The Sonian Forest is much more than the most important green space in the Brussels Region, the largest deciduous forest in Flanders and the most extraordinary beech forest in Belgium. It is an ancient woodland, with an exceptional and very well-documented history. As a uniquely preserved landscape dating back to the end of the last Ice Age, it has an exceptional ecosystem with a fauna and flora that is miraculously rich for an urban forest. Partly located within the Brussels-Capital Region, home to over one million inhabitants, this green oasis suffers from intensive recreational pressures, but air and water pollution and the effects of climate change also threaten the ecological balance of the forest. The Sonian Forest has three main functions: ecological, social, and economic. Nowadays, the ecological, social (and landscape) functions are more important than its economic role.
These threats and functions are central to the new forest management plans for the coming decades. This medium-term vision for a forest existing for centuries must be seen against the backdrop of a much longer future time horizon. In a coordinated and coherent way, the structural vision creates an interregional framework to achieve common goals in terms of recreation and ecology. It responds to the need to address common challenges and problems affecting all the regions. This has a major impact on the management of the forest as a whole.
The forest in numbers
The Sonian Forest covers a total area of around 5,000 hectares! One very significant feature are the plentiful beech trees, which cover about 2,650 hectares – more than half the forest. In addition, the forest is home to an exceptionally large number of trees with trunks over 80cm wide – on average 5 such trees per hectare!
Belgium’s three administrative Regions are making similar efforts to protect nature, valuing and preserving their heritage whether biological, scenic, geological, archaeological, architectural and the very soil itself. All three are at the basis of the EU’s recognition of large parts of the forest as a Natura 2000 site.
There are three integral forest reserves in the Sonian Forest: Grippensdelle (83 ha) in the Brussels Region, Joseph Zwaenepoel (232 ha) in the Flemish Region and Ticton (23,5 ha) in the Walloon Region. Within these reserves, nature is allowed to simply take its course, with no human intervention. Since 7 July 2017, UNESCO has recognised these forest reserves as a world heritage site.
An eye on the fragile forest
In the course of its history, the forest has undergone major changes as a result of social developments. Still remaining today are some parts of the original ‘Charcoal Forest’ (Silva Carbonaria) dating from the time of the Romans: these include the actual Sonian Forest, Hallerbos and Meerdaalwoud. In order to avoid a further shrinkage of the area, since 1959 the Sonian Forest has been given legal protection as a “Preserved Landscape”. The forest managers are also attentive to other problems affecting the forest, such as motorised traffic, all kinds of pollution, etc. As a result, management measures taken over the last 20 years have already significantly reduced the impact of these problems, and future strategic plans will continue to take this into account.