Annular Further – Switzerland – Country and Geography

There are four principal sections to this geographical and environmental overview of Switzerland’s forests, woods and trees.

Country and Geography – beginning with an overview of the Country, the Country and Geography sections is comprised of the following Geography and Trees, Forests and Woods, National and Regional Nature Parks and Forest related Nature Organisations.

The Geography and Trees and National and Regional Nature Parks sections include these further sub-sections:

The Country

Photo – Graubünden National Park

Zurich Panorama – Photo Henni2000 Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0

Within Europe, Switzerland is the country most closely identified with the Alpine mountains. This Alpine context is also reflected in how the country’s forests, timber, and wood culture is perceived. While land-locked, Switzerland’s mountainous terrain, today and historically, provided the valley passes and corridors that link Northern with Southern Europe. A traditionally rich wood culture is embedded in its upland mountain and valley culture, reflecting an Alpine character different in kind to lowland neighbours, such as Germany and France.

Despite such differences, Swiss forests were just as intensively harvested as elsewhere in Europe through the first half of the 18th century, as Switzerland began to industrialise, with clear-cutting practiced across the country. By the mid-19th century, only 10% of its forests remained. The results were disastrous. Without forests to protect lower lying settlements, including villages, towns and even cities, a series of natural disasters unfolded during the middle of the century: landslides, winter avalanches, and particularly floods in major cities. The disasters spurred a complete rethink by the authorities. One consequence was that mountainside forests’ critical protective role was recognised and enshrined in the first Federal Forest Policy Act of 1876. The act introduced national requirements to maintain consistent wood cover levels of 30% across the country with the aim of ensuring that habitations wouldn’t be vulnerable from deforestation again. This has continued to be at the heart of the Swiss Confederation’s Woodland Policy for the intervening 150 years.  Responsibility for managing forests joins the federal ministry, the Federal Office of the Environment (FOEN), with a decentralised system at the cantonal and commune levels, communes being one of the main forest owners, comprising respectively the 26 cantons (16 of which are in the country’s Alpine regions) and 3000 communes.

While forestry policy is determined at the federal level, and the need for a significant proportion of forests to be for protective uses, cantons have a number of responsibilities and are supported financially by central government to do so. These include the legal responsibility to employ fully trained foresters and in enforcing the nationally set legislation. Devolved powers enable cantons and communes to interpret legislation transparently, and in ways that facilitate cultural, ecological, biological differences, and diversity. This provides a degree of flexibility and regional discretion.

Switzerland covers nearly 16,000 miles2, with forests taking up just less than a third (30 – 31%) of the country, with about 500 million trees over approximately 1,200,000 ha. There are three principle geographical landscapes; the Alps, the Swiss Plateau (also referred to as the Central Platea, the Plateau, or the Swiss Mittelland), and the Jura Mountains. Forested land differs across and within these landscapes, although the intensive forest clearances have meant there are hardly any old growth forests throughout the country – virgin woods are estimated at .001% and forest over 250 years old 0.4%. The Southern Alps and the Jura are the most densely forested, the Central Plateau the least, with conifers accounting for nearly two thirds of the forest – increasing the higher the altitude – and deciduous forest covering somewhat over one third, though these are limited to the low-lying valleys – for more detail see the next Geography section.

Productive forests account for about a third of all wooded areas, although this varies markedly in different regions. The Jura and the Central Plateau are where many of the commercial forests stand, comprised primarily of spruce, sliver fir, and beech in the low-lying areas. Like its DACH neighbours, Germany and Austria, Switzerland is viewed as one of Europe’s more advanced – and also respected – for both its timber building and its wood cultures. Still, as is often the case elsewhere, commercial forestry represents only a small part of the economy.

The effects of climate change across Alpine habitats is happening at twice the median rate of change worldwide, with forests showing many signs of change, vulnerability, and some adaptation. Warmer weather, longer dryer periods, along with increased storms and wildfires are stressing and changing forests, with some species challenged, particularly spruce and beech. Pests and other harmful organisms are also affecting forests, not least the bark beetle inflicted ‘forest death’ (known as WaldSterben 2.0). Unsurprisingly, there is considerable Alpine forest related research led by Switzerland’s main forestry institute, the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL), which is internationally influential and a player in global research networks and programmes.

Switzerland’s principal geographical regions and cities – Map – Tourist Destinations

Wooded areas are increasingly popular to visit in Switzerland, particularly those near urban centres. The majority – 5 million or about two thirds – of Switzerland’s 8 million population live within the relatively low-lying Swiss Plateau’s boundaries, in centres mainly urban, though rural. A temperate climate supports widespread agriculture and forests, as well as the country’s principal cities and towns. Eight of the largest cities and towns are situated within the Plateau (only Basel and Lugano are outside). These include its largest and most international cities, Geneva and Zurich, as well the next largest – Lausanne, Bern – the seat of the Swiss Government, Winterthur, and St. Gallen.

Mainstream architecture, the research community, and the larger scale construction industry are primarily centred in these main cities, while the forest and timber industries are invariably located in rural regions, and in smaller towns. If Switzerland’s internationally highly regarded architecture scene is primarily identified with Swiss-German Zurich and Basel, timber architecture and research networks do not really reflect this and overlay onto a different geographical schema. Unlike forestry, there has been a ground-swelling increase in the number of projects, helped by fire safety regulatory changes, which has enabled taller – and generally larger – timber buildings to begin to get a foothold in the country. But still only in 2013, an outsider – Shigeru Ban the Japanese architect – caused a stir in concrete and stone-centric Zurich with his timber Tamedia build – see current Annular/ Unstructured. For the most part projects continue to be one-offs taken on by studios, although their number and frequency is clearly increasing.

