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LIFE Dommeldal A cross-border Natura 2000 project From source to Hageven - De Plateaux

For years the Belgian NGO Natuurpunt and her Dutch counterpart Natuurmonumenten are collaborating on nature conservation in het Hageven and De Plateaux. LIFE project Dommeldal marvelously illustrates the transgressing character of the Natura 2000 network.

De Plateaux Vloeiweiden in de Watering


The practical nature of the project resulted in the restoration of valuable habitats from Peer in Flanders up to Valkenswaard in the Netherlands. Typical Campine nature such as land dunes, purple heathlands, sparkling fens, florissant irrigated grasslands (‘vloeiweiden’), orchid rich hayfields and alluvial forests were restored. New opportunities were created for threatened species such as the mysterious European nightjar, the secretive Natterjack toad and the enigmatic Alcon Blue. This folder shows the values of Dommeldal nature and explains the management practices. Enjoy reading!




Copying from this publication can only be encouraged. In that way, the nature reserve Dommeldal will gain more support en will be better known. This publication should, however, be referred to by citing it’s authors Natuurpunt and Natuurmonumenten. It was realized during the course of the large-scale and cross-border LIFE project Dommeldal. Editors: Joost Dewyspelaere and Michel Hendrix Graphic Design: Natuurpunt Pictures: Diane Appels, Michel Hendrix, David Verheyen, Hugo Willocx, Wim Dirckx, Joost Dewyspelaere, Dieder Plu, Leo Vaes, Theo Geuens, Albert Mertens, Natuurmonumenten Responsible Publisher: Chris Steenwegen, Natuurpunt, Coxiestraat 11, 2800 Mechelen More info and contact: or

Bezoekerscentrum Hageven Tussenstraat 10 • 3910 Neerpelt Telefoon 011-80 26 77 Projectcoördinator Natuurpunt: Joost Dewyspelaere Coxiestraat 11 • 2800 Mechelen 003215-29 72 28

Projectcoördinator Vereniging Natuurmonumenten: Michel Hendrix Barrier 15a 5571TV Bergeijk T 0031 40-2068331 M 0031 6-54295323

Boundary post

Dommel marshes

Eurasian Curlew

Collaborating for superb cross-border nature Natuurpunt and Natuurmonumenten

Real Campine nature Cross-border Dommeldal manifests as a vast nature reserve. The river Dommel originates from small brooks in Peer and Helchteren, at the northern slope of the Kempens Plateau. Year round the river drains tons of spring water. Close to the border, the Dommel is considered a medium-sized, fast flowing streamlet. For centuries the Dommel flowed through a typical heathland with distinct land dunes and fens. Alongside its pathway small settlements developed. Due to the typical economical system of that time, those small settlements were surrounded by small scale crop fields and wet grasslands arose. Cattle, mainly cows but later on also sheep, grazed the heatland vegetation. Poverty was the daily bread for the Dommeldal inhabitants. However, when the large canals in the Campine were constructed hope for a better living revived. Irrigating the scarce soils with calcareous water from the River Meuse boosted their productivity. These irrigated grasslands were now considered as ‘vloeiweiden’.

Nature in suppression Historical land use resulted in heathland mosaics where white land dunes, purple heathland areas, sparkling fens and florissant wet grasslands flourish. These habitats offer good chances for rare heathland flora and fauna such as Marsh Gentian, Bog Asphodel, Green Hairstreak, European Nightjar and Natterjack toad. Modern agricultural practices developed during the 20th century. The land use intensified and fens were drained, heathlands were ploughed or planted with pines and hayfields were planted with poplars. Fortunately these land use shift ceased where replaced by nature restoration. Generally European nature is under great pressure. Hence the European Natura 2000-network’ was defined. Its purpose to protect and restore prime European habitats for the long-term.

LIFE LIFE is the nature restoration program of the European Commission aiming to reinforce the Natura 2000-network. Innovative projects which aim at increasing both nature values as the social environment gain support. LIFE Dommeldal included both. The cross-border project passed from 01/01/2004 until 30/09/2011. In total € 5 818 650 was spend; the European Commission granted € 2 676 579.

