Deep into the Ardennes, between Martelange and Habay-la-Neuve in the province of Luxemburg, is the huge 7000-hectare Anlier Forest, one of the biggest forests in Belgium. Its northern slopes reach an altitude of 517 metres and are drained by the tributary streams of the River Sûre, which flows into Germany as the Sauer and eventually into the Moselle. The forest is so vast that parts of it are virtually unexplored. Living in its deeper recesses are deer, wild boar, badgers, foxes and wildcats. Visit the area in the summer and look for rare breeding birds such as great grey shrikes, red-backed shrikes, and the specialty of the region: black storks. I have enjoyed many hours walking along the banks of the rivers Sûre and Géronne hoping to catch a glimpse of an otter, which is making a comeback in this region. Unfortunately so far I have been unsuccessful. Beavers have also been re-introduced into these river systems. Continue reading
The Leuven-Mechelen canal can be accessed at a number of points, and its wide towpaths offer excellent opportunities for a pleasant walk or cycle. You can choose your entry and exit points depending on your preferred length of walk. Highlights for me are the white storks, which feed in the shallows or the neighbouring fields. From the canal, you can see their huge nests in the Planckendael Animal Park, built on top of poles. Continue reading
Between the villages of Moerbeke and Wachtebeke, a few kilometres to the east of Sint-Niklaas, lies the Heidebos, a large nature reserve incorporating deciduous and coniferous forests as well as a vast expanse of heath land. Three signposted walks start from the car park on Fortstraat; all are ideal for young children. Continue reading
First, a word of caution. If you are looking for a gentle Sunday afternoon stroll in a pretty park with a conveniently located waffle-van, then the Verdronken (Drowned) Land of Saeftinghe near Antwerp isn’t for you. It’s muddy, it’s exposed, and there’s no waffle-van for kilometres. But if you are looking for a huge dose of fresh sea air, some peace and solitude, and a touch of wilderness, then it’s definitely worth a visit. Continue reading
If your idea of a wild duck only extends to the mallards floating on the pond in your local park and greedily swallowing your stale bread, then a visit to the Bourgoyen nature reserve in Mariakerke, on the outskirts of Gent, will change your opinion.
Choose a sunny day, start from the information centre at the end of Mahatma Gandhistraat, and walk along the southern edge of the area, with the River Leie on your left. By choosing this path you will have the sun behind you which will give you good views over the fields and lakes. Now you will be able to see truly wild ducks in all their glory! And in vast numbers too.
Train your binoculars over the waterlogged meadows and look for the chestnut head of the wigeon; the huge spade-like bill of the shoveler; the green eye-stripe of the teal; the elegant long tail of the pintail.
Geese too are likely to be present, not merely in their hundreds but thousands. The familiar Canada goose is abundant, but there is also a vast flock of the similar looking barnacle goose. Distinguishing one from the other is fairly simple.
Whereas the Canada goose has a black neck with a white chin strap, the barnacle goose is smaller, and has a black neck with a completely white face.
During the winter months you will also be able to see plenty of waders: redshanks with their spindly bright orange legs; curlews with their curved bills; lapwings showing off their crests; and delightfully named godwits.
In summer, the area is famous for its diversity of wild flowers – with vast swathes of yellow rattle, marsh marigold and meadowsweet – and for its breeding frogs, toads, newts and salamanders.
A 6 km circular walk is well marked with blue signposts. It’s suitable for children but can be very muddy in places after heavy rainfall, so boots are essential.
There are also two interesting visitor centres on the reserve. One on Mahatma Gandhistraat is open on Saturday and Sunday afternoons; the other is next to the sports hall and is open during weekdays.
For the kids - Do you think that ducks just go “quack”? They don’t! On this walk, listen out for the whistle of the wigeon; the shrill piping of the teal; the turkey-like gobble of the tufted duck; the coughing of the shoveler; the purring of the pochard. And when a flock of a thousand or more barnacle geese flies overhead, the noise is almost deafening and has been likened to a pack of yapping dogs!