In comparable fashion, research into timber doesn’t follow broader architectural research contours. Although ETH-Zurich, the major central European research powerhouse does contain a number of timber research hubs, arguably the more significant research is happening within Ibois, in the Swiss French EPF-Lausanne technical university and the University of Berne’s Department of Architecture, Wood and Civil Engineering, located in the linguistic border town of Biel-Bienne. Both institutes reflect the Swiss high-tech tradition in a 21st century guise, focused very much on digital technologies. Swiss technical expertise is found in companies which have developed specialist and niche timber skills which are in high demand. There is also a slew of new timber materials, with a particular focus on hardwoods – specifically beech and ash. However, compared to its Austrian neighbour, CLT manufacture is marginal, with only one Swiss company, Schilliger, producing the material. One can find both niche innovation and mainstream companies (for instance Swiss Krono OSB) and there is a focus on marrying the provision of specialist high tech digital skills – including where possible, at an export level – with timber engineering alongside Swiss timber. The showcase projects are outside the country, while increasingly, high profile Swiss projects, are around larger (and taller) urban timber housing – for more detail see here.

Geography and Trees

The forests and woodland of Switzerland are very much the result of a mix of 19th century economics, history, and geography outlined in the introductory section. Geographical factors influence forests and wooded areas at a regional level, although with Switzerland being a mountainous and Alpine country, altitude is more influential than in most countries. As one moves up towards the tree line, forest and trees change, while they are markedly different in valleys and other the lower lying parts of the country.

Main geographical features

Geographically, Switzerland is divided into three main regions; the Alpine regions, comprising 60% of the country’s land, the Swiss Plateau, which covers a further 30% of the country, and the Jura, accounting for the remaining 10%.

Left to right – the Swiss Plateau (in green), middle, the Alps  – see the white outline, and right, a topographic map of the Jura mountains – Images – (left (image FOEN -, middle Wikipedia cc-3.0, and right Wikipedia commons

Alpine regions are generally subdivided by altitude into five climatic zones, although only three; the colline, montane, and sub-Alpine zones are below the tree line. The colline zone generally sits between 500 and 1000 meters above sea level, the montane, 800 to 1700 m, and the subalpine 1600 to 2400 m. All three zones are considered part of the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) Alpine conifer and mixed forests ecoregion.

The Swiss Plateau is an upland basin of between 400 and 700 m above sea level lodged between the southerly Alps and the Jura mountain range at its western edge – see green strip in left hand image -, running about south-west to north-east 200 miles from Lake Geneva to Lake Constance, varying in breadth between 20 and 40 miles across, and covering 30% of the country. The Plateau consists of both flat and hilly countryside featuring agriculture and forestry. Although upland, in the Alpine context, the Plateau is often described as low lying.

The Swiss Jura (jor, the Celtic root of the word, means forest) is the remaining geographical region bordering the north east of France. It runs along the country’s western flank and is also forest covered uplands.

Forests and wood cover

The most wooded parts of the country are the Southern Alps (52% forest cover) and the Jura (41%), followed by the Pre-Alps (35%). By comparison, in the Swiss Plateau and main Alpine regions tree cover is more modest; forests and trees cover about a quarter (27% and 25% respectively). Elevation is a considerable geographic factor in the Alpine wood cover context.

As in much of Central Europe there are next to no ancient woods in Switzerland,one figure gives virgin woodland at 0.01% of the total – check this stat. By contrast, 90% of the forests are managed. Given clear cutting was widespread up until the mid-19th century, disasters and subsequent legislation – see Country Overview – Swiss forests are, ecologically speaking, young. Across the Central Plateau only 11% of woods are over 120 years old, and in the Alps only 7% of forests are more than 180 years old. Overall, less than a half a percent are more than 250 years old. Legislation in 1991 committed the Swiss Government to biodiversity measures, including increasing the amount of legally protected land left to grow naturally, known as natural forest sites. Today there are around 800 natural forest sites, equivalent to 46,000 hectares or 3.5% of the total Swiss forested cover.

Wooded areas have been growing across Switzerland ever since the 1876 legislation, although the extent varies from region to region, and is also influenced by elevation. Since 2000, stocks have been level in the Jura and in Alpine regions, and overall stocks have increased – by 7% from 2005 – this is primarily due to denser growth patterns, which has also seen a decrease across the Swiss Plateau. Growth has mainly been in the Northern (8%) and the Central (15%) and Southern (12%) Alps, due to forestry declining in upland areas, and natural reseeding occurring rather than planned reforestation.

Image – FSO – Swiss Federal Statistics

Forests and trees

There are 7 conifer species and 40 broadleaf species found in Switzerland, around 30 are relatively frequent and are represented by more than a million trees each. But only about 10 – see the schema above – are significant enough to decisively influence the structure of forest ecologies.

The principal tree species reflect those found across mountainous and lower altitude Central Europe; beech is dominant in the Swiss Plateau and other lower lying areas, spruce and larch more frequent on high ground. The exception is Swiss stone pine, which is also found in high altitude mountain settings. The spread of forest types can be seen in this next graphic:

Distribution of deciduous forest, conifer forest and various forms of mixed forest in Switzerland. Deciduous woods dominate in Ticino, in parts of the Jura and at the southern foot of the Jura range. Large parts of the Central Plateau are covered with mixed forests. Image: Waser et al. (2017)/Vogelwarte

Mixed forests are found across the central Swiss Plateau. Mixed beech and fir woods are the most common, with oak also found – conifers take up a fifth of land which would naturally be populated by deciduous species. Further south, with dryer ground, maple, ash, and sycamore push out beech, while in the wetter north, oak is more common, particularly in the north-west of the country.

