Beech forest once covered two-thirds of Germany; today, that figure stands at just 5%. That makes Hainich National Park very special. For 50 years, this 7,500-acre triangle behind the Iron Curtain was a hidden place where the Soviet army practised manoeuvres. Civilians were barred: there was no agriculture, no building of cottages in pretty clearings, no chopping and sawing for fuel or furniture. Nature was left alone, and it flourished into a patch of broad-leafed woodland so precious that in 2011 it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is how a Central European primeval forest would have looked at the very dawn of time.
And I’m right in the thick of the action, following a Treetop Trail that snakes 80ft above the floor for half a kilometre. It’s winter; snow gathers in piles on the thicker boughs, while twiggier branches are lined with spiky crystals. The canopy walkway attracts 200,000 visitors a year, but now the air is muffled and still, and it’s easy to imagine creatures hunkering in the hollows and woody tangles close by. This wilderness is home to deer, wild boars, pine martens, stoats and raccoons; there are 15 species of bat, seven of woodpecker, and over 2,000 types of beetle. But the biggest name is the wild cat.
Wild cats are shy and camouflaged, and for all my staring at the undergrowth I’m unlikely to spot one during my walk. However, camera traps offer proof that there are 60 cats in the park. That’s a high number for an area this size but young cats were previously unable to move elsewhere because their woodland was surrounded by a concrete landscape of human habitation. So, in 2007, the first of several escape routes was created by volunteers — a 12-mile green corridor planted with trees and bushes, leading to another forest. The scheme has been a great success, with some cats already having made the journey to fresh territory.
It’s a heart-tugging story, of course, but I want to see a cat in the flesh. The nearby Hütscheroda wildcat village has four cats (two pairs of brothers) — Toco, Carlo, Franz and Oskar — whose presence serves to educate the public about the plight of the wild cat and raise funds for the creation of further green corridors.
I arrive at feeding time, and watch as a ranger enters a leafy enclosure containing four little huts. He criss-crosses inside, picking dead mice and chicks from a bucket and hiding them in nooks and crannies. After he’s left, the hunt begins. Franz and Oskar emerge from nowhere, one springing powerfully on a chick in the grass and the other on a mouse wedged in the crook of a branch. While they have the markings of tabbies, they are stockier than domestic cats, with muscular, bully-boy necks. Tibbles wouldn’t stand a chance, I sense — but hopes are high for the chances of the wild cats of Hainich.