De facto

March 29, 2020

I think that I can state with confidence that the finest name for a nature reserve anywhere on this globe is the Panzerwiese (translating quite literally as ‘Tank Meadow’) near Munich. This is just one example of many former military sites around Germany that have been transformed into reserves after their military role has lapsed – one of which (Doeberitzer Heide, near Berlin) is the subject of this journal entry.

One reason for the conservation value of so many former military sites lies in the hazardous nature of their former tenure, wherein access was often restricted and ‘improvement’ (in an agricultural or cultural sense) wasn’t generally on the cards. Therefore, low-fertility environments like the sandy meadows at Doeberitzer Heide have been spared the kind of comprehensive intervention and landscape change that are wrought upon more ‘useful’ landscapes.

Herbs associated with these sandy meadows include the attractive toadflax species shown above (Linaria vulgaris) and the member of the sunflower family that is pictured below, Helichrysum arenarium – in whose case its name alludes towards its affinity for this habitat type (with “arenarius” translating from Latin as ‘growing within sand’). Interestingly, our use of the word ‘arena’ (for a venue or stadium) has a similar origin, in reference to the surfaces laid down for combat in Roman ‘games’.

Despite the sandy nature of much of its area (the predominance of sand throughout Brandenburg is largely associated with glaciation), Doeberitzer Heide is nowhere near the ocean. Plants don’t care much for such geographic distinctions, as in the case of sea thrift (Armeria maritima, pictured below), which is part of a suite of native species associated with these soil types.

Since working on a recent project in Britain, I have taken much more notice of knapweeds like the species pictured below (Centaurea stoebe, according to records of Doeberitzer Heide), for the role that they play in meadows (especially as fodder and habitat for birds and insects).

On the subject of insect habitat, piles of birch branches conspicuously stacked in various parts of the reserve appeared to be fulfilling that purpose. This image also demonstrates the diversity of habitat types present within Doeberitzer Heide, from sparse, sandy meadows to heathland, birch woodland and oak forest.

It made a welcome change to not have to look upon heather (pictured below) with disdain – as I would within New Zealand where it is a pernicious weed in many parts of the country.

Returning to the former purpose of these kinds of sites, it is suitable to consider military sites’ de facto role as repositories of biodiversity with respect to our own context. I know from personal experience that army land in the Mackenzie Basin is home to some of the best communities of red tussock that I have seen, whilst an important population of the nationally endangered Brachaspis robustus (robust grasshopper) persists in a rock pile on army land in the same area.