The Kleine Nete is a lowland river situated in the Flemish Campine region (Kempen) and runs from the edge of the Campine plateau to the Scheldt basin. The valley is characterised by a high geomorphological and natural diversity which is surprisingly well preserved.
The area is without doubt unique in Western-Europa and featured by (former) heath land and moors in the higher parts and valley ecosystems along the upper, middle and lower stream, accompanied by land dunes lying parallel to the river. Depending on the distance between the land dunes and the river, there is a poor or steep gradient with high seepage pressure where peat development occurs. Furthermore, the most downstream part of the Kleine Nete is a freshwater tidal river, a rare and vulnerable habitat within the European Union.
The exceptional abiotic conditions in the valley of the Kleine Nete have led to several endangered Annex I habitats. The most important among them within the boundaries of the project area are sand dune vegetations on land dunes (2330), oligotrophic to mesotrophic standing waters (3130), watercourses of plain levels (3260), wet and dry heathland vegetation (4010, 4030), species rich Nardusgrasslands (6230+), hydrophilous tall herb communities (6430), transition mires and quacking bogs (7140) and forests on extremely wet soils with a high epiphyte flora (91E0+).
The wide variety of Annex I habitats is also reflected in the presence of several rare and threatened species from Annex II and IV of the Habitat Directive. The river valley of the Kleine Nete is for instance one of the most important river ecosystems in the Flemish region for many fish species, especially for Cobitis taenia, Cottus gobio, Lampetra fluviatilis and Lampetra planeri. Furhtermore, the project area holds an impressive and healthy population of the frog Rana arvalis while the aquatic plant Luronium natans can also be found.
The creation of good habitats and stepping stones in the strategically located valley of the Kleine Nete will be of great importance to maintain a favourable conservation status for the populations of all these species in this part of the EU.
Unfortunately, the presence of these extremely diverse and unique habitats and species has drastically decreased within the project area.
At the end of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, the heath landscape on the land dunes was lost due to afforestation with conifer plantations.
From the second half of the 20th century the number of extensively managed hay meadows significantly declined due to the intensification of agriculture or abandonment. Hay meadows were drained and fertilized on a large scale for corn production, afforested with poplar plantations or abandoned with subsequent encroachment by scrubs and trees. Nevertheless, some of these former meadows transformed into valuable, species rich alluvial alder or willow forests.
From the 1960’s onwards a further habitat loss was initiated due to the construction of illegal weekend houses, often accompanied by artificial ponds.
More recently, invasive alien species pose a new threat as they prevent the development of valuable habitats. These alien species can thus also form a threat to the survival of sustainable populations of the Annex II and IV species of the Habitat Directive.
A lot of habitat has been lost as a consequence of these combined threats. On top of this, the small remnants of Annex I habitats have become very fragmented. In fact, fragmentation is the most important threat for maintaining high nature values in the valley of the Kleine Nete. This fragmentation is not only observed on a local scale, but also on the regional scale of the Campine region as a whole. Especially hydrophilous tall herb communities (6430), transition mires and quacking bogs (7140), forests on extremely wet soils with a high epiphyte flora (91E0+), European dry heaths (4030), inland dunes with open Corynephorus and Agrostis grasslands (2330), Northern Atlantic wet heaths (4010) and species rich Nardusgrasslands (6230) are seriously affected. Several invertebrates typical for these habitats nowadays only survive in very small populations.
After a period of protecting the remaining high quality relicts trough intensive care management, Natuurpunt wishes to make a major step forward into the protection and restoration of the Annex I-habitats in this pSCI-area.
The central objective of this LIFE+ proposal is the large scale restoration of the different Annex I habitats characteristic for the valley of the Kleine Nete. To realise this, we propose the following concrete objectives:
- Large-scale restoration of a complex of Annex I-habitats which depend on seepage, flood and/or (in the lower stream) freshwater tide: especially watercourses of plain levels (3260), 23 ha hydrophilous tall herb fringe communities (6430), 25 ha transition mires and quacking bogs (7140) and 4 ha forests on extremely wet soils with a high epiphyte flora (91E0+). In particular, this LIFE+ proposal is important for the restoration of hydrophilous tall herb fringe communities (6430) dependent on freshwater tidal dynamics. These communities harbour several endangered plant species like Veronica longifolia and Leucojum aestivum.
- Large-scale restoration of 17 ha Annex I-habitats on a poor sandy soil typical for the region: Corynephorus and Agrostis dune grasslands (2330), wet heathlands (4010) and dry heathlands (4030).
- Restoration (3 ha) of the valuable Annex I-habitats oligotrophic to mesotrophic standing waters (3130). As a result of our efforts, the Kleine Nete valley will become internationally known for its Nanocypertalia fen vegetations (3130), and their associated species like Rana arvalis.
Due to its location to the regional cities Herentals and Lier, the project area also plays an important role for people. The creation of a significant increase of the socio-economic potential of this Natura 2000 area, through an optimal usage of the possibilities for nature-oriented recreation, an integration of volunteers into nature management, information of local people, visitors and authorities about the project and the creation of new partnerships as an example of best practice, is therefore another important objective of LIFE+ Kleine Nete.
