The Ecopark, at Nordens Ark in Sweden, is a haven for people and wildlife. Penny Bunting explores the park and finds out more
It's well known that being outside is good for you, with numerous studies exploring the benefits of access to green spaces to health and wellbeing.
It has been shown that hospital patients recover more quickly if they have a view of trees from their window. That regular contact with the natural environment can reduce stress, obesity and heart disease. And that living in an area with plenty of trees can reduce asthma.
Studies have also shown that being outside and having contact with nature can make us feel happier and calmer.
During a visit to the Ecopark, at in south-west Sweden, it's clear that these findings are true. A stroll through the shaded, dappled woodland and sunlit wildflower meadows of this extensive conservation area calms the mind and lifts the spirits.
The Ecopark sits within the Åby manor estate, comprising some 400 hectares of land that was purchased by the Nordens Ark Foundation in 1996.
Originally an area of crofting activities, the land here was once rich in biodiversity. During the 18th and 19th centuries these small-scale mixed farms were used for cattle grazing, and consisted of a wide range of habitats that supported a wealth of different wildlife species.
The Ecopark project aims to restore much of the land back to this rich and varied open landscape – moving away from the fir-oriented forestry that has predominated. Like other highly intensive agricultural practices – many of which rely heavily on chemical fertilizers and pesticides – this spruce monoculture does little for biodiversity.
But at the Ecopark, this is now changing. Native breeds of cattle and sheep – Swedish mountain cows, Swedish red polled cattle and Värmland sheep, for example – graze areas of the park in a controlled rotation system. This careful land management – along with seed sowing and grass cutting at specific times of year – has allowed wild flowers to re-establish and thrive in the meadow areas.
Mats Niklasson, Scientific Director at Nordens Ark, carefully monitors the effects of the restoration on different species. Since he started working at the Ecopark in 2008, he has seen a huge improvement in the range of biodiversity on the site.
“Many native species of insects and birds that are disappearing from large areas of Sweden are thriving here,” says Mats. “There are around 20 important flower species growing in the meadows, and this has in turn attracted all sorts of insects.”
One of these is the day-flying burnet moth – which has been declining in other parts of Sweden, but is easy to spot in the Ecopark meadows.
As we talk with Mats, a bright blue butterfly flits past us before alighting on a pale blue harebell that's bobbing gently in the breeze.
Many of the plants that are thriving here – such as devil's-bit scabious and St John's wort – are providing food and habitats for vital pollinators. There are insects everywhere, and the meadow is full of colour and life, with buzzing, whirring and chirping.
Alongside the meadow restoration, the forest is also being carefully managed to allow more tree species to grow – in particular deciduous native varieties such as oak.
“Around 1,000 species live in an oak tree,” explains Mats, as he leads us through the woodland to find the park's oldest tree, a 400-year old oak. “Some species are completely dependant on oak, and old trees like these are vital habitats.” Mats points up into the branches of the ancient oak tree. “This one could be supporting as many as 200 red-listed species.”
Above: woodland walks; native breeds. Below: Mats in the meadow
Waiting for newly planted trees to grow old so that they can support so many species takes a very long time, of course. So the Ecopark team has been trialing an innovative new method to recreate the sort of damaged wood commonly found on very old trees. This is done by damaging young trees to create holes, hollows and dead wood.
IT'S THIS HOLISTIC APPROACH - WITH INITIATIVES TO BENEFIT BOTH WILDLIFE AND PEOPLE - THAT MAKES THE NORDENS ARK ECOPARK SUCH A UNIQUE AND SPECIAL PLACE
The process is called 'veteranisation', and there are several ways to speed up the aging process. Stripping away a ring of bark, creating fissures, holes and cracks, or breaking off the top of a tree to mimic the damage caused by a lightning strike are all examples. These actions create areas on the tree that can then be colonized by fungi and invertebrates. When larger hollows appear, these become homes for bats or birds.
Alongside the flora and insect life on the estate, a major success story has been the reintroduction of the white-backed woodpecker. Along with lesser spotted woodpeckers, these birds are facing hard times – with habitat loss being a major part of the problem.
“These birds need the correct habitat, specifically deciduous forest,” says Mats. “As most of the forest in Sweden consists of spruce monoculture, birds that rely on broadleaf trees are really struggling. What we're doing here in the Ecopark is getting the habitats in place first – only then can reintroduction be successful.”
Another successful reintroduction programme features peregrine falcons. In 1976 there were no breeding pairs of this enigmatic bird left in Sweden – largely due to pesticide use, which affects the birds' egg shells, making them too thin to support new life. But a Nordens Ark breeding programme re-introduced them, and now the species is thriving.
There are well-marked paths throughout the Ecopark, with some areas – including Åbyhällen – offering disabled access. And as well as welcoming leisure visitors, the park focuses on education, offering a range of programmes to members of the public.
These educational opportunities include activity days for pre-school children, ecology lessons for secondary school children – and a Green Wellbeing project, offering access to nature for city people and those with disabilities.
It's this holistic approach – with initiatives to benefit both wildlife and people – that makes the Nordens Ark Ecopark such a unique and special place.
The ongoing work here is creating a lasting legacy that will make a positive difference to countless species – with future generations of people also enjoying this rich and diverse green space. It's a successful recipe for all round wellbeing – and a wonderful place to visit!
As well as attracting wildlife to the area, human visitors are also actively encouraged to explore the Ecopark – and local people and tourists from across the world visit the reserve to enjoy the natural surroundings.
Many of these visitors will be fascinated by Åbyhällen – a steep rock that's adorned with some 120 Bronze Age carvings. Discovered in 1967 under vegetation, these remarkable, ancient drawings were created over 3,000 years ago and depict Viking ships, fertility symbols, Celtic warriors and animal paw prints.
Way to go
is open every day of the year from 10am.
The best place to stay is at Nordens Ark itself. There is an on site (right) offering modern, attractive en-suite rooms with comfortable beds. Family rooms are spacious and have a large double bed and bunk beds. Breakfast and free entrance to the park is included in the price of accommodation, and being on site means you can get the most out of your visit. There's also a good value restaurant on site with a range of hot and cold food available.
The hotel is a great place to base yourself for exploring the surrounding area too. The picturesque seaside village of Smögen, with its colourful cottages, cafes and boutiques, is just a short drive away. Or explore the marked walking trails of the Ecopark, right on the hotel's doorstep – and look out for the Bronze Age rock carvings hidden in the forest.
Activities at Nordens Ark, from kids' camps to conferences – or even eating dinner with close-up views of the wolves or joining the keepers behind the scenes with the big cats – can be booked in advance.
Green Adventures July 2016