European effort brings wilderness back to Sonian Forest


As part of the European Rewilding Network, the forest on the outskirts of Brussels is ramping up its efforts to create a more hospitable habitat for its wild inhabitants

Into the wild

This year, spring arrived at the Sonian Forest with some important news. The forest on the outskirts of Brussels has been integrated into the European Rewilding Network, joining the ranks of such illustrious nature reserves as the Danube Delta in Romania and the Coa Valley in Portugal.

“We don’t quite fit the profile of the network’s typical members,” says Patrick Huvenne, the Sonian Forest’s regional manager. “The other forests are much larger and require a very different management approach. It is, however, a welcome recognition of our efforts in recent years to give wildlife and nature a more prominent place in the Sonian.”

The membership is an outcome of the Sonian’s co-operation with European counterparts on other projects. The main one is Life+ OZON, which includes a series of measures intended to restore and reconnect the forest. Because of  its location in the middle of a very densely populated area, the Sonian is intersected by roads and railway lines, resulting in a phenomenon known as ecological fragmentation.

Over the past few years, efforts have been made to reconnect the forest’s isolated remnants. “In Tervuren, for example, we constructed two tunnels under one of the roads so that amphibians can cross safely,” says Huvenne. “Elsewhere, we put reflectors along the roads to prevent animals from being run over.” Other tunnels run under the railway lines, providing animals with a safe passage.

Cross-border cooperation

“In March, we began constructing a new wildlife crossing, known as an ecoduct, in the Groenendaal area” Huvenne continues, referring to a neighbourhood in the town of Hoeilaart, which borders Brussels. “That should allow the animals to cross the Brussels Ring unharmed.”

By 2017, he adds, 10 more crossings will be constructed both under and over different roads that cut through the Sonian. “But our work is definitely not done. The forest still has some man-made barriers, and it is too early to see what effect our work has had on the local wildlife.”

We are working across regional boundaries because forests do not exist in isolation

- Patrick Huvenne

One thing is certain: The animals make use of the new passages. “We know this because the tunnels have cameras with which we monitor the projects.”

Then, there are the invisible borders that divide the Sonian. The forest spans the Brussels-Capital, Flemish and Walloon regions. While the animals are not concerned with regional divisions, this does call for management co-ordination between different departments. “We are working across regional boundaries,” says Huvenne. “Forests do not exist in isolation. The quality of water or the wildlife crossings, for example, are things that require wider co-operation.”

Scottish highlanders

In 2014, the forest managers introduced Scottish highland cattle into the area. The three animals (one of them pictured) graze in a field near Groenendaal, keeping it from overgrowing. “They bring a more natural dynamic to the forest,” says Huvenne.

In the near future, the Sonian’s managers also plan to extend the forest’s protected areas. As part of the European Rewilding Network, “all these measures should help create a more natural environment,” says Huvenne.

Will the public notice the re-wilding of the Sonian Forest? “The ecoducts are very visible, but the other infrastructure will be less obtrusive,” Huvenne explains. “The forest’s appearance is changing, albeit slowly.”

The forest reserves will look visibly wilder, he explains, with much more dead wood on the ground. “Elsewhere, we have cleared stretches of land to promote the growth of habitats, such as heath."

While these man-made clearings affect how the forest looks, they make up only a small portion of the Sonian. “And besides,” Huvenne adds, “they do contribute to a wilder ecosystem by creating rich and varied habitats.”