Elbe Habitat Foundation

Tidal Elbe. photo: Tamara Kleber-Janke

Seeking to enhance the ecological status of the Tidal Elbe, the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg pursued an innovative path in 2010. It established the Elbe Habitat Foundation.

For the first time, the eleven-strong Foundation Board of Trustees enables representatives from the city, Hamburg Port and environmental organisations to combine their expertise and reach joint decisions on concrete actions with the aim of ecologically enhancing the Tidal Elbe.

Financial resources were allocated to the Foundation, enabling it to maintain, improve or, in many cases, restore the habitats of animal and plant species typical of the Tidal Elbe.

The Elbe Habitat Foundation is committed solely to its objective of enhancing the ecological status of the Tidal Elbe. Consequently, it is explicitly not an instrument of the City of Hamburg for implementing legally required compensation measures.

The bodies of the Elbe Habitat Foundation are the Managing Director and the Foundation Board of Trustees. The measures adopted by the Foundation Board of Trustees are implemented by the Managing Director together with the Business Office.

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The Tidal Elbe – a unique habitat

The Tidal Elbe is the 148 km stretch of the Elbe before it flows into the North Sea. It starts at the weir at Geesthacht, flows through the metropolitan region of Hamburg and drains into the sea at Cuxhaven. The distinguishing feature: thanks to the large estuary and the strong influx of fresh water from the Elbe, a unique natural area has formed governed by the tides. The area is home to an abundance of plants and animals – for example, it is the only place in the world where the Elbe Water Dropwort (Oenanthe conioides) exists.

Not only is the Tidal Elbe a special natural area – it is also a major economic artery for an extremely flourishing cultural and economic area. It connects the metropolitan region of Hamburg and its 4.3 million inhabitants and Europe’s second largest port to the rest of the world.

Embankments, flood barriers and the repeated deepening of the river have changed the tidal dynamics of the Lower Elbe. The tidal range is increasing, river banks are silting up, and the proportion of shallow water zones – important spawning grounds and refuges for fish – has fallen sharply.

In summer, the oxygen content in the water often drops below the minimum level that fish need to survive. The habitats of other animals and plants are also at risk: in many places, enormous bank protection systems inhibit local dynamics – the basis for developing species and habitats that are typical of the Elbe.


Work carried out successfully on the Tidal Elbe

The Elbe Habitat Foundation seeks to enhance the ecological status of the Tidal Elbe, preserve the natural diversity and strengthen the unique habitats of the river landscape.

In practical terms, this means:

  • We are making the banks and dyke foreland more natural, providing a home for many plants and animals.
  • We support the development of essential shallow water areas.
  • We improve tributaries or reconnect them to the main river.
  • We preserve and develop the ecological value of species-rich and biologically productive tidal flats.
  • We encourage the development of natural dynamics.


We finance and implement our own actions and promote external projects so as to enhance the ecological status of the Tidal Elbe. We also engage in educational work, information activities and public relations work for the Elbe habitat.


Some examples of our projects: 

Dismantling revetments – the example of the “Holzhafen”

The hard bank fixation shapes large parts of the Tidal Elbe, considerably restricting natural shore dynamics. This prevents the natural zonation of the riparian vegetation and, for instance, the development of pioneer sites, which are typical of tidal rivers. In order to make the banks ofthe Tidal Elbe more natural, one of the key activities of the Elbe Habitat Foundation is to dismantle revetments.

Valuable freshwater tidal flats have evolved in the Port of Hamburg area, the place where timber had been floated and loaded onto ships for centuries. Nowadays, the Holzhafen is an important resting and feeding ground for the northern shoveller, the common shellduck and numerous other bird species. However, stone blocks protect large expanses of the river banks from the power of the water, preventing a near-natural development of the banks. Now that the Holzhafen is protected against extremely high tides and storm surges by a flood barrier, the stony bank reinforcements are superfluous.

For this reason, the Elbe Habitat Foundation has dismantled the revetment from a 250 metre or so stretch of bank east of the water basin on the Elbe island Kaltehofe. The stretch of river bank that is now unfortified is exposed to waves and tidal currents, which will enable river bank zoning to evolve naturally.


Making the dyke foreland more natural – the example of “Wrauster Bogen”

Previous advancing of embankments has made the foreshore areas of the Tidal Elbe considerably smaller. As a result, the area for typical tidal habitats, such as alluvial forests and wet meadows, and the tidal creek structures produced from the tidal dynamics, have become severely restricted. The Elbe Habitat Foundation seeks to make the remaining dyke foreland as natural as possible.

The tidal creek in the dyke foreland of the Wrauster Bogen between Hamburg and Geesthacht provides important resting, feeding and spawning grounds for Elbe fish such as the asp and common bream. However, there was a stone barrier at the inlet area of the tidal creek, which prevented the fish from returning to the Elbe at low tide. When temperatures were high, the tidal creek created a deadly trap for fish. The Elbe Habitat Foundation had this barrier dismantled in April 2014, making it a safe habitat for Elbe fish once again.


Creating wet meadows – the example of “Wittenbergen”

Species-rich wet meadows are typical habitats along the Tidal Elbe. There are very few of them left today. Almost everywhere, the construction of dykes meant that marsh grassland, which had previously been flooded periodically, became separated from the river.

In the nature reserve “Wittenbergen”, the remaining wet meadows along the Elbe were extended, enlarging the habitat of the rare Snake’s Head Fritillary, amongst other things. To achieve this, a former Hamburg Port Authority (HPA) spoil area was excavated to the level of the adjacent Snake’s Head Fritillary meadow in 2015.


Engaging in educational work – the example of the “Wilderness Camp”

In 2014 and 2015, the Elbe Habitat Foundation organised “Wilderness Camps” on the Elbe island Hanskalbsand, enabling interested participants to gain a thorough and vivid insight into the issue of the Tidal Elbe. Their special discovery of the Elbe involved enlightening short presentations on the unique fauna and flora by the Foundation’s staff, building water filters and a night walk. Unforgettable memories of an adventure in the “wilderness of the Elbe” were created: impenetrable common reed, winding tidal creeks, a spectacular sunset and – last but not least – a relaxed group experience.

This is just one example of the Foundations´s various own activities. The Elbe Habitat Foundation conducts its educational work and information activities about the habitat of the Tidal Elbe also by supporting several external projects.

If you wish to find out more about the Foundation and its activities, please drop a line to our contact address.