Project objectives The most important purpose of LIFE Dommeldal included the cross-border, large-scale restoration of heathlands and river valleys. Many European habitat types are found along the Dommel.

Habitat type


Dry heathland types on sandy soils


Inland dunes


Oligotrophic fens


Fen edges


Benthic Chara vegetations


Wet heatland types, Mores or Bogs


Dry heathland types


Nardus grasslands


Nutrient poor Mollinia meadows


Lowland hay meadows


Peat-forming vegetations


Calcareous fens with Cladium


Alluvial forests


Also,several species were targeted: • Floating Water-plantain • Eurasian Bittern • Little Bittern • Western Marsh Harrier • Bluethroat • European Nightjar • Wood Lark • Tawny Pipit Improving landscape attractiviness is another important priority. The first step in nature conservation is to secure the landscape. Therefore, the purchase of land is an important first step to ensure nature restoration.

foot note: More information on this topic is provided on the internet.

Landdunes Hageven

Agricultural land before nature restoration

Work in progress

Agricultural land after restoration

Heaths in suppression Formerly the landscape in ‘Hageven-De Plateaux’ and its surrounding merely consisted of vast heathland. Nowadays only small relicts remain… Upstream of the Dommel valley heaths disappeared completely, whereas only small fragments remain at military grounds of the Kempens Plateau. Due to fragmentation and isolation typical heathland fauna and flora are suppressed. Many species are now on the brink of extinction. One of the main actions of LIFE Dommeldal was to maximize opportunities for heathland recovery.

Modern agriculture and heathland From 1940 onwards the heathland area at De Plateaux declined rapidly. About 45ha, the equivalent of 60 soccerfields, was reclaimed for agricultural purposes. The typical landscape of De Plateaux quickly disappeared and was replaced by a monotonous view. Moreover soils were drained with a network of deep trenches. So crop field cultivation was facilitated but wet heaths and fens dried out and heathland specialist species were lost. During LIFE many lots were bartered with local farmers to halter soil degradation and area loss. Thereafter nature restoration could commence: fens, wet and dry heaths and land dunes were restored. A total of 130.000m3 nutrient rich soils was removed and land topography was restored. A dozen fens and smooth transitions towards drier sandy heaths once more mark the landscape view.

Historical land dunes

Restored land dune

Lesser Water-plantain

Restoration of fens and wet heaths During LIFE several fens were restored next to the Flemish-Dutch border. Rare dragonflies such as Banded Darter and Spotted Darter recolonized the area and can be seen from the footpaths. In the vicinity of these fens, ca. 12ha of grass-encroached heaths were restored by sod cutting.

Fen before restoration

Dragonfly “Spotted Darter”

By removing the nutrient rich top soil layer the seed bank is exposed. Typical heathland plants now can recolonize these bare areas. Instead of dense greenish tussocks, purple heathlands appears; Heather and Cross-leaved Heath replace Purple Moor-grass. These spots are also favoured by rare species such as Sundew, Milkwort and Marsh Gentian. An interesting and enjoyable heathland recovers…

The same fen after restoration

woodland conversion and heathland restoration

heaths in restoration

From heaths to forests, from forests to heaths Over the years large areas of heathland reforestered spontaneously or were afforested with softwood trees (Pinus). Total heathland area decreased and the remaining heath patches became even more isolated within a quickly changing landscape. Consequently typical heathland species vanished. For instance, the Alcon Blue went extinct due to the increasing distance between wet heaths at De Plateaux. Reconnecting important habitats is of prime importance. Not only will heathland quality increase but habitat specialist such as the mesmerizing Alcon Blue may be able to recolonize abandoned habitat patches! Therefore, 25ha of uniform softwood stands at Hageven-De Plateaux was removed to restore heath habitats. It’s only a matter of time before the Alcon Blue once again flutters through the wet heaths.

