Crossing Borders and Blending Perspectives at the Wadden Sea

Poring over a map of the Wadden Sea, Rømø

In September 2022, I co-led a week-long international fieldtrip to the Wadden Sea coast at the border of northern Germany and southern Denmark. The fieldtrip was one part of a wider TriWadWalk partnership including universities in the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark. In May 2022, a first field trip took place, with a group of staff and students exploring the Wadden Sea coast and islands at the Dutch-German border. Both excursions were unusual for including a balance of staff and students (approximately 10 and 10) with emphasis placed on international exchange, interdisciplinary and intergenerational learning and the experience of being in and moving through ‘the field’. The staff came from the disciplines of geography, planning, tourism studies, anthropology, landscape architecture and environmental economics and are engaged to varying degrees in social science research at the Wadden Sea. The students brought a wider range of perspectives from their studies in both the environmental and social sciences. The fieldtrip developed from a longstanding collaboration between Wadden Sea researchers and educators at the universities of Bremen, Groningen, Hamburg, Lüneburg, Oldenburg and Southern Denmark and was generously supported by the Common Wadden Sea Secretariat, Wadden Academy, the Danish Wadden Sea National Park, and the University of Southern Denmark.

In the following, I provide a brief account of the week, informed by my own personal reflections. Where relevant, links to secondary sources for further information are provided.

Our journey for the September trip began on a Sunday evening in the northern Frisian village of Klanxbüll on the mainland. The following morning we set off by bike to explore the nearby Rickelsbüller Koog, an area of polder land, reclaimed from the sea over the centuries and now, in part, an area of protected nature. The Wiedingharde region, encompassing both Klanxbüll and Rickelsbüller Koog was formerly part of the Uthlande, a low-lying and frequently flooded area of coastal marshland and small islands.

The 1362 second Marcellus Flood (also known as Grote Mandrenke) had a catastrophic impact on the Uthlande and is thought to have led to the loss of three churches in the west of the Wiedingharde. Following this, a ring dike was built in 1426, the Golden Ring. The Wiedingharde, has since 1566 belonged to the mainland. A flood event in 1615, however, led to the loss of Rickelsbüll, a village located to the west of the Golden Ring. The inhabitants of neighbouring villages had refused to provide help. The Wiedingharde was, for much of its history, a relatively peripheral and inaccessible coastal area. The relative isolation of mainland, as well as the island, communities is evident in the persistence of distinct regional dialects (primarily variants of Plattdeutsch on the mainland, and Frisian on the islands). Extensive land drainage improved agricultural prospects in the 1920s, while the building of the Hindenburg dam (1925) improved accessibility. The diking of Rickelsbüller Koog began in 1979. In 1982 it was designated a nature protection area. Today, Klanxbüll and surrounding areas are home to many people working on Sylt who cannot afford to live on island.

Approaching the dikeline on our cycle tour of Rickelsbüller Koog.

The Rickelsbüller Koog, and similar areas like it, along the Wadden Sea coast, reflect the massive scale of human transformation of the coastal landscape over a period of a thousand years. Coastal communities have learnt to adapt to the severe environmental conditions and rising sea levels over a long period of time. From this historical perspective, it becomes evident that it is only very recently that the dominant paradigm of protection has shifted from protecting the lives and livelihoods of those living behind the dikes from the wild nature of the North Sea to protecting the valued yet vulnerable nature of the Wadden Sea from the negative impacts of human activities.

Reclaimed salt marshes at the German-Danish border with the island of Sylt on the horizon.

At Rickelsbüller Koog we were met by a representative of the Danish Wadden Sea National Park who took some photographs of our group for their national park newsletter. Our way back to Klanxbüll closely followed the international border, clearly marked by a metal fence, erected in 2019 to prevent the spread of swine flu into Denmark and not dismantled since. On each side of the border fence, we could see two lakes, both clearly visible and created following the construction of the outer dike line in the 1970s and 1980s. Reflecting differences in management practices and approaches to nature conservation, the lake on the German side is freshwater, while that on the Danish side is saltwater. It was possible, however, to cross into Denmark at a crossroads where border stones dating from the 1920s marked the border. We returned to this same point from the Danish side, later in the week.

Janne Liburd (University of Southern Denmark) and Annett Kempenaar (University of Groningen) at the German-Danish border, with an information point of the Danish Wadden Sea National Park in the background.

