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.