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.