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 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 5.3 million inhabitants (2017) 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.
The Foundation´s Activities: Positive Results at the Tidal Elbe
We seek to enhance the ecological status of the Tidal Elbe, to preserve the natural diversity, and to strengthen the unique habitats of the river landscape. For this purpose, we make banks and forelands more natural, enhance the ecological structure of the Elbe and its tributaries and promote the development of a more natural tidal systeme.
We finance and implement our own actions and also promote external projects. We engage in educational work, information activities and public relations for the Elbe habitat. In order to achieve our objectives, we also acquire sites where we can implement measures.
Examples of our projects
Examples of our projects are presented below. If you wish to find out more, please do not hesitate to contact us.
"Lifeline Kirchwerder" (Hamburg)
More than 90% of the banks of the river Elbe between Hamburg and Geesthacht are solidly fortified with stones or sheet piles. Most of the former dike foreland is lost. Contact between water and land is severely restricted, as is biological continuity.
At Hower Hauptdeich (Hamburg), the otherwise very narrow dike foreland expands. It is not used for agricultural or other economic purposes. So here is room for a better connection between the foreland and the river Elbe. A feasibility study, carried out in 2018/19, shows that the creation of a tidal creek and a small water body best serves the ecological objectives.
Tidal creeks are important landscape elements of the Elbe marshes. From the Elbe or its tributaries they meander through the landscape and give it its characteristic charm. They are reminiscent of the original estuary: an amphibious landscape in which the Elbe and its tidal currents had to make their way through their own deposits.
Due to anthropogenic changes of the Elbe estuary, most recently due to the embankments of the 60s and 70s and the last fairway deepenings, numerous tidal systems are no longer connected to the tides or have changed in a way that they do not fulfill their ecological purposes any more. As a result, crucial habitat has been lost.
As remains of the former natural water system of the Elbe marshes, they are mostly narrow and flat. At low tide they carry little or no water and are often lined by tidal flats. They extend the contact surface between land and water, promote nutrient turnover in the Elbe and ensure a tidal soil water regime. They are also the habitats of a wide variety of species.
A tidal creek with flat slopes in the Kirchwerder dike foreland, bordered by willows and reed, will be a valuable habitat for the endangered and endemic Elbe Water dropwort and other plants. It will also provide retreat and plenty of food for fish.
Small water bodies, tidal ponds or wet depressions were common in the Elbe riverscape. As the Elbe foreland is mostly filled up with dredged and other material, these natural features are rarely found these days. They provide an in times of biodiversity loss not to be underestimated habitat – home for dragonflies, insects and amphibians.
The construction works of the tidal creek and the small waterbody will possibly commence in 2020.
A vital momentum for the Luhe (Lower Saxony)
The tidal Luhe lowlands have been a nature reserve since 2014. Their ecological condition, however, is deficient: The Luhe was strongly straightened, trained and partly fortified.
The Elbe Habitat Foundation aims to promote the natural diversity and river dynamics of the Luhe landscape. For this purpose, the river will be renaturated over a length of about 770 m. Two meanders and 8 marshy ponds are being built. Moreover, tidal creeks and tidal flats will be newly developed. Deadwood and gravel are being installed as structures for fish and microorganisms. Stone fixations are being removed, if possible. Remains of the current river course are being preserved as backwaters, which ensure rapid water discharge at high water levels.
The living conditions for species in rivercourses, e.g. sea trout, grouse or otters will be improved.
The riparian vegetation will benefit.
Amphibians, dragonflies and other insects will find a new home.
Birds will find new feeding grounds.
The self-cleaning power of the water will be improved.
The urban climate will benefit.
The Luhe recreation area close to the city is visibly enhanced.
Various animal and plant species will benefit from the Luhe project:
Drone flight over the construction area (shot by Michael Maas):
New habitats for the Elbe water dropwort
The Elbe water dropwort solely grows in the freshwater area of the tidal Elbe and its tidal tributaries - especially in light alluvial forests or in calm, muddy locations in and around Hamburg. However, due to anthropogenic changes, these locations have become extremely rare. In recent years, a total of only 1000 to 5000 specimens per year have been counted. The number of flowering plants that contribute to the conservation of the species is much smaller. Thus, the Elbe water dropwort is threatened with extinction.
By a whole bundle of different measures the Elbe Habitat Foundation contributes to the survival of the species: 1. protection of existing sites 2. finding possible new sites 3. development of new habitats 4. cultivation of the species 5. planting of the species 6. exchange of experience
Making the dyke foreland more natural – the example of “Wrauster Bogen” (Hamburg)
The dyke foreland at the Wrauster Bogen, located between Hamburg and Geesthacht, lies in the heart of the SAC Hamburg Lower Elbe. Dyke relocation was undertaken in 1991, leading to the creation of a tidal creek. Following the renewed separation of the tidal creek from the Elbe in 1995, it was no longer able to fulfil its ecological function:
The tidal creek was supposed to provide important resting, feeding and spawning grounds for lampreys and fish such as asp and common bream. However, this was not the case: a riprap at the inlet area of the tidal creek prevented them from returning to the Elbe at low tide, creating a trap for fish, especially on hot days.
The endemic, endangered Elbe Water Dropwort was unable to find favourable habitat conditions here, even though it was the plant’s traditional habitat.
In April 2014, the Elbe Habitat Foundation had the riprap at the inlet area of the tidal creek dismantled. Since then, fish and other aquatic organisms have been able to return unimpeded to the Elbe from the tidal creek, even at low tide.
In a bid to increase the habitat of the Elbe Water Dropwort, the Elbe Habitat Foundation created another tidal creek here in spring 2019. Moreover, the revetment is to be reduced carefully to a width of 30 m to enhance tidal influence in autumn 2019.
