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  • Writer's pictureRobin Hill

Cabin by the lake

Updated: Sep 14, 2022

It has now been almost 50 years since a small cabin by the lake came into the possession of Anna's family. In the third generation, we therefore have the privilege of spending a few days there several times a year. This gave us the opportunity for great observations, which we were usually able to document with the camera. We enjoy the time there a little more every year, as it is not clear for how long the cabin will actually be allowed to stay there.

Photo 1: Cabins in the Grande Cariçaie on Lake Neuchâtel

Why? It is complicated. The short version (especially from the authorities): The cabin - together with almost 300 others - stands on the territory of the protected "Grand Cariçaie", the largest reed area in Switzerland, on the southern shore of Lake Neuchâtel. Reeds, alluvial zones and fens - all part of the Grande Cariçaie - have shrunk to meagre remnants in Switzerland over the last century. Environmental associations and authorities have therefore been trying for decades to remove the little houses that in some places separate the lake from the fen for several hundred metres. So far so obvious. It is precisely such rare ecosystems that must be given as much space as possible in Switzerland and barriers need to be removed. But the cabin owners have so far fought tooth and nail not to give up this privilege. And the two of us both feel somehow caught between the fronts...

Photo 2: Bird's eye view of the cabins in the Grande Cariçaie (Google Maps, 2022)

The story is more complicated than the narrative of "illegal buildings in a nature reserve". The first rudimentary cabins were built as early as the 1920s. At that time, this area was not yet a designated nature reserve, but rather the by-product of a massive human intervention that reshaped the entire Seeland ("lake lands"): the first Jura water correction at the end of the 19th century. By canalising rivers and draining swamps, large areas of land were gained for intensive agriculture at that time. The more targeted drainage of the water also lowered the level of Lake Neuchâtel and the water's edge retreated several hundred metres. And it was precisely here that the Grande Cariçaie emerged over the next decades, a refuge for species that had been displaced elsewhere. At the end of the 1960s, this newly created ecosystem was placed under protection. An additional reason why the houses had to be removed was the construction of the A1 motorway between Yverdon and Bern. Since the motorway was planned to run through protected wetlands, the cantons and environmental associations agreed to remove the holiday homes on Lake Neuchâtel as compensation. In retrospect, a somewhat strange deal in favour of more space for convoys of cars...

On the one hand, we of course understand the concern of nature conservationists to protect such a jewel as best as possible and to grant it as much space as possible. Obviously, the cabins that were built from 1970 onwards (and these are often the particularly massive buildings that have nothing to do with the charming cabins of yesteryear) were actually built illegally in a protected area of international importance (Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, 1971). We can also understand the criticism that some cabin owners do not take enough care of the unique environment: Many of the gardens are still populated with neophytes such as goldenrod, summer lilac, Japanese knotweed, tuja and cherry laurel. Others have fenced off their property like prisons, so that there is no free passage for wildlife between the core zone of the nature reserve and the lake. In addition, there are still gardens that look more like a golf course than a nature reserve - not exactly conducive to biodiversity. Since many of the cabins are not connected to the sewage system, one can only hope that the owners are familiar with biodegradable soap. The latter, of course, also applies in principle and to everyone...!

Gallery 1: Impressions from around the cabins in the "Grève de la Motte"

On the other hand, in our experience, there are also owners who value their surroundings very highly, treat nature with care and maintain the surroundings of the cabins close to nature. The fact that Great Crested Grebes, Reed Warblers and Water Rails raise their young in the immediate vicinity of the cabins is also evidence that the disturbance caused by holidaymakers in the cabins is at least limited. The cabins and their inhabitants can also be said to have a certain buffer function, as their presence prevents less nature-conscious beach holidaymakers from spreading out into the nature reserve away from the "party beaches" at the holiday hubs with loud music and disposable plastic. And finally, the question arises whether it would not first be necessary to impose extensive restrictions on boats and stand-up paddlers, who sometimes go picnicking uninhibitedly in the reeds - breeding season or not (see photo 3)...

Photo 3: Excursion boat ignores protection zone and bobs towards reed belt

Of course, here we are talking through the glasses of people who have the unique opportunity to use one of these controversial cabins as a starting point for extended photo adventures and to spend peaceful evenings accompanied by the songs of nightingales and tree frogs. We know the "Grève de la Motte", the section of the Grande Cariçaie where "our" cabin is located, almost by heart. Although somewhat reluctantly, we have come to terms with the fact that the cabin will probably have to go one day. Public pressure is too great, individual house owners are too intransigent about their garden design, and too often the decision of the cantons has been final and the demolition order has been issued. And if the day should actually come, the consolation is that the unique biodiversity will be given more space. After all, it could be worse. For example, if the cottages had to make way for a (yet another!) motorway or a peat pit instead of a nature reserve...

All photos of our project "Grève de la Motte"

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