Parts of the Jura mountain land and its lower-level southern edge are also primarily deciduous, forming part of the Western European broadleaf forest’s ecoregion. Much of the original forests were felled over the last 200 years, leaving only fragmented patches of secondary growth mixed beech forests. These are mainly along the south-west to north-east Jura mountain ridge on non-arable montane land up into the Northern Plateau Schaffhausen border with Germany and the Black Forest.

In the dryer Southern Alps, particularly Ticino, deciduous woodlands predominate. Indeed, through the 20th century Ticino’s low-lying forests doubled to 130,000 ha in 2000, with chestnut the predominant, almost monocultural species, although small amounts of sessile oak, alder, maple, and wild cherry are also found.

A mix of beech and spruce becomes prevalent at medium elevations. As mountain elevations increase, the proportion of deciduous species to conifer decreases and disappears before merging with fir-spruce forests at higher levels. At significantly higher mountain altitudes, natural conifer forests prevail, with spruce the dominant species along with larch, pine, and Swiss stone pine. In the inner Alpine regions, larch and Alpine stone pine are more prevalent. At the highest altitudes, closer to the tree line, woodland becomes more and more open, with shrub forest, made up of shrub-like green alder, dwarf mountain pine, and mountain pine. Across the whole of the ecoregion the WWF states that there are 4500 native plant species, 400 of which are endemic to the Alps.

The figure graphic below shows a breakdown of the WWF’s Alpine forest categories:

WWF Switzerland

Role of forests

Over half (56%) of Swiss forests are given over to a productive function and utilised in timber materials and other uses, including recently, biomass, while a further 43% provide protection against natural hazards like mountain erosion, rockfalls, mudslides and floods. The remaining amounts are categorised as providing nature conservation, recreation and landscape protection. There is a degree of overlap in the forests, for instance some forests and woodland are both recreational and protective. The different uses are also geographic. 90% of the Swiss Plateau’s forests, 80% of the Jura’s, and 70% of the Pre-Alps’ are connected to the forest industries and wood production. In the Alps, however, this drops to around one third (34%), and in the Southern Alps, only one fifth (21%).

Conifers make up 69% of the growing stock. Of all tree species, spruce forms the largest proportion of the growing stock (44%), followed by beech (18%) and silver fir (15%). Two thirds of productive forest stands are of trees planted at the same time and therefore the same age. One fifth are comprised of trees across a range of ages and include both old and young trees. An increasing amount of forestry practice is continuous cover forestry, allowing permanent forests to grow, creating habitats for animals and plants, although harvesting is generally at their most healthy period, about halfway through the tree’s full life cycle. Other sylvicultural practices are high forest regular felling in upland areas, and coppice systems in many of the lowland and pasture ecologies.

Dead Scots pine, in Valais – Photo Andreas Rigling/WSL

Climate change

In Switzerland temperatures have risen by 1.8°C since the latter third of the 19th century indicating climate related warming is happening at twice the median rate worldwide, which is increasingly bringing major challenges to Alpine ecologies and conditions for Alpine forests. In the Alpine regions the scientific consensus is that temperature increases of between 0.5 to 3.6°C by 2060 are realistic scenarios, whereas internationally increases are anticipated of between the well-known figures of 1.5 and 2°C. Warmer, drier summers and shorter wetter winters add to this outline; average annual vegetation days of 250 and 180 in the Central Plateau and pre-Alps respectively are anticipated to increase by up to an additional 40 and 60 days. The slow-motion glacier melting, the source of Europe’s major rivers including the rivers Rhine and Rhone, and critical to lowland water systems, is precipitating an increased number of natural disasters, including flooding, rock falls and other forms of erosion, as well as weakening permafrost in high erstwhile frozen Alpine levels.

Warmer temperatures, climate, and seasons are affecting different tree species, in different ways. Spruce, the dominant species, and beech, the most prolific deciduous tree, are both vulnerable. Among the forest and climate communities it is generally considered that spruce will disappear by the end of the century. In some region’s beech is already increasingly stressed, and there are questions about how it will cope with the future Alpine climate. Ongoing research is investigating beech woods’ prospects or migration to higher and cooler altitudes. Firs are anticipated to benefit in the drier and warmer conditions as are other species, particularly oak, which flourish in warmer climates. Research and monitoring are well-developed, primarily by the main forestry research institute, the WSL, as are trials with non-native species, such as which are envisaged as hardier and less vulnerable as the climate warms. See here for an overview of the WSL.

Today, other impacts are already causing widespread difficulties for certain tree species and devastation in forests. Pests, pollution, and toxins are much more widespread, with the bark beetle becoming particularly notorious for its role in recent wood infestation and subsequent blighting of central European forests over the last three years, including in 2019 the highest annual level of damaged and diseased spruce seen in Switzerland.

Alongside these contributions to changing Alpine habitats, industrial and social changes are also impacting Alpine mountain and lower valley forests. Urbanisation on the one hand, and rural and mountain village depopulation on the other, increase lowland settlements, urban and transport expansion. Together with intensive tourism, the impact on forests and broader ecological systems like riparian river systems, floodplain forests, and wetlands have also been – and continue to be – significant. The decline in Alpine farming for valley floor intensive industrial farming has been accompanied by the decline and disappearance of Alpine meadows and their trees.