Silver-studded Blue

Marsh Gentian

Typical heathland vegetation with Suwdew after removal if the top bottom layer

project area existing heathland restored heathland network existing heathland network restored heathland

Flower-rich heath two years after restoration from Resterheide

Wood Lark

A network of heaths Heaths disappeared almost completely at upstream parts of the Dommel in contrary to the military fields were large heathlands persisted. Hence, typical heathland fauna and floras vanished due to isolation effects and a decrease of heathland quality. Species exchange halted and many species went extinct.

between the remaining heathlands. In the headwaters of the Bollisserbeek heaths were restored at three locations. Next to it, monotonous softwood stands were cut at Resterheide (Hechtel-Eksel) and Heihuiskens (Peer). By removing the litter layer (sod cutting), the long-living seed bank was exposed and heath can now regenerate.

Mainly less mobile species groups such as arthropods are sensitive for such radical landschape changes. Grayling, Ilex Hairstreak, Silver-studded Blue and silver-spotted skipper are on the brink of being extinct in this region. During LIFE the network function was restored by creating small patches of heath which now serve as stepping stones

Approximately 15ha of small heathland patches were restored. Such stepping stones are essential to functionally connect the remaining military heathlands.

The Dommel marshes At Hageven the Dommel marshes are particularly valuable. The extensieve reed beds attract rare birds such as Eurasian Bittern, Western Marsh Harrier and Savi’s Warbler. The western marshes are fed by seepage, rising fresh spring water reaching the ground level. As a result a very particular vegetation type evolved. Without any doubt these so called ‘Calcareous Cladium fens’ are one of the most attractive spots in Hageven. These fens are named after the most abundant plant species here, Great Fen-Sedge (Cladium mariscus).

The area of these rare fens was substantially enlarged during the LIFE project. Reed beds were transformed to benefit regrowth of Great FenSedge and accompanying marsh plants. The removal of these reed beds was compensated along the river Dommel. That way, typical reed birds still are able to breed of winter at Hageven. Also, meadows along the Dommel were rewetted by creating small scale depressions and impounding the ground water level.

Bog Asphodel, a typical plant of wet heaths

Seepage area two years after sod cutting at the border zone between heathland and the Dommel marshes

Western Marsh Harrier, a common breeding bird at the Dommel marshes

Hayfields loaded with orchids! Especially the beautiful flower-rich hayfields mark the Dommel valley. These rare grasslands are mainly found nearby Eksel. Historically, the transition zone between the heaths and the river valley was characterized by a substantial area of ‘Nutrient poor Mollinia meadows’. This grassland type is quite rare throughout Europe; with Flanders only comprising a few hectares. After being abandoned for decades, Natuurpunt has been managing some of these flower rich meadows from the nineties onwards. Within LIFE more nutrient poor meadows were restored by removing woody regrowth. Afterwards these areas can be mown. During LIFE specialized machinery was bought to enable mowing of such vulnerable wet meadows. Such management, however, still needs a lot of effort… The results are incredible! In total 8ha of flower-rich, wet Mollinia meadows were restored.

Nutrient poor Molinia meadow with Devil’s-bit Scabious

Heath-spotted Orchid at a flower-rich Molinia meadow

Molinia meadows are easily mown with a Soft Track

The Large Marsh Grasshopper is a typical inhabitant of wet meadows

After the onset of grazing, this former corn field provides ideal opportunities for species rich arthropod communities

Queen of Spain Fritillary finally found its way back

Alluvial forests and grazing Alluvial forests Beside flower-rich meadows, the Dommel valley is well-known for its wet alluvial forest. However, indigenous forest species are under pressure from alien species which modify both forest structure and growth conditions. Control of these alien species such as Black Cherry, was one of the main targets of LIFE Dommeldal. Elsewhere, afforestation with pine trees or poplars degraded the landscape. These man-made woodlands negatively affect the abiotic conditons and hence were removed. Such radical restoration measures disturb the environment. However, after a couple of years alluvial forests regenerate. During the course of this LIFE project 20ha of wet forests were restored.

Weekend residences The natural character and the beauty of both Dommel and Bolisser valley was marred by illegal weekend residences. These cottages were out of use, and during LIFE about twenty of them were bought and afterwards removed. With it, alien and garden species were eradicated.