The Forêt de Soignes is one of Belgium’s most important forests. Situated south-west of Brussels, this 43-square-kilometre forest spreads over nine communes, straddles the language barrier, and consists of 94% deciduous and 6% coniferous woodland. Statistics, however, tell us virtually nothing; the Forêt de Soignes has to be experienced.
There are limitless opportunities for everyone: walkers, cyclists, mountain bikers, joggers, riders and anglers. Or you can simply let your children play in one of the designated play areas. Starting points to explore the forest are:
- Duboislaan, Hoeilaart
- Bosuil Cultural Centre, Jezus-Eik
- Waterloosesteenweg/Sint Hubertusdreef, Sint Genesius Rode
The Forêt de Soignes used to be much larger. It was part of a huge forest that up to Roman times stretched from the Rhine and Moselle rivers in Germany to the North Sea. As the population of this area grew, the forest began to shrink when villages became towns and woodland was converted into fields. Some degree of protection was afforded in the 12th century by the Duke of Brabant, who was anxious to protect the forest as a hunting ground. Despite this, by the start of the 16th century the forest had been reduced to 100 square kilometres.
In the 1730s, tree nurseries were created, along with jobs for 19 foresters and four tree inspectors. Unfortunately, when France annexed the Belgian regions in 1795, tree felling activities were increased to bolster the French war chest. Nevertheless, reforestation continued: reversing the trend towards planting beech trees, 100 hectares of young oaks were planted in Groenendael, many of which can still be seen today. Shortly after Belgium gained independence, the Belgian State bought the forest, and thanks to a Royal Decree, the Forêt de Soignes has enjoyed protected landscape status since 1959.
The forest is home to 39 species of animal. Earlier this year wild boar were sighted, although they may have been released or escaped from captivity. (Don’t worry; wild boar generally avoid people.) If you sit by the one of the lakes in Groenendaal such as the Gansepootvijver on a warm summer evening you will see some of the fourteen species of bat which live in the forest. Common birds include treecreeper, nuthatch, jay, buzzard, green woodpecker and great spotted woodpecker, while rarer ones include sparrowhawk, black woodpecker and woodcock.
In clearings and around the lakes and streams there is an abundance of wild flowers. Rarities include two types of orchid, hartstongue fern, spiked rampion, wood melick and wood sanicle. Over 450 fungi have been identified in the forest, including the rare peppery milkcap. Interesting butterflies include various species of fritillary. Less glamorous insects include the blue stag beetle and tanner beetle.
I never thought I would compare the region north of Antwerp to Scotland – until I visited Kalmthout Heath. If you get the chance to visit this lovely area, forget for a moment that you are only 20 minutes from the centre of Antwerp and just soak up the sights and sounds: heather stretching to the horizon; purple moor-grass swaying in the breeze; golden bracken fronds; inky-black peat bogs; gnarled Scot’s pines; windswept silver birch; chirruping meadow pipits and calling curlews. You could be on the Isle of Skye.
This 3750-hectare nature reserve is located close to the Dutch border. A good starting point is De Vroente, a visitor centre with interactive displays of the natural history and agriculture of the region. For those travelling by public transport, it is within walking distance of Heide railway station.
I was particularly impressed to see how the land is being managed to ensure that this unique heathland habitat is preserved. Sheep are allowed to graze different areas each year to keep the growth of heather vibrant; sluices have been built to avoid the land drying out in summer; and peat cutting is severely limited.
It’s such a large region that even a full day is not sufficient to discover all the area’s fascinating plants and animals. I want to return to discover the carnivorous sundew plant, which catches flies on its sticky leaves, and the ant-lion, a dragonfly-like insect, the larva of which digs a pit in the sand to catch and devour ants. Kalmthout Heath also holds a thriving population of natterjack toads, which are claimed to be Europe’s noisiest amphibians, as the call of the male is audible over several kilometres. In spring each year, flocks of up to a thousand whimbrel (wading birds) congregate in the wetter parts of the heath during breaks in their migrations.
