barbed wire
Churchill had coined the phrase “iron curtain” from the antagonism between the Soviet Union and the West – fortunately it was never a curtain, nor an iron one .... but the imagined vision of chain mail hanging from the clouds somewhat bemuses me. The “wall” was in fact a series of strips of land fenced with barbed wire, watch towers etc – different sections sometimes hundreds of yards wide, one barren strip, while the rest were almost untouched by human hand for 37 years had become natural wildernesses.
These strips of land containing small bushes and grasses, which had been wiped out with industrial farming on the western side of the iron curtain, became wildlife havens for threatened species of birds, mammals, insects and plants. A treasure trove of wildlife, including black storks, wild cats and whinchats, wood grouse, and a range of rare mosses.
The actual start of the “fall of the Wall” was in Poland with Solidarity’s historic victory in June 1989, before Gorbachev had visited Berlin later in the year, criticising the East German regime which precipitated the domino-like effect of the collapse of other eastern bloc countries’ defences, that we saw portrayed in the news on 9th November 2009, with the painted dominos depiction in Berlin.
Giant dominos lining a segment of the route of the Berlin Wall were toppled Monday during a ceremony commemorating the 20th anniversary of the wall's fall. c/o Axel Schmidt / AFP - Getty Images
These swathes, off limits to most personnel, of prohibited and deadly strips in the aftermath of the Iron Curtain’s collapse, left behind a refuge, a haven for wildlife and nature to flourish in: an ironically uniquely natural fertile world, where many rare and endangered species flourished.
Dr Frobel’s early observations became suddenly “an Eureka moment” – a realisation that his special patch of Iron Curtain, with its abundance of undisturbed wealth of plants, birds, insects, reptiles, and small mammals would presumably have also occurred down its entire length. A different hunt was on – an urgency to secure this unique landscape as a nature reserve.
With Kai Frobel’s foresight, his knowledge of the land, his enthusiasm, his lobbying in high places has ensured a pan European effort of a green belt connection, consisting of National Parks, Nature Parks, Biosphere Reserves and trans-boundary protected areas transcending the potentially narrow thinking. The aim now is to turn the Iron Curtain’s entire 4,250 mile length into what is already being called the Central European Green Belt.
Whinchat: Adult male in breeding plumage
Two decades after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the creators of this amazing ecological treasure trove are celebrating the fact that 23 European countries are currently engaged in the project to turn or keep its entire length into the reserves naturally occurring after the 37 year period of non-interference.
It will run from the Barents Sea within the Arctic Circle, south down the Finnish – Russian borders, through the Black Sea, down through Germany and central Europe, with three spurs to the Adriatic Sea, finally east along the border of Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey to the Black Sea – some journey, some nature reserve, some brilliant thinking to tie all these together into a natural swathe for wildlife through the middle of the European Union landmass.
The national ecological networks, the biosphere parks, wetlands, floodplain meadows, riverine habitats, deltas, wildflower meadows are where many species, that have disappeared in extensively agricultural or industrial areas, can feel at home and have flourished in these quiet and undisturbed parts of middle Europe.
Where else, to name but a few, would you get wild daffodil meadows, alluvial forests, fish spawning grounds because the standing water stays so warm, traditional scythed meadows, fens, oak, poplar and willow forests, river banks for nesting sand martins and kingfishers, the return of the European Lynx, originally living all over Europe, but returning today?
The legacy of this unique and extraordinarily rich chain of ad hoc nature reserves will be enormous to the scientific community – the botanists, the biologists, the geologists, geographers, conservationists, environmentalists – who will revel in this natural world and can record and gather all sorts of information for posterity about these unique areas that remain within this once reviled landscape, now reborn as a jewel of nature.
Dear Mr Postman – the gales and rainfall continue, but I gather we’re not alone the same is happening in the States. We’re well – I have had another trip to the hospital with my neighbour who inadvertently had tripped her latch, so we needed to break in to let the ambulance crew in – she hasn’t broken anything .. but another day! Her son has arrived today – we go on and my mother is quite sleepy.
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