On the Monday afternoon, our journey continued by train to Morsum on the island of Sylt, where we would stay at a campsite for two nights. The choice of a campsite as our place to stay was influenced by the very real scarcity of suitable accommodation on Sylt. It is a very popular holiday island, with many expensive hotels and several youth hostels, each of which is booked out on a week-by-week basis long in advance. Thankfully the weather held and cooking and eating together at the campsite really helped to bring the group together. In the afternoon, we had a mudflat walk, close to Morsum, under the expert guidance of one of the students in the group who had previously worked as a guide for the Schutzstation Wattenmeer, a local NGO.

Walking on the mudflats, close to Morsum on Sylt.

The next day, we once again hired bikes and cycled around the Rantum Basin (Rantumbecken) towards Rantum, a village in the south of the island. The Rantum basin is an artificial lagoon area now under nature protection but with an interesting history. In the late 1930s, almost 600 hectares of mudflats were enclosed by a 5 km long dike, to create a new intertidal area. This was to be used as an airport for seaplanes of the German army but proved unsuitable due to the prevailing wind conditions. Following the war, it was planned to convert the Rantum basin to agricultural land with forty farms. In 1962, however, it was decided that the Rantum basin would be protected as one of the largest and most diverse protected areas for seabirds in Europe. Since 1979, it is the property of the state of Schleswig-Holstein. On our tour of the area, we met with a representative of the Verein Jordsand, the nature conservation NGO responsible for the management of this protected area. Equipped with binoculars, our guide instructed us in how to spot and remember the names of the various species of gulls and other birds that have made their home on the lake. Most unusually, a black swan has become a regular visitor to the lake this year and was visible in the distance. Black swans are so rare (at least in Europe) that the term black swan is used to refer to events such as natural disasters which can occur but are statistically highly improbable.

Cycling along the embankment separating the Rantum Basin (on the right) from the open sea.

Rantum is located at one of the narrowest points of the island (just 500m from the west to the east coast). Over the last 1000 years, the village has moved its location at least three times, in response to the risks posed by sand storms and flooding. Historical records indicate churches were lost to the sea in 1436 and 1652. A church, which was located far from the dunes in 1725 was buried under sand in 1757. A church was once again demolished and relocated to the east in 1801 due to the encroachment of mobile dunes. The current thatch-roofed church dates from 1964. Following an (all too brief) visit to the western strand, our journey continued with a visit to the Eidum Vogelkoje, a small artificial lake area in wooded surroundings set up for the trapping of ducks. Vogelkoje originated in the Rhein-Maas-Delta of the Netherlands (from the 13th century) where they formed a typical element of the landscape. They were introduced to the Northern Frisian Wadden Sea islands (and Fanø) from the 18th century and were operational until the early 20th century. The ducks were not only for local consumption but preserved, canned and exported. Today, the Vogelkoje at Eidun is managed by a local hunting organisation, primarily for educational purposes. Our visit to Eidum, prompted lively discussions (after dinner in the dark at the campsite) on the role of hunting in nature conservation, and more broadly, what nature we seek to protect, how we do this and what motivates nature conservation actions.

The following day we travelled by train and bus to the village of List in the north of Sylt where we met Karsten Reise, retired professor of biology and a leading expert on the ecology of the Wadden Sea. Prof. Reise brought us on a tour of the nearby mobile dunes and explained to us why it is not a problem, and indeed, is beneficial for biodiversity, for us to trample on the dunes and even to uproot marram grass. Mobile or migrating sand dunes have played a formative role in the shaping of the island. The prevailing winds from the southwest carry sand across the island leading the dunes to gradually shift position from west to east. Thus, erosion on the west coast was followed by accretion on the east coast. This process, however, has been hindered by the efforts of the islanders and authorities to fix the dunes and the coastline in position, rather than allowing for this dynamic movement. A fear of ‘moving sand’ continues to be engrained in the collective memory on the Wadden Sea islands, influencing current approaches to dune management and coastal protection.