PorTree – A Portrait of Central European Tree Species in Switzerland – part of the WSL’s Forests and Climate Change research project provides an authoritative overview of the tree species in the context of climate change

Figures in the preceding sections have been primarily sourced from the Vogelwarte(Swiss Ornithological Institute’s forest, forest evolution and climate pages, Wikipedia and from the Ministry of the Environment (FOEN) reports

Forests and Woods

Inside the Sihlwald – Photo Marcel Porschmann/Wikipedia cc

There are extensive forests across Switzerland, although as noted hardly any of these reach back to more than 250 years, let alone being able to be described as ancient woodland.

Nearly all these forests are found in the country’s Nature Park network and are generally conserved for their ecological and/or forestry significance. Here, some of the relatively few well-known forests are outlined – though, note, versions of the entries also appear in the nature park section:

Sihlwald

The Sihlwald on the eastern Albis hills in the east of the Zurich canton is one of rare examples of a relatively large and old, original virgin forest. It is one of the largest continuous beech forests in the country’s lowlands, and the beech tree comprises over three quarters of the Silhwald, with the remainder primarily silver fur, along with small amounts of spruce, sycamore and wych elm, and the forest was intensively managed until 1990 by Zurich city, its owner. A significant portion of the beech are over 250 years old, plus younger trees planted around 120 years ago.

A study comparing two virgin and managed beech forests, the Sihlwald with Uholka forests in Ukraine can be found here.

Risoud Forest

The Risoud Forest is the largest forest in Europe, covering 2200 hectares of continuous, principally Spruce, woodland, running along the western side of the Vallée de Joux for approximately 15km. Risoud forest extends north of Geneva and Lausanne into the Jura up to the French border. In places the forest alternate with pastures divided up by dry-stone reflecting the long silvopastoral culture of the Jura uplands.

Graubünden National Park – Photo Steffan Schlumpf/Graubünden National Park

Chasseral Nord and Sud Forests

The Chasseral Nord and Sud Bernese forest reserves cover 1100 ha, with over one third mixed closed forests, and the majority wooded pastures in the Park. Working and preserving the biodiversity of the forest, including dry meadows, old and dead wood has become a priority.

God da Tamangur, Engadin, Graubünden

The God da Tamangur (“the wood at the back”) is Europe’s highest continuous stone pine forest sits at 2300 metres above sea level in the Lower Engadin region, in Graubünden, Switzerland’s largest canton in its south eastern corner. The God da Tamangur forest conservation area covers 212 acres within which no felling is permitted. Some of the stone pine trees grow at 2400m elevation albeit very slowly. Those that do can live for over 700 years. The forest is a symbol for perseverance for the regional Romansch minority and the survival of their language and culture.

The ancient larch forest’s in the Bedoleta Nature Forest Reserve – Photo WSL

Bedoleta Nature Forest Reserve

The Bedoleta reserve contains some of Europe’s oldest monumental larch trees and woodland in the higher 1100 to 2100 m altitude range of the reserve. It is at these subalpine levels that these larch trees continue to grow.

Pfyn-Finges Forest Reserve

The forest in the Pfyn-Finges reserve is one of the last remaining contiguous Scots pine forests within Switzerland, covering 17 km² in the heart of the Pfyn-Finges Nature Park, Valis. The pine forests grow on steep south facing mountain sides, along the many alluvial rivers – including the River Rhone – and watercourses. The pine forest stands are, with warmer summers, becoming increasingly stressed, making them the focus for forest ecology and related research.

National Parks, Nature Reserves and Certified Protected Areas

Mountains and forests of the Swiss National Park –  Photo by Hansueli Krapf/Wikipedia

National Parks

At present, Switzerland contains one national park, the Swiss National Park, which was founded in 1914 in the eastern canton of Graubünden. Much more recently, sixteen regional parks have been established, which date from 2007 or after. There is also one Nature Experience Park, the Sihlwald near Zurich. The network was founded to help preserve, maintain, and improve biodiversity across the wide but fragmented range of habitats found in the country. Unlike the National Park, which is essentially a wilderness area, being legally protected from human interference, the regional parks integrate human activity and are intended as exemplars of integrating sustainability with nature and habitat conservation. With an emphasis on decentralisation, the regional parks aim to encourage local involvement, environmental learning and activity, and serve as insurance strategies regarding their future health and protection.

The majority of these parks include forests and woodlands, although their ecological and/or forestry significance differs across a diverse spectrum of landscapes, habitats and biotopes. The criteria for turning land into a nature park highlights ecological, as well as cultural and historical requirements, so that generally endangered species and rare habitats are a part of a park’s responsibilities, be these in mountainous areas, valleys, highland meadows or moors, grasslands, or wild rivers and alluvial wetlands. Nearly all habitats, apart from those above the tree line, feature forests, woodlands and trees. Some are entirely unique woodland habitats, such as the Risoud forest in the Parc Jura Vaudois, the Sihlwald near Zurich, composed of the largest continuous beech forest in lowland Switzerland, and God da Tamagur wood in the National park, the site of the highest recorded stone pine forest in Europe.

Cultural landscapes too, rooted in local and regional identity, are seen as at the heart of the network’s 21st century founding. Within this broad definition concerns around traditional and vernacular buildings, are included in many of the park’s conservation aims and responsibilities.

The umbrella organisation is the state funded  Swiss Parks Network, founded in 2007. Regional Nature Parks go through several ‘candidate’ stages to ensure they meet the legislative social, cultural and environmental criteria. At present there is one candidate park, Parco Val Calanca,in Graubünden. In addition, there are two UNESCO Biosphere reserves in Switzerland, which are integrated into the network. An interactive map of Swiss Nature Parks can be found here.

