Integrated management of natural forests in the
Flemish Ardennes, Belgium
A range of Tertiary hills stretches from the south of Brussels westward in the direction of Lille. There are three core areas (Ename, Everbeek, Grimminge) in the so-called “Flemish Ardennes”. Because of their topography, these hills were rarely exploited for agriculture. Patches of species-rich forests therefore remain, dominated by ash and alder on the lower levels and beech-oak on the slopes.
These forests are not large (often less than 500 ha) and have a pronounced Atlantic flora with bluebells Endymion non-scripta or purple toothwort Lathraea clandestine as well as a wide array of rare speces such as the golden saxifrage Chrysosplenium oppositifolium and C. alternifolium, giant horsetail Equisetum telmateia and brook lamprey Lampetra planeri.
For centuries, these forests and the surrounding man-made landscape had a high level of biodiversity, in spite of relatively dense human settlements in the surrounding areas. Forest decline however took hold when, after World War I, reconstruction programmes resulted in more intensive sylvicultural practices, based upon more homogeneous beech plantations and the introduction of new poplar varieties. Replacing the multifunctional use of forest, where woodland grazing was important, by cyclical management with wood production as its main objective, suppressed the typical herbaceous layer and reduced the biodiversity of these lands.
At the same time, the exploitation of adjacent farming areas intensified and more and more forest stands were cleared and brought under cultivation. This exacerbated the already existing fragmentation of the forest biotopes and reduced the complex forest margins into narrow strips with sharply defined borders. The conversion of grassland into arable land resulted locally in the disappearance or eutrophication of streams, the formation of erosion gullies and the sedimentation of loam in the brooks. At present many landowners use their properties in a rather incoherent manner, which contributes further to their degradation.
Natuurpunt and the Flemish Government have substantial reserves in this area and had already started working together to maintain the district’s natural assets. They need however to take these measures to another level in order to have a real impact on the forests. They decided therefore to apply as a partnership to LIFE-Nature to help maintain and restore key areas of the Vlaamse bossen. Whilst land purchase was one element of the project destined to help consolidate the forest patches into larger units, the main emphasis was on re-introducing appropriate forest management that would help restore the rich biodiversity of the forests.
To this end the beneficiary wanted to integrate the available historical data into the restoration and conservation objectives of the project. Hence, the beneficiary delved into archives to exploit the well documented historical data of the region and used oral history from local inhabitants and local naturalists to help prepare a restoration programme over the area.
Working together: a public-NGO partnership
The broader landscape context also necessitated working in partnership. The NGO Natuurpunt, which managed this LIFE-Nature project, benefited from a wide-ranging partnership, involving the regional nature, heritage and agriculture authorities, several research centres, local landscape administration and the local municipalities.
Having included proposed large areas, including forest and intensive agricultural land, as Natura 2000 sites, the project was able to address the difficult problem of habitat fragmentation. The conservation authorities, in collaboration with the agri-structural authorities (VLM), stimulated the development of a strategic plan (‘natuurrichtplan’) to integrate the nature conservation needs with the other (mainly agricultural) land uses in the area and to prepare the necessary ecological corridors for the Flemish Ecological Network.
At the same time the beneficiary also developed detailed management plans to prepare the management options for the individual nature reserves, taking into account the historical data it had amassed earlier. This prompted the re-introduction of cattle in forest management. Local farmers were asked to provide local cattle breeds to graze these mixed forest/grassland habitats.
Together with the beneficiary’s own Konik horses, these cattle are now grazing large areas of the forests and surrounding grasslands year-round. This has resulted in a spectacular decline of brambles, a rejuvenation of the herb layer and the appearance of small clearings and open, sunny areas for butterflies and other insects. Yet no negative effect was noted on tree recovery.
Increasing the forest area
Together with increasing the forest area, the beneficiary was also able to restore the forest edges, as farmers agreed to sell their land bordering the forest. Instead of sharp edges between forest and agricultural land, more diffuse forest margins now develop, allowing the typical shrubs and associated fauna and flora to thrive. Municipalities agreed to expand the forest area and to open wildlife corridors under existing roads.
Additionally, the beneficiary took the opportunity to collaborate with the local landscape protection administration to integrate this project in the wider agricultural area and to create pools for amphibians in the project site’s vicinity. However, working in a broader context also means new challenges: infiltration of polluted water, soil erosion, etc. problems the beneficiary realises will have to be tackled in the future.
Promoting a new forest policy
This project demonstrated how forest management, focused on wood production, can be adjusted into an integrated management approach, where conservation issues, recreation and respect for the historical landscape are covered. The beneficiary spent considerable effort promoting this new approach. It comes as no surprise to learn that a few years later, the Flemish regional government awarded this LIFE project the national cultural heritage award.
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