Exploring the northern Sylt dune landscape with Karsten Reise

Coastal protection on Sylt began in the 17th century with attempts to contain the threat posed by sandstorms. Since the mid-19th century, dunes have been extensively planted with marram grass to protect settlements from sand storms and curtail coastal erosion. In the 1860s, groynes were constructed along the west coast in a further effort to reduce erosion and longshore drift, a method of coastal protection which later proved to be ineffective. Visitors to Sylt are encouraged to stay on marked paths with signs at frequent intervals, warning that ‘dune protection is island protection’. This slogan is a reminder of the role of the dunes in coastal protection and their importance as a natural habitat for birds, particularly for migratory and breeding birds. The stabilisation of the dunes through the planting of marram grass and other means, has, however, led to a reduced natural dynamic. The dunes no longer receive fresh material from the west, and the natural west-east conveyor belt has come to a standstill. Anthropogenic climate change is projected to present an existential challenge to the Wadden Sea and its islands. Expert analyses call for a more dynamic approach to coastal management, allowing for a wider zone of interaction between the sea and the land, rather than building ever higher and stronger dikes. Rather than seeking to fix the islands and coastline in position, a dynamic adaptation approach would ‘work with nature’ and adapt settlements and infrastructure to a new, increasingly amphibious coastal landscape.

That same evening we proceeded by ferry from List harbour to Havneby on the Danish island of Rømø. As we crossed the international border, I handed over the baton to my Danish colleague, Prof. Janne Liburd of the University of Southern Denmark. The following morning we were brought on a fifteen-kilometre walking tour of the island, led by a local guide.

Exploring the island of Rømø on foot

Rømø is the southernmost of three Danish barrier islands in the Wadden Sea National Park. It is home to some 650 permanent residents. Rømø covers some 129km2. It is a regressive island (it grows in size) whereas many of the Dutch and German Wadden Sea islands are transgressive (decrease in size). The strong winds and currents of the North Sea contribute to a massive transport and deposit of sediment. Historically, the North Sea was a gateway to the world for the residents of Rømø who lived off the sea rather than the land. From 1660 – 1860 the island enjoyed a golden period of whaling and commercial shipping. Later, farming and notably tourism became the main sources of income. Today, Rømø is, similar to Sylt, a mature mass tourism destination with more than one million bednights. Driving is permitted on two of the widest sandy beaches in Denmark. The beaches, Sønderstrand and Lakolk, are up to four km in width.

Our hike across the island, by chance, coincided with a training exercise of the Danish army who are permitted to carry out specific exercises within the national park on certain dates in the year. An embankment connects Rømø by road to the mainland, giving the island a very different character to most Wadden Sea islands which are only accessible by boat or in some cases, by cars and buses at low tide. The Rømø dam was the site of mass protests in June 1995 as thousands of people gathered seeking recognition for traditional uses of the Wadden Sea and its hinterland, such as fishing, farming and hunting and calling for a voice in decision-making on nature management. The Danish national park was established in 2010 following an extensive consultation period with explicit recognition of traditional uses and diverse interests.

The traditional four-sided Frisian Klægager farmhouse, close to Skaerbaek

The evening and night were spent at a traditional Frisian farmhouse on the mainland, which now caters for tourists as a national park partner. The following and last day of the fieldtrip began in Hojer, a village with a rich architectural heritage, characterised by a patchwork of narrow streets and squares with well-preserved buildings, built in a traditional architectural style. The town and surrounding area have received a new lease of life in recent years due to large-scale philanthropic funding under the Tondern Marsh Initiative. We were joined by the mayor of the municipality of Tonder, who represents the political party of the German minority in southern Denmark.

Restored traditional buildings in Hoyer

Our walk continued on the 54 km-long Tondern Marsh trail which weaves through Denmark’s largest area of marshland. The ‘protruding’ dike at the Tonder marshlands is a continuation of the Rickelsbüller dike on the German side. Both were officially inaugurated at a ceremony in May 1982, attended by both the Danish Queen Margrethe II and the German president Karl Carstens. The diking of the Margrethe Koog represented an important moment in the history of the Danish management of the Wadden Sea, marked by a shift in priorities and societal values from land reclamation and coastal defence to nature conservation and more holistic landscape management.

On our walk in the Tonder marshes, we reached the same point on the international border we had been at four days previously. We thus came full circle, with a new appreciation for the intertwining of society-environment relations, the richness of the natural and cultural heritage of the region and the diversity of management practices found on each side of the border.

Our Wadden Sea field trip is completed but, in many respects, it represents a milestone on a longer journey. Our experiences and new insights gained over the week will inform our university teaching and research perspectives. Joint interdisciplinary, scientific publications are in preparation. The students who had the privilege of participating showed their gratitude in their active engagement, openness to new perspectives concern for the future of Wadden Sea nature and culture and intellectual curiosity. They will act as ambassadors, inspiring others to get to know and care for the Wadden Sea and its rich natural and cultural heritage.

Words by Cormac Walsh, photographs by the TriWadWalks team.

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