For those who really care about wildlife and the environment, this two-hour tour is full of highs (and the occasional low). We set off at the Waldlabor – Forest Laboratory – in Marsdorf, which is not a research building but rather a kind of open-air tree museum with a circular 1.2 km route passing by indigenous trees and species from other continents that were planted ten years prior. It is the brainchild of Michael Hundt, the municipal forester responsible for the entire Cologne area on the left-hand side of the Rhine.
The trail through the Waldlabor begins with the Wandelwald, the “changing forest”. Here, visitors will encounter eight types of tree, firstly in separate sections and then intermixed with the next species: grand firs, Douglas firs, silver birch, wild cherry, wild service tree and field maple. While there are information panels along the route, your best bet is to take a field guide book with you so you can identify everything from the grey heron on the meadow and the snail on the edge of the footpath to the red and black moth known as the six-spot burnet. Some trees in the Waldlabor come from other parts of the world. Next up is the Klimawald – Climate Forest – an area for testing tree species that cope better with the hot summers than the native pine, spruce, beech or sycamore which, stressed by heat and drought, fall prey to fungi, insects and other parasites. With birdsong in our ears, we can see mainly whitebeam, walnut, downy oak and paulownias. The Japanese paulownia tree is small but spectacular, with heart-shaped leaves and, when in season, pink and violet blossoms and egg-shaped capsule fruits. As Forester Hundt puts it: “It’s versatile enough to have been able to prevail here against all odds.” Having lost other trees to climate-related factors, he can envisage planting more paulownias in the Cologne forest to restore stability: “A healthy mixture is the best way to protect the forest from dying out”. While monocultures are susceptible to hot summers, the kind of mixture found in Cologne’s forests is well equipped to withstand them.
Rather than turning into the Wildniswald – Wild Forest – our walk finishes up in an oat field. Here, we leave the Waldlabor and, a few metres further, take a left and then a right into the Mischwald – Mixed Forest – planted around sixty years earlier based on the local diversification specifications known as the Kölner Mischung. “There are around 30 types of tree here. Or at least there were until the beetles got to the conifer groups,” Hundt tells us. This section of the forest looks wilder and more authentic than the Klimawald. The trees are higher and the area is darker, kept cool under a green canopy of leaves.
We take a left at the turn-off. This area here is every bit as varied as in the Waldlabor: as well as the rare black walnut, there are storm-felled trees and a few isolated trees that were cut down because they were in danger of falling. As Hundt explains, this was not a popular decision but ultimately he was duty-bound by law to maintain public safety. After half a kilometre or so, we cross Bachemer Landstrasse and continue along the path until it joins another one on a broad turn to the right. Here, we take a left and cross the number 7 tram line.
Everything is different here – this expansive, gentle landscape is where the first Colognians lived almost 7,000 years ago, scratching zigzag patterns on their earthenware, which is now seen by historians as part of the Linear Pottery culture. There were a total of five settlements, the discovery of which was one of the defining moments of European Neolithic research. Of all this, only a boulder remains today. There are large groups of trees planted in the 1960s – an arboretum with many rare species, including ones from further afield.
We take a right eastwards along the tram line. What looks like a dried-up riverbed is actually a recently renatured course of a local stream known as the Frechener Bach. However, it only carries water in times of heavy rain, the source having long since run dry. We follow the path that begins by winding left. The range of species here goes well beyond the 20 labelled trees and shrubs in the arboretum and includes the bladdernut. Time to get that field guide back out of your rucksack – although it would have to be very thick to include such a rarity!
On the right hand side, you will spot a black alder on its own in an open field. We then venture through a small section of woodland and, after taking a right, cross Dürener Strasse and continue on ahead. The route runs parallel to Militärringstrasse. Once we reach Marcel-Proust-Promenade, we cross over, passing a solitary but healthy horse chestnut tree on our right. Behind it, however, are trees that are already shedding green branches. Our route veers to the left and then we take a sharp right after 150 metres. And 300 metres after this we reach our destination: the west entrance to the Lindenthaler Tierpark (Lindenthal Animal Park). The park is said to be home to some 250 animals, such as the cute West African dwarf goat and a rather bedraggled Soay sheep which, as it is currently shedding wool, is at least spared the constant click of visitors’ camera phones. And, needless to say, donkeys, fallow deer, goats and sheep. Even though it’s unlikely that any visitors come here to see poultry, it’s worth keeping an eye out for the Brahma hens, which look like they’re wearing 70s-style flared trousers. From here, you can take the number 7 tram back to the Waldlabor near the Stüttgenhof station – unless, of course, you want to carry on exploring on your own...
(by Bernd Wilberg)