The Swiss National Park in Graubünden

The country’s first and only National Park was founded in 1914 and covers 1742 miles of the Western Rhaetian Alps in the eastern canton of Graubünden. Given over a hundred years has passed since its inception, during which there has been very little human intervention, the National Park is seen as a pioneering example of wilderness, with the likes of Rewilding Europe commending it as an early experiment in wilderness ecology.

Not as many tree stands grow in this highland Alpine region compared to the other more westerly cantons. Wood cover across the national park is about 30%, mainly comprising Alpine mixed forest habitats. Historically, Graubünden’s forests were intensively harvested in the first half of the 19th century, with large-scale and comprehensive clearances. While spruce, larch, Swiss stone pine and mountain pine are the principle mixed Alpine woods in Graubünden, clear cutting in the park has resulted in mountain pine becoming the dominant recolonising species. Although there is next to no virgin forest today, some natural regeneration has occurred, and the decline of forestry across the canton – due to drops in demand, stricter regulation, and the complexity and challenges of working in higher inaccessible environments – has meant wood cover has been gradually increasing.

The mixed Alpine forest habitat is found primarily between about 800 m and 2300 m elevation. Between 2100 m and 2500 m the forest reaches its tree line limit and is replaced by smaller shrubs and Alpine meadow plants and flowers. One exception is the God da Tamangur or“the wood at the back”) where the largest European stone pine forest can be found as high as 2300 meters above sea level – see further in the Val Müstair Biosphere reserve section below.

The extent of mountain pine’s spread is also evident in the pine forests around the Pass dal Fuorn – between Zernez and Val Müstair – the largest mountain pine forests in the Alps. It is thought these will gradually regenerate into more typically mixed sub-alpine forests. Two varieties are found, the erect and reclining mountain pine, the pioneer species having regenerated in unpromising stony ground, going on to recolonise the park’s clear-felled slopes. Around the nearby Alp la Schera, mixed alpine woods can be found comprised of the broader habitat species alongside stone pine, that is mountain pine, larch and spruce.

Further – the National Park Centre in Zernez and designed by Valerio Olgiati is featured in the FDR8 feature on Olgiati.

Photo – Schaffhausen Regional Nature Park

Gagger forest after Storm Luther, and the raised Gaggersweg
or walkway trail – Photos Gantrisch Nature Park

Regional Nature Parks

The sixteen regional Nature Parks are grouped by region in Switzerland:

North and North West

Aargau Jura Park – spanning 241km2 and reaching up to 350m in elevation, the Aargau Jura Park, opened in 2012, sits on the westerly Jurassic Plateau and the Aargau Jura mountains and valley, before ending close to Switzerland’s north-westerly capital, Basel. There are a variety of forested areas of ecological significance in the north, including orchid rich pine forests across the Plateau table, fruit tree orchards, stepped forest edges, as well as oat grass and dry meadows, and terraced vineyards. Forests can also be found in the south of the park.

Gantrisch Nature Park – named after the Gantrisch mountain range, the park sits in a hilly landscape to the south of Bern, east of Fribourg and west of Thun. An area of extensive forestry, the park features one of the country’s largest continuous woodland areas adjoining the moorlands at the peak of the Gurnigel pass. The region’s Gägger forest was devastated by the 1999 storm Lothar, after which the razed forest area was turned into a forest reserve and left to regenerate and grow in its own time. A raised canopy path was opened in 2005 enabling the recovering forest to be experienced first-hand. However, the woods’ natural regrowth and regeneration caused difficulties with the path, so that a new treetop Gaggersweg panoramic trail has since been constructed and was opened in 2019.

Schaffhausen Regional Nature Park – one of the newest parks opening in 2018, it is also the first cross-border of the Swiss parks, sharing this status and land with Germany. Unlike the majority of other Nature Parks, Schaffhausen doesn’t sit within a mountainous Alpine or Jura landscape. The park comprises of lowland landscape encompassing the River Rhine, vineyards, and farming land, which includes mixed deciduous and conifer forests on the Randen hill range. Alluvial woodlands can also be found around the ‘renatured’ Thurgau river and its tributaries, including a regional environmental education initiative close to the Thurauen Nature Centre. The timber designed Nature Centre was designed by Aluba Architects.

Thal Nature Park – lies in the hilly Jura countryside of canton Solothurn between three of Switzerland’s major cities, Basel, Berne and Zurich. Pine forests and other woodlands can be found across the Nature Park. Beech is also prolific, primarily growing on rocky outcrops and the south-facing slopes of the Jura. Forestry practice has been developed, with the aim of creating light and warm environments providing nutrient-rich conditions for rare plants to grow, including numerous forest orchids, as well as habitats for rare reptiles and butterflies.

All photos in this section – Parco Val Calanca nature park

South East

Beverin Nature Parkcovers 420 km2 of mountainous highlands and valleys in Switzerland’s largest canton, Graubünden. It includes the Safein valley, and features an alpine mix of farms and forestry, including trees characteristically found in the inner Alpine lowlands even though significant parts of the park are above the tree line. There are many examples of Walser vernacular rural and farm buildings, such as Joos house and stables in the hamlet of Fraissa, dating from 1300.

Parco Val Calanca – in the south-eastern Italian corner ofGraubünden, Parco Val Calanca is the current ‘candidate’ regional Nature Park, and also the smallest to date, covering a 120km2. The park runs from its southern valley-head entrance up the relatively remote Calanca valley to the impassable 3000 m high northern mountain wall. A mix of high-altitude uplands, small villages hugging mountainsides, the lower-lying valley floor, and alluvial floodplain of the river Calancasca flowing south out of the valley, provide a contrasting and dramatic landscape for an unusually large number of rare ecological habitats and niches, including forest habitats.