Actions and means involved
Preparatory actions are essential to achieve quality results in this project. First of all, we need a better scientific reference framework on which we can base our decision to choose the optimal location for the restoration of watercourses of plain levels (3260), hydrophilous tall herb fringe communities (6430), transition mires and quacking bogs (7140) and forests on extremely wet soils with a high epiphyte flora (91E0+). All these habitats have stringent hydrological requirements. The Kleine Nete valley is a complex hydrological system with seepage, flooding and tidal processes which need to be taken into account when setting the conservation goals. A new scientific study shall thus point out where the best conditions are for the re-establishment of these habitats in the project area.
Furthermore, the following preparatory actions are foreseen:
- Development of integrated conservations plans for the acquired land, based on a detailed vegetation map and field research.
- Design study of fish passage
- Realisation of preparatory field research to determine the occurrence of soil pollution.
- Realisation of preparatory field research to determine whether phosphor levels in the soil might prevent the re-establishment of certain Annex I habitats.
- Writing of detailed plans for efficient and effective habitat restoration.
- Development of a new plan for the visitors and the socio-economic potentials of the project area.
The acquisition of 40 ha in the project area to start large scale habitat restoration by specific short-term management, to protect and connect the target habitats, to establish the favourable conservation status of these Annex I habitats and to develop sustainable populations of the target species. Without acquisition, the restoration of the Annex I habitats in the pSCI is not possible, due to the high fragmentation of the habitats. Furthermore 0.5ha will be purchased for the implementation of the fish passage.
Concrete conservation actions
- Large-scale restoration (ca. 75 ha), especially on the land acquired in this project, of the target Annex I habitats in the project area. These restored sites will serve as good habitat for several species of the Habitat Directive.
- Acquisition of specialised equipment to carry out habitat restoration in extremely difficult situations, e.g. restoration of Corynephorus and Agrostis dune grasslands (2330), wet heathlands (4010) and dry heathlands (4030), hydrophilous tall herb fringe communities (6430) and quacking bogs and transition mires (7140).
- To create small-scale compost units to turn valueless management residues into economic valuable compost.
- Construction of a fish passage to restore the connection for the fauna of the Annex I-habitat watercourses of plain levels (3260), e.g. the Annex II fish species.
- Installation of new fences on a surface of 12 ha (circa 3.5 km) in the project area, which enables us to start appropriate grazing management.
- Removal of pine plantations and sod-cutting for the restoration of heathland and associated habitats (17 ha).
- Restoration of an historical fen complex (3 ha).
- Restoration of transition mires and quacking bogs (25ha).
- Restoration of hydrophilous tall herb fringe communities (23 ha)
- Restoration of alluvial forests by the removal of (poplar) plantations (4 ha).
- Integration of sites with weekend houses and accompanying artificial ponds (3 ha).
- Restoration of river valley by the excavation of unnatural embankments resulting from dredging activities (app 5.5 ha, 500m).
- Removal of invasive alien species in heath land and associated habitats (20 ha).
Public awareness and dissemination of results
- The development and realisation of a wide range of measures to create a larger support for Natura 2000, to promote the tourist and socio-economical potential of the area and to promote this LIFE project by the publication of leaflets, information for the general public, new information panels, the development of new tracks, the writing of a layman’s report, the publication of several articles in membership magazines and the organisation of public activities.
- The organisation of several activities to exchange knowledge and experience with local people and several authorities and to network with other LIFE projects. Moreover, we do not only wish to exchange purely technical experience about habitat restoration, but we also want to promote our approach which is based on the involvement of local people and volunteers.
- It is evident that we will monitor the results of our actions with a well-structured monitoring scheme. At the end of the project, an ‘After LIFE conservation plan’ shall focus on the long term perspectives for the project area, to prevent the loss of our efforts during LIFE Kleine Nete.
- Large-scale restoration and sustainable development of the above mentioned Annex I habitats in the project area. After LIFE Kleine Nete, the valley of the Kleine Nete will be one of the core areas in lowland Europe for several Annex I habitats, especially for Corynephorus and Agrostis dune grasslands (2330), oligotrophic to mesotrophic standing waters (3130), watercourses of plain levels (3260), wet (4010) and dry heathlands (4030), hydrophilous tall herb communities (6430), quacking bogs and transition mires (7140) and alluvial forests (Macrophorbio-Alnetum and Carici elongatae-Alnetum (91E0+).
- Restoration of habitats shall increase the populations of species of Annex II and IV Habitat Directive such as Luronium natans, Leucorrhinia pectoralis, Rana arvalis, Lampetra planeri, Cottus gobio and Cobitis taenia.
- Better visitor facilities and more information (brochures, leaflets, flyers) about the area, a better socio-economic support and involvement of local people and other stakeholders of the Natura 2000 area and the LIFE project.