Grazing Together with mowing grazing reverses vegetation succession, thus preserving heaths and nutrient poor meadows. Natuurpunt therefore set up 16km of cattle fences at Hageven and the Dommel valley. Now, 55ha can be grazed. This management is cost-effective as local farmers graze their livestock in both areas. Yet, mowing and haymaking preceed grazing to deplete the soil nutrients and restore their colorful character.

Irrigated grasslands and water management Amidst the 19th century irrigated grasslands appeared all throughout the Flemish and Dutch Campine area. These so-called ‘vloeiweiden’ were constructed for haymaking. This hay was used especially to feed horses. As heathland are very nutrient poor, manuring was necessary. Therefore, calcareous river water from the River Meuse was led towards these grassaland complexes. This water was conveyed from Maastricht by an extensive network of entrance channels and smaller ductules. At his height, ca. 25.000ha of vloeiweiden were present! Due to the liming effect of

the Meuse water, an exceptionally flower-rich grassland type developed. After nearly half of century, however, only a fraction of these irrigated grasslands remained in the Netherlands (Pelterheggen) andin Flanders (Lommel-Kolonie). Preserving these valuable grasslands as well as their historical farming system, was also purposed by LIFE Dommeldal.

Pelterheggen Natuurmonumenten proudly presents the restoration of Pelterheggen! By mending the historical infrastructure of the ‘vloeiweiden’ irrigating the neglected grassland (weteren) was again made possible. Every weir, dam or aqueduct was renewed to restore ruderalized vegetations. In addition, several poplar plantations were cut to expand the typical flower-rich character. For instance, the rare Western Marshorchid profited greatly. Also, by constructing new footpaths access is granted for keen visitors.

Restoration of the irrigated grasslands, locally known as ‘vloeiweiden

Positioning of the brand new aqueduct

Meadow Saffron

Western Marsh-orchid

Typical vegetations of the irrigated grasslands and Lommel-Kolonie Vloeiweiden at Lommel-Kolonie

During the breakdown of grassland irrigation systems, many of these lands were transformed to agricultural fields. Hence, land-use intensified as crop fields or were sown with Ryegrass. During LIFE Dommeldal Natuurpunt was able to purchase several of these valuable grasslands. Due to former plowing the historical infrastructure was highly degraded .To restore the irrigatarion network of these grasslands, therefore large-scale improvements were needed. Natuurpunt volunteers collaborated readily with the LIFE workers to restore 7ha of ‘vloeiweide’! As the irrigation was hindered by unrigged sluices, new ones were installed throughout the area. Now, these grasslands flourish and find their way to a bright future!

Meadow Saxifrage

The Black Rampion is typical for flower-rich, irrigated grasslands

Volunteers restore the irrigated grasslands together with LIFE workers

Every inch matters when reconstructing the ‘vloeiweiden’

Don’t forget to enjoy! A walk through Europe finest nature… All areas of LIFE Dommeldal were subject to considerable changes. Now everyone can enjoy this tremendous nature whenever the feel like! At Hageven – De Plateaux all footpaths are reconstructed consistent with the re-establishment of sustainale nature. By restoring fens and the enlargement of the Dommel marshes tranquility returned to the Dommel valley. Certain zones, however, certainly need more quietness. Therefore a suspension bridge was constructed to span the Dommel. Afterwards, the pad continues along one of the loveliest land dunes. At De Plateaux a ‘quiet zone’ now surrounds the restored fens. Birds can easily be observed from an observation platform. Also the straight paths which led through the forests and heathlands are replaced by an adventurous, winding network of smaller walkaways. A new folder depicts these new paths. Whenever visiting the Dommel valley, don’t forget to visit the marvelous visitors centre! A brand new exhibition presents the nature values at Hageven – De Plateaux and provides detailed information of the rare fens.