The park’s forests and trees (link in Italian) reflect the changes in elevation across its boundaries. The overwhelming majority of the woods (85%) serve protective needs, natural bulwarks against landslides, torrents and floods, and other forms of erosion. Some woods, including the Bedoleta Nature Forest Reserve, at the far end of the valley, help maintain biodiversity. The Bedolata reserve itself contains some of Europe’s oldest monumental larch trees. Growing on the Valbella valley side, the forest reserve covers over 725 ha, rising from around 1100 m to 2100 m in altitude. At lower elevations around Braggio village – about half-way along the valley – red fir, white fir, larch, birch, and rowan grow until subalpine levels are reached, where tree species turn to spruce and larch. At the highest tree limit edges green alder is found.

About half way up the valley, around the Arvigo village, there are mixed forests of beech and conifers, while in the natural wood of the upper mountain range silver fir and spruce dominate, accompanied by larch, birch, and rowan. Further south, around the village of Buseno and down into the opening river floodplain, are sizable and historic chestnut woodlands, along with other deciduous trees. Alder is also present along the river Calancasca, and elsewhere as it turns into a natural floodplain and alluvial valley.

The valley’s mountainside villages, which have witnessed considerable depopulation over the last century, contain a significant number of vernacular buildings, generally using stone and wood materials that were close to hand. See the Vernacular buildings section here link to 6.1.

Parc Ela  this Graubünden park was founded with the explicit objective of maintaining the ecological biotope, although unlike the National Park, Parc Ela’s extensive terrain of 548 km2 also covers cultivated farmland, villages, and other settlements. Much of the park is above the tree line, with primarily conifer forests in the lower-level valleys, although deciduous woodlands have been researched and planted to enhance already existing habitats at three sites: Schmitten, Alvaneu and Salouf.

Photo – My Switzerland

South West and West

Diemtagel Nature Park – located in the Diemtal valley on the Swiss Plateau within the Bern canton. Sitting on higher ground, the park covers 136 km2 of which slightly under one third is wooded. Beech, spruce and other mixed tree species make up the forest landscape across the valley. The region is known for having the highest level of Alpine farming in Switzerland, which in some farms involves agroforestry. The park also includes the canton’s largest forest reserve.

Chasseral Nature Park – sits beside the Chasseral, the highest non-Alpine mountain in the canton of Bern, overlooking Lake Biel, and extending into the Jura range. The landscape is a mixture of contrasts; vineyards, meadows, and plateaus alternate with gorges and valleys. The nature park manages two Bernese forest reserves – Chasseral Nord and Chasseral Sud – covering 1100 ha of mixed closed forests and wooded pastures. The nature park is applyinghabitat conservation (link in French), aiming to integrate old trees, dead wood, and trees with cavities for the nesting of relatively rare birds, with local forest owners and managers, who are a focus of the nature park’s biodiversity efforts. The habitat approach, although not as well-known as dry meadow conservation, is in collaboration with the Swiss Ornithological Institute.

Further – see here for feature on the Ornithological Institute’s rammed earth visitor centre.

Work is also ongoing on the re-introduction of the ‘hoof of Venus / Venus’ shoe’, a rare and almost extinct forest orchid.

The Violin Trees of Risoud, Lorenzo Pellegrini, master tree picker– Photo’s from a2013 BBC programme and article – Photos Anne-Lise Vouillioud

Photo – The Swiss National Arboretum

Doubs Nature Park – runs through the Jura for forty miles to the west of Yverdon-les-Bain as far as the French border, covering cantons of Jura, Berne, and Neuchatel. There are extensive pastured woodlands and forests, reflecting a regional cultural landscape formed over the centuries through cattle farming and horse breeding. On the northern limit of the plateau the ground drops sharply down to the River Doubs and runs through gorges before crossing the French border.

Jura Vaudois Regional Nature Park – Parc Jura vaudois –extends north of Geneva and Lausanne into the Jura as far as the French border. The distinctive mosaic landscape of pasture, woodland, and mountains is well represented over the park’s 531 km2. Spruce trees and pasture divided up by dry-stone walls alternate with large forests, such as the Risoud, reflecting the long silvopastoral culture of the Jura uplands.

Risoud Forest – the largest forest in Europe, covering 2200 hectares of continuous, principally spruce, woodland, running along the western side of the Vallée de Joux for approximately 15 km. The forest is well known for the quality of its 350 very slow growing, highly resonant spruce trees, which provide extremely resonant wood tones for luthiers and other wooden instruments, including providing the tonewood for Stradivarius’s violins.

The Swiss National Arboretum – in the Aubonne Valley, is within the Jura Nature Park’s boundaries. First opened in 1968, the 130 hectare arboretum features a wide variety of trees and shrubs including some 4,000 woody plants and 3000 species and varieties of trees and shrubs from all the planet’s temperate zones. There is a pomological sector with collections of orchard and fruit trees and recreations of the American Northwest Pacific and Japanese forests ecotypes. The arboretum is also home to the Swiss Library of Dendrology (link in French) and the Wood Museum (again in French).

The bridge over the river Binna in the village of Binn – Photo by Daniel Schwen(Wikipedia)

The Pfynwald near Siders (Valais) is one of the last large Scots pine stands in Switzerland and part of a nature park. (Photo: Gottardo Pestalozzi/WSL)

South

Binntal Nature Park – the 181 km2 Nature Park sits in the upper Valais in the far south Italian speaking region of the country. Part of the Southern Alps, valley sides are particularly steep, leaving rock faces exposed to the sun, dry, and often bare on one side, while woods and trees grow on the more protected, damp, and shaded sides. With protected dry meadows, moorlands and pastures, both deciduous and conifer trees grow in the Binntal, including maple, larch, and spruce and other species benefiting from the more Mediterranean climate. Binn, one of the park’s six small villages, is known as the spruce village, with examples of various vernacular regional buildings.

