Rothwald Primeval Forest, Austria

Rothwald is the largest remnant of primeval forest in the Alps1. Although there were large fellings in the region from the mid-1700s, Rothwald was saved thanks to its remoteness, topography and location between two Austrian states2. In 1875 it passed into the ownership of the Rothschild family, which did not allow any wood removal in Rothwald but preserved it for use as a hunting and recreation area2. In 1943 the primeval forest was officially protected2 and is today a part of Dürrenstein Wilderness Area. In 2017, the Wilderness Area was added to the Ancient and Primeval Beech Forests of the Carpathians and Other Regions of Europe World Heritage Site. Pollen analyses have also confirmed that Rothwald is a true virgin forest1. Rothwald is nowadays divided in two separate parts: “big primeval forest” (2.4 km2) and “small primeval forest” (0.5 km2). Originally, the primeval forest was contiguous and its area larger; unfortunately wood removal along the Moderbach (creek) between today’s two parts after storm damage in 1966 resulted in the separation of the primeval forest into two parts2.

Rothwald grows on limestone from 940 m elevation up to the forest limit at 1500 m 3 and comprises both steep slopes and almost level ground. The main tree species are European beech (Fagus sylvatica), European silver fir (Abies alba) and Norway spruce (Picea abies). There are over 500-year-old silver fir and Norway spruce, and 450-year-old beech2. The other, much less common, trees are sycamore maple (Acer pseudoplatanus), Norway maple (Acer platanoides), wych elm (Ulmus glabra), goat willow (Salix caprea), whitebeam (Sorbus aria, syn. Aria edulis) 2, Sorbus austriaca (syn. Hedlundia austriaca), European rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) and European yew (Taxus baccata) 1. Rothwald has some heavily wooded sites, even 1577 m3/ha has been measured in a small area3, but most of the forest has much lower wood volume. On the other hand, dead wood volumes are high throughout the forest (photo below).

Rothwald has high volumes of dead wood

Although there has been no wood use, the forest is not in its natural state: The density of large herbivores was natural until about 1870 but has increased since due to the extirpation of predators and winter feeding1. Consequently, the most herbivore sensitive tree species silver fir has not been able to regenerate since the late 1800s 1 and will disappear if the extant herbivore density continues3. The new growth of other tree species, even Norway spruce, is also damaged.

Average annual temperature is 3.7°C and annual precipitation approx. 2300 mm; average monthly precipitation year-round is over 100 mm 2. The bedrock is comprised of dolomite and limestone4.



  1. Mayer, H., Neumann, M. & Schrempf, W. (1979): Der Urwald Rothwald in  den Niederösterreichischen Kalkalpen. In Mayer, H. (ed.): Urwaldreste, Naturwaldreservate und Schützenswerte Naturwälder in Österreich. Institut für Waldbau, Universität für Bodenkultur, Wien.
  2. Gratzer, G. & Splechtna, B. (2014): Wissenschaftlicher Rundgang Rothwald.
  3. Schrempf, W. (1986): Waldbauliche Untersuchungen im Fichten-Tannen-Buchen-Urwald Rothwald und in Urwald-Folgebeständen. In Mayer, H. (ed.): Urwaldreste, Naturwaldreservate und Schützenswerte Naturwälder in Österreich. Institut für Waldbau, Universität für Bodenkultur, Wien.
  4. Splechtna, B. E. & Gratzer, G. (2005): Natural disturbances in Central European forests: approaches and preliminary results from Rothwald, Austria. For Snow Landsc Res 79: 57–67.