Out of the woods

Stephan Mühlmann, the hotelier who also works with sheep, wood and nature.

  • August 2016

  • Reading time: 7'

    Reading time: 7'

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Out of the woods

Stephan Mühlmann, the hotelier who also works with sheep, wood and nature.

In front of the sheep pen, there are great piles of tree trunks drying. I breathe in the air of the forest. Some sixty sheep are grazing behind the pen. At the Hotel Leitlhof there is a connection between the wood and the sheep: Stephan Mühlmann, and his search for justice. “I cannot stand injustice,” says the boss’s son tersely. His blue eyes stare intensely ahead. “Yes, I am stubborn,” he laughs, “but it’s getting better.”

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Stephan sees it as unjust if new-born lambs die shortly after birth because they are too weak; or when politicians make decisions that limit people’s scope for action, or when people are exploited, or when nature is disrespected. Or, for instance, when wood, as a raw material, lies unused. Given his background, what motivates Stephan is understandable. Steven prefers small circles and comprehensible processes, both for himself as the user and for his guests as consumers. Optimum efficiency is Stephan’s motto: “For a long time, firewood had no value for us and nobody took it from the forest.” This was all to change when Stephan took over running the business.

The timber yard and the sheep pen

In the pen, Stephan shows me the oldest sheep. The ewe is fifteen years old and the lamb is just one day. “Be careful,” he warns me, “she is normally gentle, but when she has a little one she can change in a flash.” I stop, pull my hand back and see that she was just about to butt me out of the way. Nature is all around and it should be protected and preserved. As Stephan says, “The nature we have here in South Tyrol is very valuable.”

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Stephan stands in front of me as a farmer. Soon he will speak as a woodworker, a businessman and as a hotelkeeper. He says: “The lambs are slaughtered in the abattoir at San Candido/Innichen and we serve the meat to our guests in the hotel. Zacher, the hat-maker in the village, makes slippers for the hotel from the wool.”

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Stephan views wood similarly. He cuts it himself in the 25 hectares of the surrounding forest owned by his family and he stores it in front of the sheep pen. It is then turned into woodchips, not for burning but rather for use in a wood-distilling apparatus. The wood gas is turned into green electricity and thermal power by two gas engines that supply Hotel Leitlhof, making it self-sufficient in energy.

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Looking for meaning

A qualified MBA, Stephan nevertheless likes to get his hands dirty. He drives the sheep to the pasture and feeds them. He also tinkers with the power plant’s heat concept. In 2012, he toured Germany and Austria seeking the know-how for a wood-distilling plant that did not yet exist on this scale at the time. He also drives a truck or tractor when felling the trees in the forest. Nature has always been part of his life: For him, wood is both a building material and a fuel. It’s the perfect material for aiding in climate protection. He says again: “It pains me to see a tree lying unused in the forest.“

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Stephan doesn’t shrink from conflict. The previous local administration in San Candido/Innichen made it difficult to build anything; even sustainable projects like his wood power plant were at first viewed sceptically. “South Tyrol still has some way to go.” To keep his sheep healthy, he has boldly attempted something that many breeders scorn: He has crossed mountain sheep with Villnöss and Jura breeds. “They are much more robust at birth. I cannot bear to see a little lamb dying after its birth.”

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His right-hand man, Hannes Brugger, is a forest worker, plumber and farmer: “the perfect combination.” According to Stephan, numerous complementary skills are required for the maintenance of the wood gas-fired plant. “I get my feeling for the technical side from my grandfather, who also made anything that had to be built.”

The wood power plant and the hotel

From the sheep pen, it’s just a short drive to where the green heart of the hotel beats. Stephan pushes the wooden door open and a blast of hot air and noise hits me. One gas engine is running and the other one is idle. “I will need another three hours today to get that one going again,” he says, looking at the clock. “The filter is probably dirty.”

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Before me, I see a labyrinth of silvery tubes, white circuits, and blue handles. The wood power plant has been combined with a photovoltaic system on the roof. The woodchips are dried in the two underground silos. I cannot see them, but I am amazed. “It’s like building with Lego, isn’t it?” I ask. “Yes, very similar,” says Stephan grinning. 

The Leitlhof has been supplied with thermal energy and electricity for four years now. CO2 emissions have since dropped from 80 kilos per guest per night to just 12.2 kilos. I ask Stephan if he has achieved his goals? “We have certainly achieved a great deal,” says Stephan, “But we can also heat our large outdoor pool with the plant, even though I still get error messages every day.” The machine is a highly complex installation that Stephan has adapted to the particular needs of the hotel. “We always have to take it apart.” The main problem is the differing nature of the woodchips. Each tree species is different and so too is the wood structure. After all, wood is a living material.

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His right-hand man, Hannes Brugger, is a forest worker, plumber and farmer, “the perfect combination”. Numerous complementary skills are required for the maintenance of the wood gas-fired plant, says Stephan: “I get my feeling for the technical side from my grandfather who also made anything that had to be built.”

Renewable energy in South Tyrol in figures

Hydroelectric plants                                               930
Biogas plants                                                             30
Wind-power plants                                                    10
District heating plants based on biomass                66
Centralised biomass small heating installations   7000 

In the fast lane

In 2011, just before the sheep pen was built, Stephan had a motorcycle accident. In 2012, he completed his studies in Graz. He mentions both in passing. The fact that he rears lambs by hand or drives eight times a day to the pen to feed them, also by hand, is just as natural for him as staying overnight in the base station alongside the wood power plant: He has a mattress in the office so he can keep an eye on the machine around the clock. “I’m a perfectionist, but without a suit and tie,” he says.

He has no need of great events; the little moments are what count to stimulate the mind: “I feel best when I cut down a tree with the forest workers and then have a beer with the guys after work.” Sustainable cultivation and growth are part of his life. “Sometimes it’s all a bit too much. Then I wake up at night and hope that I haven’t forgotten anything.”

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Stephan’s story is not a straight line: Rather it involves two or even three lanes. But when people ask him if he is proud of what he has achieved, he does not completely understand the nature of the question. He is a visionary with his feet on the ground, but sometimes his valley is just too narrow and limited for him. Then he has to leave, referably to South America. “I am off to Patagonia next, where I can switch off for a few weeks.”

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“What is your dream?” I ask him. “I am actually quite good at making my dreams come true,” he laughs. Stephan knows that he is capable of, but he also understands that nothing is possible without nature. Modestly he states: “My absolute dream is a family with lots of children and a little house next to the sheep pen.” Built by hand, of course, in order to feel nature, in order to create small circles that will make life fairer and more meaningful.

In November, Stephan will become a father for the first time. There is no better feeling in life I tell him. He nods, then speaks as a family man: “I am looking forward to becoming a father more than anything else.”

Text: Ursula Lüfter
Translation: Gareth Norbury
Photos: Ivo Corrà
Video: Veronika Kaserer

Energy from the Reschensee Lake

Until 1950, there were three lakes on the Reschen pass: The Reschensee lake, the Graunersee lake and the Haidersee lake. The three lakes were dammed for hydropower purposes, flooding the entire village of Curon/Graun and a large part of the village of Resia/Reschen. A project to dam the lake followed by expropriations had been approved as early as 1939 by the fascist government. Around 100 families were forced to move, with some of their houses being rebuilt higher up. The bell tower of the former parish church of St. Catherine still projects from the waters, while kite surfers make good use of the wind and water power on the Reschensee lake. This is energy in its purest form!