Pfyn Finges Nature Park – is in the mountainous south eastern Valais canton, close to the Italian border, and runs along one of the driest inner Alpine valleys. At the centre of the park, spread across 17 km2, is the Pfyn-Finges forest reserve, one of the largest pine forests in the Alpine region. The park is also unusually biodiverse and includes the country’s most important water meadow reserves. Pine forests grow on steep, south facing mountain sides along the many alluvial rivers – including the River Rhône – and watercourses, as well as beside other Alpine features. Ponds and steppes, on south facing slopes and along the River Rhône valleys, are considered important biotopes within the park. With an increasingly dry climate and longer summer droughts, trees and whole woodlands within the pine forest stands are becoming increasingly stressed, which make the park a focus for forest ecology and other research – see further in WSL research.

The park is home to the largest and one of the last remaining contiguous Scots pine forests in Switzerland, the Pfynwald, situated between Brig and Sion.

Gruyère Pays-d’Enhaut Nature Park – sits to the east of Lake Geneva and the town of Vevey, covering parts of the Fribourg and Vaud cantons. The rural landscape includes valley forests, wooded alpine pastures, and more mountainous higher altitude trees. Both protective and productive forests can be found across the Gruyère Pays-d’Enhaut park’s boundaries which extend over more than 500 km2.

Photo – Wikimedia

Turm viewing tower in the Goldau reserve by Gion Caminada – Photos – Gion Caminada Arkitekten

Nature Experience Parks

Zurich Wilderness Park (Wildnes park Zurich) – close to Switzerland’s largest city, the Zurich wilderness park is located in one of the country’s very few large scale, historical forests called theSihlwald, itself sitting in the Sihl Valley. The Sihlwald is unusual in that it contains one of the largest forests comprising of over 80% beech in lowland Switzerland, which although found across much of central Europe is rare in the country. It is still a mixed forest, alongside the beech a further 10% of the trees are silver fir, along with much smaller amounts of Norwegian spruce, ash and sycamore. A significant proportion of the beech forest is over 250 years old, with younger trees planted around 120 years ago.

Uniquely among Swiss nature parks, the wilderness park enjoys a Nature Park status, with conservation ensured by falling under forest reserve legal protection. With commercial forestry having ceased in 1990, large amounts of deadwood have subsequently built up, assisting with biodiversity, and long-term biodiversity monitoring research began in 2016. Small-scale regeneration methods are practiced, such as progressive felling, along with single tree or group selection systems which are believed to support natural regeneration processes in undisturbed beech forests, a form of continuous cover forestry or, in Swiss German, Dauerwald. A brief history of the Sihlwald can be found here.

Goldau Nature Reserve and Animal Park – while not part of Switzerland’s Nature Park network, it has been awarded Nature Reserve status. The 42 ha park, near Schwyz and east of Luzern in central Switzerland, is a cross between a nature park, conservation centre and an expanded zoo boasting 100 different animal species. While animals take pride of place, the park’s landscape is wooded, and recently added a timber tower designed by the Graubünden village architect, Gion Caminada, which is nine stories high and uses 350 m3 of locally sourced timber, primarily fir. Reaching 30 m high, the tower includes crevices in its façade for birds and rooftop nesting places for cranes.

Val Müstair valley – historical photo by Werner Friedli from the ETH Libraries collection in collaboration with Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0

Entlebuch Biosphere – Photo Wikipedia/Simon Koopmann

Biosphere Reserves

Biosfera Val Müstair – Switzerland’s first UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. It is recognised as both a Biosphere Reserve and a regional Nature Park and covers the Swiss National Park area, parts of the district of Scuol and, since 2017, the Val Müstair region, in the far east of the Graubünden canton. Although sizeable forests and woodland can be found, the mountainous upland character of Graubünden means that only one fifth of the canton land cover is forested. Swiss or stone pine grows across the canton, along with other species, including in the Val Müstair valley, aspen, willows, birch and red elder, which appeared after a major forest fire cleared a considerable part of the hillside’s woods.

God da Tamangur – ‘the wood at the back’ is Europe’s highest continuous stone pine forest sitting at 2300 metres above sea level in Graubünden’s Lower Engadin region. The God da Tamangur forest conservation area covers 212 acres within which no felling is permitted. Some of the stone pine trees grow at 2400 m elevation, albeit very slowly, and can live for over 700 years. The forest is a symbol for the perseverance of the regional Romansch minority and the survival of their language and culture.

UNESCO Entlebuch Biosphere Reserve and Nature Park – covers 400 km2 of wild montane and upland regions of the central Swiss canton of Lucerne. The park was granted UNESCO Biosphereand Nature Park status in 2001 and 2008 respectively. As such, Entlebuch acted as the forerunner for the wider Nature Park’s network.

A significant part of its land consists of pre-Alpine moors and the region is known for its cave systems and geological karst landscape. Silver fir, spruce, and pine montane forests and woodland are spread across the Biosphere Reserve. There are alluvial and riverine forests with willow, rowan, and alder, and forested peatlands featuring Swiss stone pine and Scot’s pine, as well as sizeable deciduous woodlands featuring beech, larch, and ash in lower lying parts of the reserve.

Biosphere reserves are the result of UNESCO’s 1970 Man and the Biosphere programme (MAB). It was, however, only after the organisation’s 1995 general conference that the guidelines for this international network of reserves were defined – such as requiring the implementation of the Convention of Biological Diversity, Agenda 21 and other international agreements, and by implication as models of sustainable development and core questions regarding the future role of rural and less habituated land that saw reserves begin to appear. For further background information see here.