Until now, the beautiful rural part of the Dommel valley was inaccessible for tourists. Between the villages of Eksel, Wijchmaal and Molhem there were no recreational tracks. LIFE Dommeldal ascertained a smooth connection between these rustic villages by creating two bridges and several kms of new footpaths. This pleasant walk leads through the mesmerizing alluvial forests, the wet meadows and the rural bocage landscape. It is recommended to enjoy the Dommeldal nature during early spring when thousands of Crocus’ are blooming. Especially the irrigated grasslands of Lommel Kolonie are worthwhile! Later on, during summer, these grasslands resemble flower)rich Alopine meadows. Throughly beautiful they are. At the museum ‘Wateringhuis’ the unique hydrological system and the management measures are explained in detail. During autumn the new footpath at Pelterheggen provides a bewildered view with tens of thousands of blooming Meadow Saffrons.

Marsh Gentian

Meadow Saffron

Common Lizard

Moor Frog

Results Action



Land aqcuisition


82 ha

Renting-free agricultural enclave De NL Plateaux

9 ha

Restoring heathlands and fens at former NL agricultural fields

43 ha

Restoration fens at heathland location

BE en NL

8 ha

Improving heathland quality

BE en NL

37 ha

Expanding the eastern Hageven heaths


4 ha

Enlarging the Dommel marshes


11 ha

Restoring the irrigation infrastructure at NL Pelterheggen


Enlarging flower-rich grasslands at Pel- NL terheggen

6 ha

Reconstructing irrigated grasslands at BE Lommel kolonie

7 ha

Restoring wet, nutrient poor, orchid-rich BE meadows at Dommel valley

8 ha

Restoring alluvial forests at Dommel BE valley

20 ha

Redeveloping heaths at the source area BE of Dommel valley

15 ha

Setting-up cattle fences


18 km

Removal oif illegal cottages


22 structures

The location of these works can be found at the LIFE project website.

A pleasant home Thanks to LIFE Dommeldal several treathened species were rescued from certain extinction and now face a sustainable and bright future. • • • • • • • • • •

the area of Lowland hay meadows at Pelterheggen has doubled; plants such as Meadow Saffron, Meadow Saxifrage and Cowslip swiftly returned appr. 70ha of heathlands were restored at De Plateaux where the area of wet heaths, dry heaths, land dunes and oligotrophic fens increased substantially the number of breeding pairs of European Nightjar increased Common Lizard and Moor Frog spread throughout the whole area rare plants such as Lousewort and Round-leaved Sundew recolonized Dommeldal the numbers of Marsh Gentian increased exponentially, which favours Alcon Blue Grayling and Blue-winged Grasshopper are favoured by heathland corridors the number of orchids increased substantially in the Oligotrophic Molinia meadows Queen of Spain Fritillary recolonized the Dommel valley …

Because of this LIFE-project, the Dommel valley became an important core area for these and many other species. From its source up to Hageven - De Plateaux the NATURA 2000-network was strengthened in this cross-bored region.

Join Natuurpunt! Almost 90.000 families already joined Natuurpunt. Together, we encourage the Flemish Government to protect and preserve more nature in Flanders. A family membership only costs €24 ! Joining Natuurpunt is easy. Simply deposit €24 on the account 230-0044233-21 (IBAN = BE17 2300 0442 3321 • BIC = GEBABEBB)

Once a Natuurpunt member, you enjoy several benefits: •

the magazine Natuur.blad appears every three months, loaded with information on Flemish nature

the local volunteers invite you to participate during several activities and a local newsletter is received

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a CD with common bird sounds is received





Natuurmonumenten courageously seeks to protect nature in the Netherlands. Both for mankind and nature we have been safeguarding a colorful and enjoyable environment for over a century. Therefore, purchasing and managing nature reserves like De Plateaux will always be worthwhile our efforts. Meanwhile, Natuurmonumenten preserves and protects more than 100 nature reserves. To do so, we still rely on thousands of helping hands from our volunteers. Your support still is necessary. Surf to http://steun. and make a donation on giro 9933. Or even better: join Natuurmonumenten, it will only cost you two euro a month. Natuurmonumenten Postbus 9955 • 1243 ZS ’s-Graveland • +31 035-655 99 11 Plateaux

Laymans report LIFE Dommeldal  

LIFE project Dommeldal marvelously illustrates the transgressing character of the Natura 2000 network. The practical nature of the project...