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Sonian Forest could become protected national park – but only Flemish section
The Flemish part of the Sonian Forest could soon become a protected national park, while the parts of the forest located in Brussels and Wallonia will not.
The Brabant Woods, which include the Sonian Forest, are candidates to be recognised with the special designation by Flanders, according to Patrick Huvenne, regional manager at the Flemish Agency for Nature and Forests.
At the same time, Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels have recently reached an agreement for better cooperation around the forests.
“They include the whole area around the Sonian Forest, the Meerdaal Forest and the Hallerbos,” Huvenne explained. “These forests used to be connected until the 19th century. People then called it the Coal Forest.”
Within this area are also the river valleys of the Dijle and the Zenne, along with smaller groves. The province of Flemish Brabant, along with some Flemish municipalities, drew up a plan for the Brabant Woods in the hope of winning recognition as a national park.
“It’s mainly about nature enhancement, such as how to restore the old connections between the forests,” Huvenne said.
“To be clear: it's not that we want to fill the whole area with forest again. You can also connect nature through orchards, grasslands and other elements. We also need to pay attention to water in the area and want to bring wells above ground, for example.”
Should the forest receive recognition as a national park, more money would be made available for its maintenance - €608,000 annually - although this could only be spent in the part of the forest located within the territory of the Flemish region.
“Being recognised as a national park gives it great exposure, also internationally,” said Huvenne. “Think of the prominence of American national parks. So we very much want to get that recognition, but we are five candidates for four places.”
The Brabant Woods stretch across the three regions. The Sonian Forest covers 4,383 hectares, of which 38% is located in the Brussels region, 56% in Flanders and 6% in Wallonia. The candidacy was not submitted jointly, instead only by the Flemish coalition Brabantse Wouden.
“This is in fact a Flemish project call, launched in 2019 by the Flemish government – the annual grant will therefore only go to the Flemish part of Brabantse Wouden,” explained Huvenne.
The Walloon government organised a similar competition and the Brabant Woods were a candidate, but they were ultimately not selected.
“The procedure also allows projects that cross regional borders. However, this has to be done inter-regionally, otherwise it makes no sense,” Huvenne said.
“That's why Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels have also signed a declaration of intent for cooperation around the Brabant Forests. This includes this nature link – Brussels built the first ecoduct in the Sonian Forest and wants to build a second one in Boitsfort. We’re also working on ecoducts on the Flemish side.”
There would also need to be cooperation around the reception of visitors, for example in order to reduce the number of car parks in the countryside.
“It’s not appropriate for people to drive their cars into the heart of the forest, but then those areas must be opened up in a different way: by train or by shared bicycles,” Huvenne said.
“So cooperation would be strengthened, but each region will arrange its own funding for this. We hope the other regions will have the same ambition.”