The Park's habitats
During the continental drift around 60 million years ago, the Adriatic plate broke away from the African continent. Drifting northward, it restricted the Jurassic Mediterranean, collided with the European continent and overrode it for about 150 kilometers. The edges of the European continent were pressed downwards to the hot interior of the earth and melted into magma.
Around 30 million years ago it penetrated the African slab situated above it through the existing crevices. These are the modalities of the formation of the Rieserferner / Vedrette di Ries group, which can thus be considered a product of the fusion of Africa and Europe. Around the tonalite masses, and in part even covering them, is the old gneiss zone, which was part of the African slab.
Around 10 million years ago, the African slab had eroded to a point where the tonalite masses and the southern edge of the European continent – the central gneiss zone and the lower shale shell – were exposed. This area extending from Brenner / Brennero to Katschberg, situated 160 kilometers to the east, was named the Tauern Window by geologists.
Nature park Rieserferner-Ahrn / Vedrette di Ries-Aurina has the highest proportion of glaciers of all the nature parks in South Tyrol. “Gletscher”, the commonly employed German term for “glacier”, is relatively new in Tyrol, where people used to say “Ferner” or “Kees” (both of which come from the Zillertal dialect) rather than “Gletscher.
Today, all of the park’s glaciers are in its northern section. As recently as 1873, Rieserfern glacier covered the entire amphitheater between Schneebiger Nock and Hochgall, but has now shrunk to three separate ice-fields.
Glacier shrinkage makes it possible to observe glacial formations such as the various types of moraines, erratic blocks, glacial striations, lakes and dome-shaped landscapes. Hence the micro-context of these glaciers allows for observation of the major phenomena that affected large swathes of the landscape at the end of the Ice Age.
Rivulets and lakes
The abundance of water is one of the salient features of the nature park Rieserferner-Ahrn / Vedrette di Ries. Rivulets splash down crevices and rock faces and there are waterfalls galore, such as Reinbach-Wasserfälle / Cascate di Riva and Rötbach falls, and many small lakes, - situated mostly between 2,200 and 2,500 meters, fill depressions carved out by glaciers. These lakes include Klamml lake, the three Maler lakes, and Kofler lakes. Antholz lake / Lago di Anterselva, which is located at the far end of Antholz / Anterselva valley, is the third largest natural lake in South Tyrol, and, as a biotope, is protected.
Flora and fauna
Mixed coniferous forests
The park’s sparsely populated mountain valleys are surrounded by woods, whereby the predominant tree species is spruce. Montane spruce forests are mostly located at altitudes between 800 and 1,400 meters, above which sub-Alpine spruce woods are found. The more sunny and the less dense a spruce forest is, the more permeated it is by larches. There are also scattered deciduous trees such as mountain ashes. Spruces, larches and cembra pines mark the timber line, which is situated at an altitude of 1,900 to 2,200 meters. Mugo pines and green alders, the latter in humid areas, make up the knee-timber belt.
The park’s forests constitute its main wildlife habitat and provide retreat for roe deer and red deer. Siskins, red crossbills and squirrels feed on the seeds of spruces and larches. Woodpeckers can also be found in these areas. Nutcrackers collect the nuts of cembra pines and hide them far and wide. Foxes, badgers, pine-martens and Eurasian pygmy owls also find excellent conditions in mixed coniferous forests.
Alpine meadows and pastures
The pastures of nature park Rieserferner-Ahrn / Vedrette di Ries-Aurina are home to arnicas, bearded hare-bells, rough hawkbits, golden cinquefoils, catsfeet, anemones and other flora species. On silicate rocks, the Alpine sedge Carex curvula predominates in grass communities, and the extremely windy passes contain grassy patches of Bellard’s kobresia.
The Alpine lawns above the timber line offer a mosaic of biotopes for numerous species of mountain wildlife. Marmots, which find sufficient grasses and herbs to feed on, are the main source of food for golden eagles, which regularly nest in the park. The water pipit is a characteristic bird of Alpine pastures. On meadows carpeted with flowers numerous insects such as butterflies, beetles, bumble-bees and grasshoppers can also be found.
Detritus slopes, rocks and glaciers
At higher altitudes Alpine lawns are replaced by detritus slopes, where the desolate moraines that are left behind soon become host to algae, lichens and mosses that grow on the stones and on the fine sand left by glacial striation. On thin rock ledges and in small niches various grasses and cushion plants are also able to gain a foothold, with some species such as Alpine rock jasmine, Alpine toadflax, musky saxifrage and red saxifrage growing at altitudes of 3,000 meters. Chamoix are also found at these high altitudes. Ravens nest in crevices. Typical inhabitants of debris cirques are the black redstart, the wheatear and the Alpine accentor. The mammal that lives highest up is the snow mouse, which occasionally also nests in refuges.
The human factor
Rieserferner-Ahrn / Vedrette di Ries-Aurina Nature Park is characterized by elongated Alpine valleys and many smaller ones leading into them, such as Ahrntal valley with its numerous side valleys. The valley floors are densely populated, whereby the adjacent slopes are usually steep and contain only scattered hamlets. The extensively used meadows and pastures often extend up to the glacier region, thus bearing witness to human activity. The area beyond Tauferer Klamme in Ahrntal / Tures in Valle Aurina gorge comprises an austere landscape. This region was settled in Medieval times by people coming across the Jöcher mountains from Pinzgau and Zillertal. Traces remain of the dialect, the traditions and the building construction practices they brought with them. For example, the traditional farmhouses sometimes have small bell towers, which are typical for the Pinzgau area. And as individual farmhouses predominated, the hamlets in this region were composed of a church and usually no more than a dozen houses for the pastor, school, shopkeepers and artisans.
There was considerable traffic in the upper Ahrntal valley as early as the Middle Ages. Across Krimmler Tauern there was an international trade route whose paved remains are still visible and that linked the region south of the Alps to the Salzburg area, e.g. Etschland wine to the north and Hallein salt to the south. Goods were transported on horses or by sturdy local carriers. The same held true for local farmers, who still today drive their herds to their Alpine pastures in the Salzburg region, oftentimes through knee-deep snow.
Above the timber line lie extensive Alpine grasslands that are used for cattle grazing during the summer and some of which are also mowed. These pastures comprise the most striking evidence of the impact of human civilization on Rieserferner-Ahrn / Vedrette di Ries-Aurina Nature Park.
The Rieserfern / Vedrette di Ries mountains became popular amongst tourists in the latter half of the 19th century. In 1880, the magazine of the German-Austrian Alpine Association contained an article describing the region titled "Die Rieserfernergruppe" (The Rieserfern mountains).