Land Use in the Past
Throughout the whole biosphere reserve there are reminders of the way our forbears used the land, for instance:
The landscape in the Elbe marshes near Bleckede features original ‘Marschhufen’. These are narrow and long plots of land, only around 15m wide but in some cases several kilometres long. The curious geometry is connected with the taxes raised for the upkeep of the dykes. The amount to be paid was in proportion to the length of dyke which formed one side of the plot. By keeping the plots narrow, the costs could be distributed fairly.
The plots were separated by dense hedges with ditches. In those days, the hedges were also a source of firewood, and to this day they remain a characteristic feature of the landscape.
Especially in the immediate vicinity of dykes one often finds meadows or arable land with a typical, regular wave-like form – the so-called ‘Wölbwiesen’ or ‘Wölbäcker’ (‘arched pastures’ or ‘arched fields’).
This form of agriculture was introduced to the Elbe valley by Dutch settlers in the Middle Ages. The form is created using a special ploughing technique, and its purpose is to ensure that at least part of the fields can be used even in the spring when the high water levels would otherwise make them completely unusable. However, these typical features have disappeared in many places as they hinder modern mechanical preparation of the soil.
Excise oaks (‘Steuereichen’)
In Amt Neuhaus there are many solitary ancient oaks in the meadows. These so-called ‘excise oaks’ date from the 18th and 19th century, when grassland was significantly more heavily taxed than woodland. To obtain the more favourable taxation rate, landowners had to leave a certain number of trees standing, some of which remain there to this day.
Many stands of fruit trees in the Elbe valley were established as long as 100 years ago. They form avenues along the roads and extensively used orchards. In the districts of Amt Neuhaus and Bleckede alone, 60 kilometres of road are lined with fruit trees. There are ancient meadow orchards on the Höhbeck which add yet another note of charm to the landscape, especially when the trees are in full bloom in spring and full of fruit in the autumn. The fruit trees represent not only an important refuge for old and now rare varieties of fruit, but also provide important habitats for a large number of insects and birds.
Pollards are trees whose branches are regularly cut back. Most pollards are willows, but oaks, poplars and other deciduous trees are also pollarded. As a result of this treatment, the trunk grows to reach a considerable girth, whereas the branches and twigs which sprout from the cut surfaces remain very thin. The willow twigs, known as withies, were used for basket-making, but also for firewood.
There are pollarded willows throughout almost the whole of the biosphere reserve, especially on the banks of the Taube Elbe near Penkefitz, in Grabau, Nienwedel and Seerau, on the lowlands of the river Jeetzel, on the Große Marsch near Bleckede, in the marsh country known as the Lüneburger Elbmarsch with its characteristic ‘Marschhufen’ (see above) and in the Konauer Werder.
Many of the pine trees in the forests of Amt Neuhaus display evidence of their having been used as a source of resin, which was a valuable raw material in the German Democratic Republic. Diagonal grooves were cut in the bark of the trees, so that the resin which then exuded could be collected in an attached pot. Resin is used in the chemical and cosmetic industries.
The fruit trees provide important habitats for a large number of insects and birds.