There are many starting points for a walk through the Forêt de Soignes. My favourite is the Gansepootvijver on Duboislaan just outside Groenendaal. The Brussels-Ottignies train stops at Groenendaal Station, as do buses 395 and 830. There is a large car park at the lake.
It’s primarily a beech forest, with the trees growing so tall, thin and close together that the forest is called the beech cathedral. Looking upwards into the topmost leaves certainly makes you think of stained glass windows. Wherever you start from, you will find that la Forêt de Soignes is full of Russians. They are encamped here; every one an illegal immigrant. They are Siberian Chipmunks.
These cute, bushy-tailed, brown-and-grey striped animals the size of large hamsters were imported into Belgium in the 1960s and sold as pets. Today, they have established themselves very comfortably. A study performed by the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences puts the figure at 2,000 individuals in the Forêt de Soignes alone. I reckon there must be another 2,000 in the woods around L’Abbaye de Rouge-Cloître, just off Avenue de Tervuren. No-one knows for sure how these little creatures ended up in Brussels’ forests; but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist – or even a chipmunk scientist – to provide a reasonable guess.
Chipmunks are great biters and chewers, and it takes a strong cage to confine them. It is very easy to imagine a child coming home from school one day to feed his or her pets, only to discover a gaping hole in the box, and a trail of sawdust leading to the open window…and the nearby woodland. Chipmunks can breed twice a year, having an average of five babies each time, and the youngsters are considered adult when they are 45 days old, so it wouldn’t have been long before there was quite a thriving colony.
A visit to the Jan van Ruusbroec Forest Museum in Duboislaan is also well worth the effort. It’s open every afternoon, and will give you an indication of the flora and fauna of the forest. I have visited the forest in the early morning hours while the paths are still deserted and been lucky enough to see roe deer. But generally during the day they hide in the undergrowth. More common sights are the red squirrels, although it is the Siberian Chipmunks who steal the show.
For the kids – One of the most appealing characteristics of the Siberian Chipmunk is its fearlessness. Whereas most wild animals disappear into the undergrowth, these little animals appear totally unafraid of passing walkers, and will often approach quite closely, as if they are watching us. So why not take their photo? If you sit very still on the floor, they will approach quite closely. You could even take some peanuts to attract them closer to your camera.