An exceptional natural site to be explored on foot, on horseback, by bicycle… The beech-cathedral is to be discovered or rediscovered urgently.
By Florence Pirard
The Forêt de Soignes is located to the south-east of Brussels. It covers 4,380 hectares. The Walloon part, which covers an area of 275 ha, extends over the territories of the municipalities of La Hulpe and Waterloo. This former national forest is currently managed autonomously by the administrations of the three regions, which share its property and have recognized it as a special conservation area in application of European directive 92/43 “Fauna, flora, habitats”. It is therefore part of the Natura 2000 network.
A little history
About 10,000 years ago, after the last ice age, a large forest developed on loamy and sandy soils. Flints from the end of the Mesolithic (6000 to 4000 BC) have been discovered near the old edges of the Sonian forest. Around 2,300 BC, tribes from the East settled in the region, notably in La Hulpe, Genval and the Boitsfort ponds. In the 4th century, a Roman author mentions a “coal forest”, which is thought to extend from Thudinie to the Sonian forest. It was undoubtedly during the Carolingian period that the latter was isolated by clearing the rest of the coal forest.
The counts of Louvain, then the Dukes of Brabant, arrogated to themselves the property of Soignes in the 11th century. They will protect it from wood thieves and poachers. From the 12th century, many religious communities settled around it. The forest then became the property of the Dukes of Burgundy from 1404 to 1482, then of the Habsbourg-Bourgogne from 1482 to 1555. Charles V ordered its complete demarcation in order to prevent encroachments; a last stone remains at the Hermit (Braine-l’Alleud). The sumptuous “Les Belles Chasses de Maximilien” tapestries, preserved in the Louvre, were woven during his reign. They illustrate the princely hunts through the forest of Soignes and faithfully represent the forest species, flora, fauna and landscapes of the time.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the forest suffered a lot of damage. In the 19th century, it was systematically reforested, but many plots were sold to individuals who hastened to clear them. To facilitate access to these sites, a straight road from Waterloo (Joli-Bois) to Tervuren (Quatre-Bras) is drilled. A third of the forest was finally preserved and ceded to the Belgian State in 1842. In 1909, artists, writers and parliamentarians founded the League of Friends of the Forêt de Soignes which, since then, has been fighting for the preservation of this forest. forest heritage.
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Part of the Forêt de Soignes was recognized as World Heritage by Unesco in 2017, thus joining a series of European forests inscribed on the World Heritage list in 2007 and 2011. This transnational property spans twelve countries. Since the end of the last Ice Age, European beech has spread from a few isolated refuges in the Alps, Carpathians, Dinarids, Mediterranean and Pyrenees in the space of a few thousand years. This process continues today.
The success of the progression of beech is explained by its adaptability and tolerance to different climatic, geographic and physical conditions. The forest of Soignes has not been classified as World Heritage in its entirety: only the parts designated as integral forest reserves, which are not the subject of any management measures, are concerned. The same is true in other countries, where strictly protected areas have also been selected, which are characterized by the presence of exceptionally old trees and exceptional biodiversity. Thus, each element of this family makes it possible to understand what the primary and ancient forests of Europe were.
This recognition as a natural world heritage is unique in our country. Indeed, all the other World Heritage properties are recognized as cultural heritage. In addition, the Soignes forest massif extends over the territory of the three Regions, which justified the definition of a joint structure plan, the result of very close and intensive collaboration between the three forest managers and the three heritage services.
The beech-cathedral covers almost 70% of the territory of the Soignes forest, a vast area of a single species which makes the forest vulnerable. Despite the very unique aspect of this landscape, it is not conducive to the development of a large number of animal and plant species. In addition, more and more scientific studies are reporting the impact of climate change. Ever hotter and drier summers have negative effects on beech, except in valley bottoms. For this reason, it was decided to reduce its scope in the future. However, the characteristic landscape of the beech-cathedral will be preserved in certain parts of the forest, as will the majestic rows of trees which border the drèves.
In the future, the forest should favor a greater diversity of trees, the young and adult elements living in close proximity to each other. The objective is to obtain a varied and luminous forest sheltering many animal and plant species. The rare and endemic species in the forest must also be protected. An inventory of remarkable trees was carried out on the Brussels part of the massif; thus, a hundred of them could be identified and marked.
Over time, parts of the Sonian forest have been transformed into parks, arboretums or racetracks: the Bois de la Cambre, the Solvay park, the Tervuren park, the Watermael-Boitsfort and Groenendael racetracks. These sites reinforce the diversity of landscapes and habitats in the Soignes forest. Just like the bodies of water, the particular trees, the pastures and the lawns, very different from the forest itself but no less appreciable.
The edges between these semi-open areas and the Forêt de Soignes are home to a large number of animal and plant species that are not found inside the woods. In addition, the parks, which welcome a large number of visitors, form a natural buffer space.
… and wildlife
Many species coexist in this magnificent ensemble. The forest ponds are home to some sixty nesting birds, including kingfisher, black woodpecker and honey buzzard. In the beech forest, we find the garden or black-headed warbler, the swift puppy, the creeper, the chaffinch or the tawny owl. The abundance of birds is greatest in oak plots and in damp valleys, where grosbeaks and orioles nest. About thirty species of mammals also occupy the premises: deer, hares, rabbits, hedgehogs, red squirrels, shrews, bats as well as small carnivores. The quill and the lizard are the only reptiles. The wetlands are home to eight species, including the rare and protected bouvière.
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The archaeological and historical heritage
The richness of history is reflected today in the precious historical and archaeological sites of the forest: the tumuli, the prehistoric camp of Boitsfort, the castle of Trois-Fontaines, the castle of La Hulpe, the priories of Groenendael and the Rouge-Cloître, the park of Tervuren, the old post roads …
Safeguarding and enhancing this heritage is one of the main concerns of forest managers. Thus, the tumuli and the Neolithic camp of Boitsfort-Etangs have been classified as archaeological sites, and the sites of Groenendael and Rouge-Cloître, two former priories belonging to the Augustinian religious order, have been fully restored. The parks of Tervuren, Tournay-Solvay and La Hulpe as well as their heritage have also benefited from a complete renovation.
Belgian properties inscribed on the World Heritage List
Today, Belgium includes twelve cultural properties and one natural property among the 121 listed world properties.
Brussels: the Grand-Place in Brussels (1998), the major residences of the architect Victor Horta in Brussels (2000), the Stoclet palace (2009).
Flanders: the Flemish beguinages (1998), the belfries (1999), the historic center of Bruges (2000), the Plantin-Moretus house-workshops-museum complex in Antwerp (2005), the architectural work of Le Corbusier, an exceptional contribution to the Modern Movement (2016).
Wallonia: the four elevators of the Canal du Center and their site (1998), the belfries (1999), Notre-Dame de Tournai cathedral (2000), the Neolithic flint mines of Spiennes (2000), the four major mining sites in Wallonia (2012).
Brussels-Flanders-Wallonia: the forest of Soignes (2017).
Prepare your visit
Many routes and walks cross the forest of Soignes. In order to allow walkers and cyclists to walk around without damaging the area, a website contains both practical information on the entrance gates to the forest and the paths to be taken as well as the rules to be observed by visitors. You will also discover a wealth of information on the flora and fauna.