Until the end of the 19th century, the Campine region (‘Kempen’) consisted of a vast heath landscape, stretching from the river Schelde in the west to the river Maas in the east and the north. Nowadays, only a mere 15 % of this heath area still exists at both sides of the Belgian and Dutch border. The project area, called the ‘Valley of the Visbeek’ (Visbeekvallei), was situated along the south-western border of the former heath landscape, an area which was characterised by numerous fens.
The small brook ‘Visbeek’ runs from the edge of the Campine Plateau southwards to the river ‘Kleine Nete’, situated in the basin of the river Schelde. As a result of its position, the valley of the Visbeek receives high amounts of seepage water form the Campine Plateau. Mineral- and base-rich seepage water also occurs, due to the presence of calcareous substrates in the subsoil.
During the heydays of the traditional heath farming economy in the 18the century, the entire valley was covered with hay meadows on a moist to wet soil. In the end of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, this landscape was lost primarily to intensive agriculture and forestry. The driest and poorest soils, e.g. inland dunes, were afforested with conifer plantations. The hay meadows were abandoned and encroachment of scrub and trees took place. However, some of the former meadows transformed into valuable alluvial forests with alder and willow.
This development resulted in a drastic loss of the former heathlands, oligo-mesotrophic fen complexes and species rich hay meadows. At present only small relicts of these habitats still exist in the project area. Confronted with this significant decrease, people from the local community decided to undertake action to stop the deterioration of the natural values of the project area. A new local branch of volunteers from Natuurpunt was born. At present, the local volunteers, supported by our organisation, are more than 20 years active in restoring the natural values of the Visbeek valley! All their actions finally resulted in this Life+ proposal as a spin-off.
For the exceptional abiotic conditions in the valley of the Visbeek resulted in the presence of many endangered Annex I habitats and their associated rare and vulnerable species. Among them, the most important are Molinia meadows (6410), alluvial forests (91E0), European dry heaths (4030), inland dunes with open Corynephorus and Agrostis grasslands (2330) and Northern Atlantic wet heaths (4010). Next to it, the presence of oligotrophic to mesotrophic standing waters (3130) and oligotrophic waters containing very few minerals of sandy plains (3110) make the area of national and international importance. Without doubt, all these habitats are rare and threatened in the whole of the European Union, especially in the densely populated parts of the Western-European lowlands.
The wide variety of Annex I habitats is also reflected in the presence of several rare and threatened species from the annexes of Habitat Directive. For example, the fish Cobitis taenia, but also amphibians as Rana lessonae (Annex IV Habitat Directive).
As already mentioned, the actual surface of the Annex I habitats is rather small in the project area. Furthermore these habitats suffer a high pressure. This is the result of several threats, resulting into a dramatic decrease of the target habitats, especially during the last decades:
- disappearance of habitat to intensive agriculture;
- nutrient enrichment, particularly deposition of nitrogen compounds emitted from intensive livestock farming;
- abandonment of hay meadows;
- encroachment of trees and scrub resulting into loss of Annex I habitats;
- afforestation of valuable habitats;
- drainage and levelling of relief;
- loss of habitat and disturbance from developments such as artificial ponds;
- invasive alien species, preventing the development of Annex I habitats.
These threats lead to an extreme fragmentation of the existing Annex I habitats and the consequent loos of biodiversity. In fact, fragmentation is the most important threat for the natural values in the Visbeekvallei. This fragmentation is not only observed on a local scale, but on the regional scale of the Campine region as well! In particularly, the heath land habitats (European dry heaths (4030), inland dunes with open Corynephorus and Agrostis grasslands (2330) and Northern Atlantic wet heaths (4010) are seriously affected. Several invertebrates typical for these habitats are already extinct or survive only in a very small population.
Thanks to the efforts of our organisation, Natuurpunt, the extinction of Vipera berus (only two populations left in Flanders!) was prevent in the project area. In fact, the efforts of Natuurpunt are the reason why habitats as Molinia-meadows (6410), alluvial forests (91E0) and oligotrophic to mesotrophic standing waters (3130) are still present in the pSCI. In co-operation with our organisation, the local municipality of Lille carried out several project for the restoration of European dry heats (4030) and Northern Atlantic wet heaths (4010) with common viper as key target species.
After this period of protecting the remaining high quality relicts trough intensive care management, Natuurpunt wishes now to make a major step forward into the protection and restoration of the Annex I habitats in this pSCI.
- Significant extension of the area well-developed Molinia-meadows (6410) through large-scale habitat restoration. At present only 1,5 ha of this rare habitats remains in the pSCI. With the actions foreseen in this Life+ proposal we will extend the area towards 14 ha!