Nature organisations

Pro Natura Aargau’s Limmatspitz’s nature reserve
– Photo Wikipedia/Roland ZHCC BY-SA 3.0

Amazonian forest clearances – Photo WWW Schweiz

Children’s environmental education in the forest
– Photo Montagu Foundation

Pro Natura – or the Swiss League for the Protection of Nature, Switzerland’s oldest nature organisation founded in 1909, is responsible for 724 nature sites covering 269miles2. With a presence across all of Switzerland Pro Natura includes about 160, 000 members and 25,000 donors. Its core goals include strengthening biodiversity, protecting the Swiss environment and landscape – including reducing land development and urban sprawl – conserving natural resources, and enhance human connection to nature. These include campaigns, research, and political engagement related to preserving nature, including flora, fauna, wildlife and woods and trees across many parts of the country, particularly species on Europe’s Red List. One obvious focus is Pro Natura’s nature sites across the country’s regional Nature Parks as well as the Swiss National Park, which the organisation was instrumental in helping create. A current initiative is focused on reducing building sprawl, particularly areas outside building zones.

Pro Natura are active in lobbying, networking with other Swiss and European nature organisations, and are affiliated with Friends of the Earth, Europe. The organisation works at an international level, and is involved in policy development, particularly in biodiversity and climate change. Regional centres organise environmental education events for all ages, which include libraries and other green resources.

World Wildlife Fund for Nature in Switzerland – WWF Schweiz is the Swiss node in this international organisation and is unsurprisingly involved in the future of the world’s forests, linking their work in the Amazon, China, and other parts of the planet with the forest and biodiversity situation in the country. Alongside other signature campaigns, such as saving various animals (or megafauna) from extinction, WWF Schweiz links broader environmental change, including climate change induced glacier melt, the extinction of various plants, rising sea levels and the health of agricultural land, to changes in the Alpine forest’s biotope.

With three Swiss offices, including a head office in Zurich, WWF runs campaigns, conducts research, lobbies at the federal, and regional government levels, as well as operating a full range of membership activities, resource and information services, and nature related events on a cantonal level.

Silviva – is the principal Swiss forest and nature-related environmental education network, providing a wide range of environmental education services across its network. The network was founded in 1985 as part of the Swiss citizens’ response to the pan-European Wald-Sterben (or forest death) crisis. In partnership with the Federal Office for Environment (FOEN) – see here – Silviva co-ordinates and runs educational events aimed at drawing young people closer to nature and the forests. This includes Forest Weeks, Forester Worlds (Forster Welt), study courses, educational forest and nature pedagogy developed for children, teachers, and educationalists.

Swiss old growth and deadwood habitat
– Photo Vogelwarte/Pierre Mollet

Cover of the Swiss Forestry Journal (left) and (right) members of the Swiss Forest Association – Photos and cover, SFA

The Swiss Forest Association (SFA) – founded in 1843 and today consists of around 800 forest experts, forest professionals and others from the forestry community who share interests and concerns regarding forest ecology. The association provides expertise in the legal, political and academic fields, among others, contributing to policy, reports, and related matters. There are four specialist working groups focused on – Forest and Wildlife, Forest Biodiversity, and Forest Planning and Management. The SFA is the publisher of the bimonthly Swiss Forestry Journal (SZF) – the journal archive can be found here.

Swiss Ornithological InstituteVogelwarte – the principle Swiss body involved in research and study of birds in the wild. Research includes a focus on migration, breeding, and habitat. In this context the Vogelwarte are involved in the health of trees and woodlands as ecological habitats for the many different breeds of birds found in Switzerland.

Research, alongside practical implementation of ecological strategies aimed at supporting vulnerable bird species, is part of the institute’s work, generally focused on improving habitat and biodiversity within woods, particularly given that nearly all Swiss woods and trees are relatively young – only 0.4% is more than 250 years old – and not diverse enough for many bird species. Active collaboration with foresters and forest managers is often about letting trees age and die, and in turn provide enough deadwood for various smaller organisms to live and grow as the foodstuffs of birds. Together such processes provide the ecological web needed for various bird species to flourish. Vogelwarte’s page on forests is here.

Further – the Vogelwarte’s visitor centre in Sempach, a rammed earth and timber project by Bienne’s :mlzd is featured in  Unstructured 7 here.

Penan rain forest activism – Photo Bruno Manser Fund

The Bruno Manser Fund – so named after the Swiss environmentalist, Bruno Manser (1954-2005), who took up the cause of the Penan people in the Sarawak in Borneo, one of the last groups to living in the region’s primeval rain forests. Manser lived with the Penan between 1984 and 1990, helping them organise resistance to logging companies, and became a visible advocate for the Penan in the West. He set up the Bruno Manser Fund in support of the Penan, before disappearing, presumed dead, in Sarawak in 2005.

The fund now runs multiple projects and campaigns to support the protection of the Penan tribal people and their rain forest lands, alongside related projects and activist campaigns. Projects include indigenous land rights, mapping and cultural documentation and renewable energy in the rain forest, while the fund’s campaigns include protecting the Malaysian Mulu Rainforest, the Ukrainian Carpathian beech forest, a parallel campaign to stop IKEA using illegally sourced wood from the same Carpathian forests, a Switzerland against oil palmcampaign, and Stop the Chop, aiming to halt the use of Sarawak timber from primary forests which are home to indigenous people being used as construction materials at the Japanese Olympics sites.


Return to top