Nothing says Christmas in Vienna like watching the Viennese bring their trees home on public transport. Spotting the biggest Christbaum with the smallest Oma on the busiest train is practically an Advent sport.
But, 3 weeks later, we strip off the decorations, grab the tree by the scruff of its trunk, and drag it back to where it came from. Nothing says January like a a pile of crispy Christbaum carcasses in the rain.
‘But where,’ I think, as I hack the lower branches off our tree with secateurs that are too small for the job, ‘do the trees go next?’
‘I DON’T CARE BUT I HOPE IT’S PAINFUL,’ I curse, as I realise that our nearest tree collection point is uphill.
An hour later, when I’ve swept dry needles out of every corner of our communal hallway and vowed to purchase gardening gloves for next year, I find out the surprising truth.
170,000 real trees are purchased in Austria’s capital every December. After New Year, the majority of this 750 tonnes of festive timber is burned to create climate-neutral heating and electricity.
But a few of the trees have a different destiny.
They’re chopped up into snacks for the endangered goats that live on the Vienna’s biggest landfill.
Vienna, 1993. The Deponie Rautenweg in the 22nd district is looking unkempt (even for a dump). Unfortunately, the site is 60 hectares and the second highest point north of the Danube. No one wants to cut that much grass.
Enter a herd of Pinzgau goats, russet-coloured, fluffy and, in their native alpine habitat, responsible for some award-winning cheese. They’re also excellent natural lawn mowers.
The goats quickly took care of the scruffy vegetation. What no one foresaw was how happy they’d be at the Deponie. When they first arrived, the Pinzgauer goats were under threat. There were only 200 in the world, confined to a small area in the mountains near Salzburg. Since then, over 100 goat kids have been born in Vienna alone.
25 years later, the landfill is a thriving habitat. 32 goats are currently resident alongside many other plants and animals which are threatened elsewhere. Botanists come to the site to study some of the rare plants that grow there and there’s a colony of rare crested larks. It’s a little patch of steppe within the borders of the city.
In fact, it’s such a success story that the city has tried to market the Deponie Rautenweg as an alternative tourist destination. In an effort to get visitors ‘off the beaten track’, it’s now possible to book a tour of the site and visitor centre, as long as the weather is nice and you wear closed-toe shoes.
Unfortunately, we shouldn’t hold our breath for a meet-and-greet with the famous Christmas tree eating goats, though. The refuse collectors have hit back at the suggestion that the Deponie could become a petting zoo. The goats are wild animals and, weighing in at 80kg, could pose a danger to visitors who get too close.
“But Elvis is a sweetie,’ they say, referencing one of the goats they bottle-fed when it was young. ‘And Kuschler runs over when he hears our voices. And everybody loves Hellboy…’
Whether they’re wild or basically pets, the Rautenweg goat herd has its own role to play in Vienna’s recycling and in its ecosystem. And if there’s anyone in the city who can get some joy from a discarded Christmas tree, so much the better.