Hainaut cross-border Nature Park

Landscape in Escaut Plaines Nature Park (BE) © Archive Escaut Plaines Nature Park

Nature in the heart of urban Europe

At the heart of the highly urbanized north-western region of Europe, between Belgium and Northern France, lies a transboundary nature area which has kept its biodiversity despite human pressure. The Scarpe and the Escaut rivers are the ones that have given their names to the plains of this zone of grasslands, forests, wetlands and agriculture. At the cross-roads of the towns of Douai, Valenciennes, Tournai and Mons, this nature area is rich in natural and cultural heritage, seldom to be found in such a built up region, historically deeply transformed by human action.

The forests to be found in this humid land have been preserved mainly thanks to the poverty of their soil. However, most of the trees making up these forests are relatively young because of the prior destruction due to World Wars. The main trees that are present therein are beech and oak. Nevertheless we can also find species adapted to marshlands such as ash and willow.

There are lots of species of birds and amphibious who commonly live in these wetland habitats. A prime example of habitat is peat bogs, which are still to be found in this zone. These peat bogs were dug out of peat to heat homes in the area and nowadays they have known a renaissance and attracted new species.

The mining heritage of part of this area has left a marked trace on the surface. Interesting examples of this are the numerous ponds that were created due to subsidence provoked by the underground mining galleries. Slag heaps recall the past coal fields underlining the mining identity of the region; they are the single mountains, contrasting and bringing relief to the flatlands of Flanders and Hainaut. Slag heaps have attracted rare species making up a hotspot of biodiversity, housing animals and vegetation benefitting from this bed of dark warmer soil to develop in. Metamorphose of black coal slag has been born again into a magic shimmering silver birch forest.

Crossing the border to protect nature

The geographical position of Scarpe and Escaut plains being surrounded by towns both in France and in Belgium makes it vulnerable to human pressure and especially to urban expansion. That’s why in 1983 the North-Calais Straights Region (France) and the Walloon Region (Belgium) decided not only to protect but also to promote the value of this transboundary nature area, engaging themselves to constitute a cross-border nature park. Both park organizations were since then created on both sides of the boundary; in 1996 the managing authorities from each country began to put in place common actions to preserve the biodiversity and to encourage local sustainable development. Today both park authorities wish to further their collaboration in putting in place a cross-border legal structure managing the area.