hidden europe 26

From Abisko to Kosterhavet: the centenary of European national parks


The great majority of Europe's citizens will probably not visit a national park in 2009. But for all of us, their very existence is a reassuring reminder that even in a crowded continent there is space to experience wilderness and peace. As Europe marks the centenary of its first national parks, we look at how the concept of a national park has evolved.

At first sight the tiny island of Ängsö in the Stockholm archipelago and the wild mountain landscapes around Abisko in Sweden's far north seem to have very little in common. At this time of year, the hills around Abisko have plenty of lingering winter snow and some lakes are still frozen. Ängsö, about one thousand kilometres away to the south, is lush and verdant, its meadows bursting with wood anemones and cowslips and its magnificent woodlands now in full leaf: maple, oak, birch, ash and more.

The first nine areas of Europe to be accorded the status of national parks, way back in 1909, were all in Sweden. Ängsö and Abisko were among them. And in 2009, the centenary year of Europe's national parks, these two long-standing Swedish parks exemplify the variety of landscapes that find protection under the umbrella of the continent's national parks. Abisko is pure wilderness, fragile by virtue of its altitude, remoteness and sub- Arctic climate. Ängsö represents another kind of fragility. In its delicate meadows, it preserves the legacy of nineteenth-century agrarian practice in Sweden, and it is therefore a cultural landscape of the first order. When the national park at Ängsö was first designated in 1909, it was less than one hundred hectares in size; latterly some areas of water around the island have been added, but at a mere 168 hectares, it is still a tiddler of a national park. Even Abisko at 77 km2 is still only of modest proportions - at least if we compare it to another of the 1909 parks, Stora Sjöfallet, which is a whopping 1278 km2, more than four times the land area of the entire Maltese archipelago.

access versus conservation

National parks come in all shapes and sizes. Nowadays there are over three hundred across Europe. But they vary considerably with respect to underpinning concept and day-to-day management. Switzerland's sole national park is a very early European example, established in 1914. The Parc Naziunal Svizzer is in a largely Romansh speaking area of the country near Zernez in the Engadine region of eastern Switzerland. It is governed by a Swiss perception that nature should be left well alone in national parks.

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