In harmony with the elements
It’s hard to believe that the Upper Middle Rhine Valley region was once submerged beneath an ocean. Over millions of years this unique valley was formed by the forces of the Earth and water to become what you see today. Testimony to an exciting episode of geological history which has provided a habitat for a rare and highly diverse plant and animal community. The valley’s hillsides are blessed with more than their fair share of sunshine and the river itself acts as a heat reservoir. These are ideal conditions for a large number of conservation areas, both large and small, and some are even designated European Nature Reserves. This is a particularly rich natural and cultural landscape which is just waiting to be discovered.
From the Ocean to the Loreley. About 400 million years ago today’s Middle Rhine area was submerged beneath a great ocean. 325 million years ago, at the dawn of the Carboniferous period, there was a collision of tectonic plates which caused the complete disappearance of that ocean. A massif was formed made up of different types of rock,depending on the intensity of pressure
Today the geology of the area is dominated by slate, sandstone – the so-called
‘greywacke’ – and quartzite. The rocks were squeezed together and uplifted.
There is visible evidence of this on many of the valley’s rocky hillsides: at the
Loreley, for example, at Spitznack and near Boppard, too. During the following
ages the mountains were eroded and a flat landscape evolved. About 25
million years ago the Rhine appeared for the first time as a tiny rivulet. The
course of today’s river has only developed over the last 2.5 million years. Ice
ages brought a harsher climate and tectonic activity led to alternating phases
of inactivity and uplift. Large masses of water and debris were washed down
from the glaciers of the Alpine region, cutting out the spectacular Rhine gorge. The steep canyons are between 70 and 200 metres above sea level and were formed during the Ice Ages of the past 700 000 years.
The sun is at home here. The Middle Rhine Valley is one of Germany’s warmest
regions. Rainfall is low here in the lee of the Hunsrück massif. The driest areas
are to be found between St. Goar and Lorch with only approx. 550 - 600 mm
annual precipitation. The warm temperatures and low rainfall are determining
factors for the Middle Rhine’s plant and animal life. The apple trees flower two or three weeks earlier here than in the higher lying regions of the Hunsrück and Taunus. The topography of the Rhine Valley also influences the local climate in a special way: the steeply inclined landscape and the many south-facing slopes with high exposure to sun act as a heat reservoir. The dark slate intensifies this effect. The waters of the Rhine have an additional moderating and warming effect. This regulatory effect is particularly noticeable in autumn, winter and spring. White snow-covered scenes never last long on the Middle Rhine and in some years they never even put in an appearance. And even the frosts are never as severe here as in the nearby hills. This is therefore an ideal wine-growing area, and cherries, peaches, apricots, figs and kiwis all thrive here as well.
The history of the landscape and land use
Except for the rocky areas, all the habitats are a cultural landscape that has
been influenced by human activity. On the south facing slopes there are still
areas of ancient oak forest, the other hillsides are covered by forests rich in
beech trees, whilst limes and elms are to be found on the north-facing hills.
The rocks and their surrounding areas provide habitats for heat-loving dry forests, dry shrubs and small expanses of dry grassland. Scree slopes are home to a wide variety of plant and animal species. Since Roman times, and particularly since about 800 AD, the region has experienced increased human settlement. Vineyards were first established on the valley floor. In addition to cultivating wine, the settlers grazed their cattle and cleared the forests for agriculture. In the centuries that followed, winegrowing spread to the slopes and tributary valleys. Only at the end of the 19th century was there a noticeable decline in wine cultivation as a result of the phylloxera (vine aphid) epidemic. Many of the vineyards now became orchards (especially sweet and sour cherries). By about 1960, commercial fruit growing on the Middle Rhine had virtually disappeared due to the high input involved. As a result, the dry habitats which had originally been rare, increased in size and today they still provide valuable refuges for a host of plant and animal species. Scrub encroachment (reafforestation) is on the increase and poses a particular threat to the dry habitats. It is hoped that extensive grazing regimes will help keep these spaces free of scrub.
Plants and animals
About one third of all Germany’s known plant and animal species have established themselves here. Many of the species originate from the Mediterranean region or from the grasslands of South-East Europe. They once migrated here along river valleys running south, south-west and south-east during warmer periods following the last Ice Age. Harsher climatic conditions forced them to take refuge in the warm areas of the Middle Rhine Valley where they survived. Here, many species reach the northern and north-western limits of their distribution area. Specific animal species include the Green Lizard, the Red-winged Grasshopper, the Swallowtail butterfly, and the Praying Mantis. Some of the more notable plants are
the Montpellier Maple, the Rustyback Fern, St. Bernard’s Lily, and different varieties of Feather Grass. This is the only habitat of the Boppard Candytuft.
Nature conservation plays an important role in the Upper Middle Rhine Valley. Many of the particularly valuable slopes have been designated as conservation
areas and/or enjoy European protection (Natura 2000 areas). Most of the landscape conservation zone between Bingen and Koblenz covers the same terrain as the Rhineland-Palatinate section of the World Heritage Site. The Hesse section of the Middle Rhine Valley is part of the Naturpark Rhein- Taunus, the northern, right-bank section of the Middle Rhine Valley in Rhineland-Palatinate from Bornhofen to Lahnstein lies within the Naturpark Nassau. Between Bingen/Rüdesheim and Koblenz there are also a large number of designated nature conservation and FFH (Flora Fauna Habitat) areas as well as the European bird sanctuary Rheinauen near Bingen.
- Koppelstein conservation area near Lahnstein:Outstanding habitat with 550 different butterfly species, 20 types of wild orchid, numerous rare locusts, birds, bugs, spiders and many others.
- Kamper Hang / Bopparder Hamm: Main population of the Western
Green Lizard on the Middle Rhine.
- Rheinhänge conservation area between Gutenfels Castle and the Loreley with the Dörscheid Heath: Warm arid habitats abound here. Over 650 different butterfly species occur here.
- Nollig and Engweger Kopf conservation areas near Lorch: Main population of Owlflies, Praying Mantis and other rare species.