The Border Park is neatly bisected by the Dutch-Flemish border, although not on an axis you might imagine. Buy a map from the De Vroente visitor centre and you will see that the border lies diagonally north-west to south-east, with Flanders holding the eastern side. This means you can walk to the northernmost tip of the park where you will still be on Flemish soil, yet will be able to gaze southerly over the Netherlands. (Google maps is quite helpful on this point.)
What I particularly like about the Border Park is that once you leave the visitor centre and begin to stretch your legs, you get a glimpse of “wilderness” – a rare experience in heavily populated Flanders. You won’t see or hear any traffic, and on a weekday you won’t see many people, either.
But in fact, virtually all this wilderness has been created by human hands. From the end of the 18th century until the mid-20th century, much of the area’s heathland was transformed into agricultural land. Activities such as over-grazing exposed the sand and caused the formation of dunes. The realisation that sand has economic value then led to deforestation. Finally, large-scale peat extraction resulted in the formation of those big pools.
That the area exists today is largely due to protests at the exploitation and mutilation of the heath at the beginning of the 20th century. A number of Antwerp artists had discovered the beauty and natural value of the Kalmthout Heath and formed the Society for Natural and Urban Beauty, which pleaded for the foundation of a reserve as early as 1913. They were supported by the Royal Commission for Monuments and Landscapes.
The struggle against exploitation ceased during the First World War but received a boost in 1931 when the law on the conservation of monuments and landscapes was passed. Finally the area was classified as a protected landscape in 1941.
Heathland takes up most of the area and is classified as either wet or dry heath. Heather is the dominant vegetation for dry heath and bell heather for wet heath. Heathland needs to be carefully managed so the purple moor grass doesn’t take over completely. So during your walk you will encounter friendly herds of grazing cows and sheep; they limit the growth of grass, creating suitable conditions for heather to germinate.
Cutting sods is another activity to ensure a diverse heath flora. It involves removing the rich top layer of the ground to reveal the sandy layer beneath. This impoverishes the soil, discourages the growth of grass and encourages traditional and often rare wet heath plants like the insectivorous sundew and the beak sedge.
Thanks to reforestation, large forests can be found throughout the park, mostly of Scots pine, oak and silver birch. Again, the forests are actively managed to encourage biodiversity. Competitive exotics such as the American cherry and the rhododendron are removed in favour of indigenous species. Trees are thinned out to open up the forest canopy, promoting the spontaneous generation of the shrub layer. Dead trees are left in place to provide food and shelter for a variety of organisms.
You won’t go far in the park without coming face to face with one of the many large ponds. A key aspect of the park’s management is focused on preserving them – by closing drainage canals and controlling the ground water levels. The quality of the ponds is also controlled. Surrounding conifers are cut down to prevent the soil from becoming acidic and dry, write nitrates and phosphates from surrounding agricultural land are kept out of the ponds as much as possible.
In some places in the park, you would think you are at the coast, as your shoes sink into deep sand. Open dunes are encouraged because they are important for insects such as butterflies, digger wasps and bees. But unless they are protected from erosion by wind and tramping feet, they will soon disappear. So you will see that the tops of the dunes are frequently planted with grass, and visitors are encouraged to stick to the footpaths.
You might not have a full day available, but this route can easily be shortened to match your time and energy.
Your starting point is the De Vroente visitor centre. Here you can buy a map, tour the nature exhibition, visit the beekeeping museum and have a snack in the cafe.
All the paths are clearly signposted with icons. I recommend setting off on the sheep footpath. This will take you to one of the larger pools, the Putse Moer, where you can look out for hobbies: impressive small falcons that are swift and clever enough to catch swallows and dragonflies.
Leaving the Putse Moer, I was surprised to see blackened earth and charred remains of tree trunks. They are a reminder of the fire that devastated 600 hectares of the Border Park in May last year.
The park’s authorities are closely monitoring the effects of the fire. “Animals that could not escape the flames, such as snakes and lizards, were probably the most severely affected, although it’s difficult to determine the full impact of the fire on their population levels,” says park ranger Robert Goyens. “In addition, many plant species have been decimated, and recovery will take a considerable time.”
On the other hand, there have been some positive, if temporary, effects: “The woodlark can benefit from the fact that the vegetation is much less lush this year,” says Goyens. “But this advantage will likely be negated by the next breeding season.”
At the northern limit of the sheep footpath you could return to the visitor centre, or strike out north on the interconnecting footpath. This will lead you to the lizard footpath, where you will be in the heart of the Border Park, as far from the madding crowd as possible.
Listen out for the beautiful songs of nesting curlew, tree pipits and woodlarks. Cuckoos are also very busy in this region, going about their dastardly business. They are brood parasites; the females lay their eggs in the nests of other birds.
Don’t turn back yet! Keep going north-west and join the deer footpath. This will take you through the best of the park’s forests. I was delighted to spot four species of woodpecker as well as crested tits in the pines and redstarts in the oaks. A word of warning: The recent wet weather has led to the presence of large and voracious mosquitoes in the damper forests. Protection or repellent is advised.
The combination of the three marked paths, plus the connecting footpaths, will give you a healthy 20-kilometre walk and enable you to experience the Border Park to its fullest.