- ificant extension of all heath land habitats, notably European dry heaths (4030), inland dunes with open Corynephorus and Agrostis grasslands (2330) and Northern Atlantic wet heaths (4010). At present only 3 ha remains in the pSCI. This Life+ proposal aims to extend the area with 37 ha.
- nsion of the area and improvement of the quality of the fen complexes, notably oligotrophic to mesotrophic standing waters (3130) and oligotrophic waters containing very few minerals of sandy plains (3110). Target is to extend the surface of these habitats with 4 ha.
- nsion of the area and improvement of the quality of the alluvial forests (91E0). The re-establishment of 7 ha of alluvial forests will be realised by the removal of (poplar) plantations and the development of new forest from intensive meadows and arable fields.
For all these Annex I habitats, we aim to establish a sustainable grazing management and a mechanical management with a large involvement of the local volunteer management teams of Natuurpunt.
Due to its location in the densely populated Flemish region, the project area has a very important role to play for the people. A significant increase of the socio-economic potential of this Natura 2000 area, using optimally the possibilities for nature-oriented recreation, integrating volunteers into nature management and informing local people and visitors about the project and building new partnerships as an example of good practice.
Actions and means involved
Preparatory actions are essential to become high qualitative results in this project. First of all, we need a better scientific reference framework, on which we can found our decision to choose between Molinia-meadows (6410) and alluvial forests (91E0). Both Annex I habitats can occur in the Visbeekvallei under the same abiotic conditions.
Both habitats are vulnerable and rare within the EU, so a well-considered choice between them is indispensable. A new scientific study shall point out where are the best conditions for the re-establishment of both 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.
- Realisation of preparatory field researches to determine the occurrence of soil pollution.
- Realisation of preparatory field researches to determine the presence of phosphor in the soil (which 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 45 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 populations of the target species who are sufficiently large. Without acquisition, the restoration of the Annex I habitats in the pSCI is not possible, due to the high fragmentation of the habitats
Concrete conservation actions
- Large-scale restoration (ca. 102 ha) of the target Annex I habitats in the project area, especially on the land acquired in this project, which, in turn also form good habitats for several species of the Habitat Directive.
- Restoration of 10 hectares of Molinia-meadows in those sites who have the best potentials for re-establishment, based on the results of the preparatory scientific study.
- To start up an essential restoration management for Molinia-meadows and other semi-natural grassland habitats
- iring special restorative, mowing and haying equipment. Special attention goes to the acquisition of special equipment for our two local volunteer management teams, who have more than 20 years experience in the sustainable management of the Annex I habitats in the Visbeekvallei.
- Removal of pine plantations and sod-cutting for the restoration of all heathland types and associated habitats (10 ha).
- Removal of the nutrient rich top soil on former arable fields and intensively used pastures to restore heathland habitats (14 ha).
- Restoration of several oligo-mesotrophic fen complexes (4 ha).
- Restoration of alluvial forests by the removal of (poplar) plantations (2 ha).
- Development of new alluvial forests from intensive meadows and arable fields (5 ha)
- Removal of invasive alien species in heath land- and wood land habitats (30 ha).
- To realise new fencing on a surface of 26 ha (circa 9 km) in the project area, which enables to start up an appropriate grazing management.
- To create three small-scale compost units, so we can turn valueless management residues into economic valuable compost.
- Heathland restoration (13 ha) by the Municipality of Lille on their own forested properties inside the pSCI.
Public awareness and dissemination of results
- Development and realisation of a wide range of measures to create a larger support for Natura 2000, to promote the tourist and socio-economical potentiel of the area and to 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.
- Organisation of several activities to exchange knowledge and experience with the local people and several authorities, networking with other Life projects. Moreover, we wish to exchange not only technical experience about habitat restoration, but to promote our approach with involvement of local people and volunteers as well.
- 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 pSCI area, to prevent the loss of all our efforts during this Life-project.
- Large-scale restoration and sustainable management of the following Annex I habitats: Molinia meadows (6410), Alluvial forests (91E0+), European dry heaths (4030), Inland dunes with open Corynephorus and Agrostis grasslands (2330), Northern Atlantic wet heaths (4010), Oligotrophic to mesotrophic standing waters (3130) and Oligotrophic waters containing very few minerals of sandy plains (3110).
- Halting the loss of biodiversity in the project area, a result from the extreme habitat fragmentation in the pSCI. The proposed extension of all Annex I habitats should be sufficient to ensure a sustainable re-establishment and protection of the target habitats and species. Moreover, we expect the re-colonisation of typical species yet extinct. Our organisation shall continue the habitat restoration even after the Life-project, so on a mid-term, a favourable conservation status of the target habitats and species will be realised.
- Restoration of habitats shall increase the populations of species of Annex II en IV Habitat Directive such as Luronium natans and Rana lessonae.
- 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 (also other land managers) of the Natura 2000 area and the Life+ project.