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Siebengebirge, Siegauen and Naturpark Eifel: Fear of crowds in the great outdoors

Siebengebirge, Siegauen and Naturpark Eifel : Fear of crowds in the great outdoors

In Coronavirus times, many people prefer to stay at home, and seek relaxation in the nearby countryside, especially in the Eifel Natural Park. This could lead to many problems.

Even steel-mesh reinforced fences have not stopped people near Cologne from invading a private nature reserve to go swimming. "The fences were cut open at night with an angle-grinder saw," says Holger Sticht, Chairman of the Federation for the Environment and Nature Conservation in NRW. This is certainly an extreme example – but nature conservationists in the state report in unison that coronavirus-related factors are attracting significantly more people to local recreation areas. According to spokesperson Michael Lammertz, the Eifel National Park recorded up to 59 per cent more guests in summer than in the previous year. Some of these do not adhere to the rules that apply there and this has consequences for what is on offer, but above all for nature.

Many rare kinds of bird were not able to breed this year for example, because they were disturbed directly at the water by visitors, says Sticht. Furthermore, people purposefully hiked cross-country, for fear of being infected by encountering other strollers. "Picnic areas were set up in the area, which should not be there," explains Sticht. Due to the travel restrictions, people are suddenly on the move for the first time into nature on their doorstep and do not know that there are rules and regulations. Sticht says "We need more employees in the public order offices, who control what happens in nature reserves.” This is why the staff in the Eifel National Park has been restructured. The rangers no longer offer tours, but ensure that the hordes of people are directed in the right direction at the major visitor points. Last year, the park had around 900,000 visitors; this year, the number is expected to reach 1.5 million. On some days, car parks had to be closed due to overcrowding, and rangers diverted vehicles elsewhere and informed about alternative routes. "We have therefore stopped advertising," says Lammertz; "we have, so to speak, disappeared from public view.”

The autumn holiday time in NRW is the best time for hiking

But that does not mean that no visitors are coming. Even in the autumn holiday, which are usually the best time for hiking, a considerable number of people are expected to come for the 240 kilometers of hiking trails. The difficulty is to distribute people in such a way that nature is not harmed, because according to Lammertz, people also roam off the official paths in the park, camp anywhere or light barbecue fires from dry coniferous trees. "That is sometimes difficult to believe, says the park spokesman. "There are information boards at all 105 entrances explaining the rules in four languages. You can't miss them, and we also expect them to be followed".

The foresters in the state have similar experiences, says Michael Blaschke from the State Forestry and Timber Agency. The forests also receive up to 50 per cent more visitors, which in some regions can be seen by the "handkerchief index": In other words, the more used handkerchiefs that are lying around, the more people without any awareness of nature walk through the forests – they clearly don't know that there are no toilets, says Blaschke. These often-managed forest areas are, however, not such highly sensitive habitats as nature reserves. His recommendation to people seeking recreation is therefore to use the forests, but to avoid key tourist areas, in order not to overtax nature.

Environmentalists want controls and fines

Lammertz views things similarly. He therefore advises nature lovers to travel by bus and train to relieve the park's infrastructure, and to look for paths that are not so heavily travelled. Sticht from the BUND is more outspoken: he thinks that appeals alone do not reach many people and anyway, people only think of themselves. A change in awareness can only be achieved via regular controls and increased fines, as is practised by the Cologne public order office in the nature reserves around the cathedral city. He views the approaching autumn holidays with concern and hopes for bad weather.

(Original text, Jörg Isringhaus; translation, John Chandler)