The Beekeeping Museum next to the visitor centre is also well worth a visit. It’s a modern building divided into hexagonal areas, just like a honeycomb. Each area explains the fascinating world of bees; live ones can be seen and heard at close quarters. Finally, Taverne De Heihoeve offers a wide range of snacks. Your kids will probably love the Honeybee Pancake!
For the kids – Kalmthout Heath will give you an excellent opportunity to practice your map-reading. At the visitor centre you can buy a detailed walking map of the area. You can then plan your own route, maybe starting on one of the well-marked paths, before venturing off on some of the many footpaths that cross the area.
The Doode Bemde nature reserve outside Neerijse is bordered by the Rivers Dijle and Ijse and can be reached by the 344 bus from Brussels’ Schumann roundabout. If you are driving, you can park by the Sint-Pieters-en-Paulus church. The 5.5 km Doode Bemde walk starts at the church, takes you into the farmland to the north of the village and then through the reserve itself.
Alongside both rivers, you can’t miss the huge leaves of the butterbur plant, which can measure up to one metre in diameter. Butterbur is so named because its leaves were used to wrap butter to keep it cool. It had other uses, too. The English horticulturist Henry Lyte, who published his “Niewe Herball’ in 1578, describes it as ‘a soveraigne medicine against the plague’. In Germany it’s called “pestwurz” (“plague root”).
I recently joined a group of Belgian biologists on a beaver expedition to this area. Yes, beavers are alive and kicking in Belgium, having been re-introduced in 2000. We didn’t see any, as they tend to hide during the day, but we saw plenty of evidence, including a couple of majestic dams.
They were brought back for two reasons. They used to live here until they were hunted out of existence (the last Flemish beaver was shot in 1848). And they are good for the environment, keeping waterside vegetation levels down, creating open spaces where other mammals and birds can live. Their channels and dams act as buffers against the effects of flash floods.
The walk leads you back to your starting point via the Kasteel van Neerijse, which has had a chameleon-like life. Originally constructed in 1735 by Baron Charles Joseph d’Overschie, a Dutch brewer, it was used as a hunting pavilion. Later that century his son Jean-Albert undertook an extensive expansion of the castle and the grounds and it became the main residence of the Overschie family, who ruled the village of Neerijse for over a century.
In the early 20th century the castle was leased to a religious order. In 1935, it left the Overschie family and was rented to a company that ran a clinic within the grounds. In the 80s, the castle was sold once again and transformed into a hotel. Its latest evolution sees its conversion into luxury apartments.
For the kids – Animal-tracking is detective work and the mud along the banks of the Ijse and Dijle make excellent places to look for tracks of beavers and other animals such as water voles. Look for signs such as gnawed branches, droppings, tunnels through long grass, and mud slides into the river. The Scottish Beavers Network gives a lot of useful info on beavers.
Domaine Solvay has it all: a beautiful park, mysterious forests, hidden valleys, extensive lakes, a fascinating château and even a farmhouse with an art collection. And, on warmer days anyway, the inevitable vans selling waffles and ice-creams. If travelling by car, you can park outside the gates on the Chaussée de Bruxelles, just north of the village of La Hulpe. By public transport, bus 366 goes from Ixelles to Court St.Etienne; get off at Etangs Solvay.
The centrepiece is the Château de La Hulpe, which looks like it’s been airlifted in from the Loire Valley, but was actually built here by the Marquis of Béthune in 1842. At the end of the 19th century, wealthy Belgian industrialist Ernest Solvay acquired the property. In 1968 the Solvay family donated the castle and park to the Belgian government, although only the grounds, not the castle itself, are accessible to the public.