Developing habitats - marshy pools for the Elbe island Neßsand (Hamburg)
Since its creation by humans in the 1930s and 1940s, Neßsand has been able to develop almost undisturbed. The area features not only dense, thick alluvial forest with tidal creeks, impressive reed beds, mudflats and sandflats, but also sand dunes, arid grassland and shallow water zones – i.e. a tiny area in which virtually all habitats of the Tidal Elbe come together. The island is one of the richest natural treasures of the Tidal Elbe. And yet small water bodies, which are actually typical for floodplains, are lacking on Neßsand – and also along the entire Tidal Elbe.
By creating marshy pools, the Elbe Habitat Foundation seeks to foster the existence of the last valuable habitat that is missing on Neßsand. To help achieve this, around 30 new water bodies and wet hollows of different sizes and depths were constructed in autumn 2018. Furthermore, by clearing sea buckthorn, space was created for valuable arid grassland, which had been severely displaced in recent years.
These new small water bodies are ideal places for amphibians such as the common toad, dragonflies and other insects to settle. This rare arid grassland on Neßsand, protected by law, is home to Red List species such as Blue Hair Grass, Dense-Flowered Mullein and the Carthusian Pink. Species able to find food here include the bow-winged grasshopper and the small copper.
Diversity for the foreshore − new tidal habitats were created in Obergeorgswerder (Hamburg)
Dyking of the Elbe island Wilhelmsburg has been occurring gradually since the Middle Ages. Today, only very little dyke foreland is left on the Norderelbe. The banks of this anabrach are massively fortified with rock-fill. Most of the area between the dyke and the Elbe is filled with dredged material. As a result, tidal influence is heavily restricted, leading to the loss of valuable habitats.
This phenomenon also occurred on the Obergeorgswerder foreshore. Here, the Elbe Habitat Foundation has created two new tidal creeks and a small water body. The tidal creeks provide a new habitat for the Elbe Water Dropwort, an endangered species. Less than a year after the tidal creeks were completed, around 50 plants had already become established. These measures have also resulted in the extension of the habitats of numerous Elbe fish and of the nearby marsh frog. A new natural area has evolved that is diverse and vital.
In favour of more natural banks − dismantling revetments (Hamburg)
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 a bid to make the banks more natural, the Elbe Habitat Foundation dismantles bank reinforcements, wherever coastal protection is not impeded.
For example, the Foundation has dismantled a 250 m stretch of the stony revetment of the Elbe island Kaltehofe, located at Hamburg Port. The Foundation has also lowered the revetment at several places near Juelssand, Schweenssand and on the island Rhinplate. Under tidal influence, the bank is now able to develop more naturally along these stretches.
Creating wet meadows – the example of “Wittenbergen” (Hamburg)
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 and other species. 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.
Here is a short film about the project (German version).
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 Foundation’s various own activities. The Elbe Habitat Foundation also furthers its educational work and information activities about the habitat of the Tidal Elbe by supporting several external projects.
Engaging in educational work – the example of the “Coastal Cleanup Camp”
In 2017 and 2018, the “ElbForscher” project was offered to young people wishing to play an active role in enhancing habitats at the Tidal Elbe. To mark the worldwide Coastal Cleanup Days, workshop camps were held at the Falkensteiner Ufer at the Elbstrand. These camps were an ideal platform for young people to find out all about river protection. The Elbe Habitat Foundation supports this project.
The topics addressed by the 60 or so young people who attended the camp in September 2018 included everyday waste prevention; the impact of ocean plastic pollution; and recycling systems and waste management. Also, in the space of a few hours, they collected 1,241 kg of waste from the Mühlenberger Loch nature reserve, the Falkensteiner Ufer and the Elbe island Pagensand.
Besides hosting camps for young people, the aim of the project is to foster regular cooperation with schools so as to raise pupils’ and teachers’ awareness of the Elbe habitat.
Expert exchange: learning from each other – for a dynamic riverscape
In its day-to-day work, the Elbe Habitat Foundation addresses all kinds of legal, planning and scientific issues and challenges. For this reason, it engages in lively technical discussions with other experts of tidal river management, nature conservation and species protection, and also organises informative events and workshops.
One of the specialist events organised by the Foundation in 2018 focused on the Elbe Water Dropwort. Experts from three federal states met in Hamburg in March 2018 to share their knowledge and experience on how to preserve this endangered species. In 2016, the Foundation organised an international workshop on “Embracing Estuaries − Management of Natura 2000 sites in Estuaries and Sea Ports”. The main aim of the two-day workshop was to promote technical dialogue between researchers, practitioners and policymakers.
Outlook: the Elbe Habitat Foundation’s plans for the future
The Elbe Habitat Foundation is continuously developing new projects to support the protection and preservation of Tidal Elbe habitat.
Together with Wedel Town and the District of Pinneberg, the Elbe Habitat Foundation is discussing how to enhance the Wedeler Au and its tidal backwaters downstream from Wedel Town. Considerations focus not only on the flattening of banks and installation of tidal creek systems, but also on the creation of marshy pools and the removal of pipe culverts. A feasibility study for this project has already been completed; the Elbe Habitat Foundation now has to coordinate its implementation with the authorities.
Investigations are also being carried out at Geesthacht Weir to establish whether dyke foreland on the south bank would be suitable for conversion into a near-natural water system. This development would enable diverse tidal and alluvial habitats to evolve.
In cooperation with the Federal Administration of Waterways the Elbe Habitat Foundation is seeking to enhance the habitats of Elbe island Pagensand.
Feasibility studies on projects which seek to enhance the shore structures in the port of Hamburg or the dyke foreland at Bunthäuser Spitze are being conducted.