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Bödmeren Primeval Forest Reserve: A Wilderness Trail

On the border between Schwyz and Glarus stands the Bödmeren Primeval Forest – a hiking trail, funded by the Credit Suisse ACCENTUS umbrella foundation, providing public access to a natural wonder.

The traces lead us inexorably back to the Ice Age, which ended around 13,000 years ago. The glaciers left behind a rugged karst landscape, in which life was slow to develop. At the very top, at 2400 meters above sea level, it is still bleak and desolate. The stony summit of pale limestone is aptly known as "Silberen" (loosely translated as "Silvery" in English). In the evening light, it softly glitters like the precious metal of the same name. Very few animals and plants have colonized the area around the Pragel Pass. Animal bones and teeth thousands of years old provide a record of these prehistoric times, preserved in this landscape honeycombed with crevasses.

The centerpiece is the Bödmeren Primeval Forest Reserve, an ancient woodland straight out of the pages of a fairy tale. It developed from the post-Ice Age forests of pine and birch around 7000 years ago. At that time, spruce and fir trees arrived on the scene. 

The column-like spruces are adapted to the heavy snowfall.

Clusters of Trees from the Same Family

This is home to the oldest spruce trees in the whole of Europe, which have stood on this site for 500 years. The trees of the Bödmeren Forest cluster together in families, surrounded by layers of vegetation. These clusters form a shared protective outer shell, stretching down to the ground. Grouped together in this way, the spruce trees of Bödmeren are able to withstand the elements. Protected by the older trees, the saplings flourish. Within each group, the trees grow at different rates, so the biggest and thickest may not necessarily be the oldest. 

The Norway spruce are strikingly slender, perfectly straight as they grow skywards. This is vital if they are to survive the harsh, snowy winters. On the dry bedrock, gnarled, weather-beaten mountain pines grow; from the cold hollows and rocky crevices sprout strangely twisted mountain birch. However, the Bödmeren spruce is unique. The only other place on earth where this species is found is in deepest, darkest Siberia. It is thought that the species must have found its way here from the East after the Ice Age.

Deadwood in large quantities and different degrees of decay is typical of primeval forests.

Wood is rarely, if ever, felled here in the forest, so the ancient tree population has survived – with a high percentage of deadwood. This is one of the essential requirements for biodiversity in abundance. These are ideal growing conditions for plants such as lichen, club fungi, spike lichen, and even the extremely rare angel's hair lichen, which hangs down from the boughs in strands up to a meter long and can be as old as the host tree itself. It is a sign of good air quality, and is evocatively known by the locals as "old man's beard." With its rich variety of flora and fauna, the forest provides a safe haven for rare species such as the Eurasian Pygmy Owl and the Black Grouse. 

Local Recognition of a Valuable Natural Asset

The unique nature of this woodland first came to the attention of local forester Josef Schelbert. Based on his experience and observations, he wrote the following to the renowned forestry scientist Hans Leibundgut at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich in 1966: "The undersigned has long thought about making part of the Bödmeren and Bohl Forest a nature reserve. Fauna and flora of such beauty as this is a rarity. Do nature and animal lovers not have a right to God's open country, still such a beautiful feature of this area?" 

From dead wood new life emerges. This is one of the essential requirements for biodiversity in abundance in a forest.

The professor immediately expressed an interest, and in 1971 established a 4.8 hectare core area for research purposes. Since then, the scientific work has continued, yielding some amazing results that have surprised even the experts, and have featured in a number of books and academic papers. Bödmeren is now one of the best-researched spruce forests in Europe. In 1984, the Bödmeren Primeval Forest Reserve was founded, and the nature reserve was extended to 70 hectares. Further large tracts of land have been incorporated in the last ten years. Today, the Oberallmeindkorporation Schwyz, the oldest and largest corporation in Switzerland, and owner of Bödmeren Forest, extended the area of the nature reserve to a total of 550 hectares.

The information pavilion (photo) and primeval forest trail have made Bödmeren Forest accessible to the public.

A Network of Caves Stretching 200 Kilometers

Various finds of bones of domesticated animals prove that the alpine meadows around Bödmeren were in use as early as the year 1000 AD. Thanks to its remote location and difficult terrain, the forest has largely escaped logging and its trees remain untouched. Bödmeren Forest stands above the Hölloch, one of the five longest cave systems in the world, stretching more than 200 kilometers according to the latest measurements. The water from this high-rainfall area drains into this underground labyrinth. The cave has its own, distinctive features. In 2011, for example, it was discovered to be home to an endemic species of cave-dwelling pseudoscorpion known as Pseudoblothrus infernus, not found anywhere else in the world. Scientists believe that this intriguing creature is a type of arachnid, which died out after the last Ice Age – except in the Hölloch cave with its constant temperature of between four and six degrees Celsius, where it was able to survive.

The area around the Pragel Pass between Hölloch, Bödmeren and Silberen offers a number of spectacular opportunities to experience nature, all within close proximity. A recently opened information pavilion aims to allow new visitors to discover the area – it leads to the primeval forest trail, which makes the difficult terrain more accessible (see Box). Because even today the forest is a wilderness, with hidden chasms lurking beneath the undergrowth if you venture off the beaten track. Here, nature remains largely untouched in all its pristine glory.