There are two ways to describe the Zwin nature reserve. One is that it’s a 159-hectare lagoon, which sea water enters with each tide. It comprises dunes, salt marshes, salt pans and two large inlet channels with adjacent tidal flat and creek systems. The whole region extends 2.3 kilometres along the North Sea coastline on the Flemish-Dutch border.
And the other? The Zwin is one of those glorious, mystical areas where sky, land and sea merge to create a spectacular wilderness. It’s where the eerie call of the curlew will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. It’s where you can lie on your back in the sand and watch the clouds scudding overhead, taking your anxieties with them. And it’s a place full of contrasts. Sit on the seaward side of a dune, and the wind will cut through your coat and chill you to the bone; move to the sheltered side, and the sun will turn your face red in minutes.
However you describe the Zwin, the good news is that a new cross-border hiking network has just opened there. It consists of more than 50 kilometres of hiking trails in the coastal areas of Knokke in Flanders and Zeeland in the Netherlands.
At the centre of the network is the Zwin nature reserve, but on the Flemish side the footpaths also run through the surrounding dunes and polders, along the coastline and even through the streets of Knokke. On the Dutch side, the paths pass through the charming municipalities of Cadzand and Retranchement and connect with Zeeland’s own network of footpaths. This means that one of my favourite coastal paths, from Breskens to Cadzand-Bad, has suddenly been extended. Now I am able to keep going by crossing the Uitwaterings canal and walking along the edges of the reserve itself. I can even go further and walk into Knokke. However, as the total distance from Breskens to Knokke is more than 25km, getting the bus back to Breskens has its appeal.
The Zwin nature reserve and surrounding polders are largely undeveloped, so the footpaths provide spectacular views of the sea, the vastness of the estuarine marshes and the dunes.
But don’t forget this is a network. It’s not just a string of paths laid out randomly. This is an expertly devised criss-cross of well-developed and excellently signposted paths. Thanks to an informative water-resistant map (€6 from local tourist offices), you can devise your own walk, making it as short or as long as your time and energy allow. You simply go from one numbered junction to the next. Each junction is clearly marked and points you in the direction of the next one.
The network can be used by cyclists and those on horseback, too. Some of the paths are like a three-lane rural motorway, with dedicated lanes for feet, bikes and horses.
The new hiking network is just one component of a major redevelopment of the Zwin area. Plans are well advanced to turn the Zwin into a contemporary, educational and touristic nature destination. I’m not totally convinced about their new slogan, however, which is: “The Zwin: an international airport for birds”. By focusing solely on birds it denigrates the Zwin’s importance as an area rich in salt-loving wild flowers. Some of these are as interesting in appearance as they are in name: sea lavender, herbaceous seepweed, glasswort, greater sea-spurrey and sea milkwort.
Moreover, an airport is merely a temporary stop-off; a place where you stay for as short a time as possible before heading off to where you really want to go. That’s not the case with the Zwin, where hundreds of birds – from storks to stonechats, ringed plovers to reed buntings – take up residence for the spring and summer to raise their broods. In the autumn, the arriving wild geese might look like planes landing at an airport, but these birds will also stay for months, making it their winter lodgings.
Still, the plans look impressive, with one of the highlights being a new viewing centre. This will be a large circular building with windows offering superb panoramic views over the Zwin plain. Visitors will have the opportunity to observe the tide, plants, birds and other aspects of the Zwin in comfort, whatever the weather.
Also in the plans is a modernised Zwin Nature Centre. Its focus will be education, nature development and sustainability. This is also welcome news because the sooner the current centre is shut down the better. It’s a hideously outdated concept that has no place in the ecologically aware 21st century.
I can imagine the original idea seemed a bright one – but that was in 1953 when Count Leon Lippens turned the Knokke royal residence and gardens into a bird zoo. You can imagine someone thinking: “We have all these wild birds in the Zwin, but they’re so far off and difficult to see. I know, let’s catch some of them and put them in cages so people can see them close-up!”
Unfortunately, the results are still visible today. More than 20 cages house birds that can be seen in the wild less than a kilometre away. These include oystercatchers, avocets, turnstones, curlews and godwits – birds that belong to the vast expanses of the salt flats and the estuary. There’s even a cage with seagulls in it. Anyone wanting to look at a gull at close quarters just has to walk along the promenade in Knokke while eating a sandwich.
But the most distressing sights are of a red kite, a black kite and a peregrine falcon. To see these birds in cages, when they are normally seen soaring in the open blue skies, is heart-wrenching.
I hope that the outstanding efforts that have gone into making the network of coastal footpaths such a marvellous and highly attractive new feature of the Zwin will now be channelled to create an equally impressive new Zwin Nature Centre that – unlike the current one – is a credit to the province of West Flanders.