But what grounds! Enjoy the rolling lawns and the views over the lakes before heading into the forest. Here, native beech, oak and birch mingle with more exotic species like ginkgo, sequoia and the black locust tree, many of which are helpfully labelled for ease of identification.
Worth checking out are the 36-meter high Obelisk and the Belvedere. The latter is reached by walking up 140 steps; a task I underwent at my guidebook’s promise of the breathtaking view at the top. Unfortunately, these words were penned a long time ago. Today, the trees obscure the view completely, but I’m sure the exercise did me good.
If you take a circular walk around the grounds, halfway around you will come across the Ferme du Château de La Hulpe. It ceased to be a working farm in 1971 and now houses 300 works of the Belgian painter and sculptor Jean-Michel Folon, who died in October 2005. Folon lived nearby as a child, and was a frequent visitor to the park, which he described as “the garden with the thousand rhododendrons.”
For the kids – Just listen! In the forest, switch off your mobile phone, unplug your iPod, and listen to the sounds of nature. At first you will hear nothing, but keep listening – it takes a while for your ears to tune in. You will become aware of the louder sounds first: ducks, crows, a dog maybe. Keep concentrating and you will pick up the fainter sounds: great tits squabbling in the bushes, a woodpecker tapping for insects. Finally, if you can pick out the goldcrest’s high-pitched call, or a shrew squeaking in the leaves, you will have done very well indeed.
(First published in The Bulletin, May 2006)
I think orchids are wonderful. Not the huge ones stocked in florists, which seem to be more plastic than plant, but wild orchids. But, you say, wild orchids don’t grow in Belgium; aren’t they confined to the tropics? For the answer, go on this nature walk!
The nature reserve of Vorsdonkbos near Aarschot is north-east of Brussels. Take the E314 past Leuven until junction 21. Turn left, then right at the roundabout and drive along the N19 for 4.6 km. Turn left towards Betekom and then first right; park at Gelrode station. By public transport, the Leuven-Aarschot bus (335) stops at Gelrode station. Nettles grow along part of the walk so wear something to protect your legs.
From the station (check the large colony of house martins), take the tunnel and walk parallel to the railway lines. You don’t have to walk far to see the orchids. In a meadow on your left you will see masses of pink or purple spires about 15-20 cm high; mainly heath spotted orchids with some marsh orchids. Enter the field for a close-up view, but be careful where you step. And certainly don’t pick any.
Wild orchids have complex lifecycles. They produce numerous tiny seeds which are borne away on the wind, so you might expect to find orchids everywhere. In fact they are among the rarest European wild flowers, because their seeds are TOO tiny; there’s no space for the essential foodstuffs that will nourish the seedling. Instead, the seedling forms a delicate partnership with a specific fungus that draws in nutrients for them. Reproduction in many species is equally bizarre. To enhance their chances of being pollinated by insects, some orchids actually look like the female of the species to encourage male insects to visit them. Hence the aptly named wasp orchid, bee orchid and fly orchid.
After the orchid field, continue alongside the railway until you come to an information board on your left. Follow the red squares for a guided walk around the area. As expected in a nature reserve, it’s rich in wildlife. Check the ponds for frogs, newts and dragonflies; the woodland for woodpeckers, jays and warblers; the sunny banks for painted lady and common blue butterflies.
In the streams, look for the bogbean, with its white or pale pink flowers rising from the water on long stalks. Its alternative name ‘bog hop’ arises from the use of its leaves as a flavouring for beers. If you want a longer walk, follow the signs for the Beemden walk and it will take you to the River Demer and into Aarschot, where you can enjoy refreshments in this pretty Flemish town.
For the kids – An interesting project for the summer is to make a pond water aquarium at home. If you don’t have a proper fish tank, use a bottle, bucket or bowl. Take three jam jars and fill one with pond water, one with mud from the bottom of a pond, and one with water weeds. Put them all together in your receptacle, top up with tap water, and watch what happens over the summer. You will be amazed at what will appear.
(First published in The Bulletin, April 2007)