Les bonnes nouvelles (good news)

Some scenes from an afternoon bike ride through forest and orchard, and a pit stop at my favourite local café, where good news was on offer.

The forest was lush and green
Long grass in the orchard
Wildflowers aplenty: clover and buttercups here
A favourite café in the neighbourhood

A list of good news from around the world was displayed on the board on the pavement outside the café, including:

  • Mexico has banned glyphosate (a broad-spectrum herbicide, used in weed killers) and GM corn.
  • Kazakhstan has abolished the death penalty.
  • Electric fishing is banned in Europe.
  • Herrings communicate through passing gas (good news? Or just funny?)
  • A European law has just been passed against the obsolescence of smart phones and washing machines, which should now have a repairability rating.
  • In the state of Virginia, in the US, capital punishment has been abolished. It is the first southern state in the US to do so.
  • Species previously thought extinct are reappearing, including a species of turtle, wild dog and frog.

It’s a lefty, liberal, environmentally friendly kind of neighbourhood, and I love it for that. I haven’t fact-checked the items on the good news list, but it certainly added an extra touch of sweetness to my latte and crepe with lemon and sugar.

Belgium’s most famous bluebells

This morning I was in Hallerbos (Dutch for Halle Forest), a stretch of woodland in Flemish Brabant, just half an hour’s drive from Brussels. It’s famed for its carpet of blue at this time of year: it’s not just England that can boast this beautiful spring phenomenon!

Bluebells are often an indicator of very old woodland, and Hallerbos is a remnant of the ancient charcoal forest that once covered vast swathes of Europe, now scattered and dissected by roads and settlements, and of course greatly reduced from its original size. Hallerbos also suffered the misfortune of being razed by German forces during world war one, but was replanted, mainly with tall, stately beech, between 1930-1950.

Now in the interests of honesty, I will tell you that this lovely forest has a major downside. There’s a great big roaring motorway running right alongside, audible above the birdsong even when you venture deep inside. I notice that people tend not to mention this in their Facebook posts. I suppose it’s a reminder that true wilderness is getter harder and harder to find.

Whisperings of war among the marsh daffodils

A prisoner at the camp of Bôsfagne

Where once RAF pilots were shot out of the sky by enemy fire, and Russian prisoners of war awaited their fate in a harsh wilderness, now a patch of naturalised daffodils grows. I’m in the high fens of eastern Belgium, or Ostbelgien, right up against the border with Germany, an atmospheric, wild place, borderland country which once belonged to Prussia, became Belgian after the first world war, only to find itself occupied and its inhabitants forced to fight in the German army in the second world war.

We came here for a much-needed change of scene, to walk in the wooded hills, and to visit Belgium’s largest nature reserve, a remarkable upland plateau of marshland and sphagnum peatbogs, barren, cold, but beautiful, where streams the colour of whisky gurgle through the swampy tussocky marshes and birds of prey hang eerily in the thermals, awaiting the moment to strike.

Boardwalks protect the park and prevent the visitor from sinking into the swamp!
A typical view of the upland plateau

German influences can be seen and felt everywhere in these parts, even though the region is now largely French-speaking. Despite that, Belgium’s German-speaking minority are officially recognised with their own parliament, and German is one of the three official languages of the country. In the village of Sourbroedt (Sour Bread?) a disused train station where those unfortunate Russian prisoners of war disembarked, has an unmistakably Germanic air.

Sourbroedt Station

The rusty trucks parked up on the rails reminded me of the troublesome trucks from the Thomas the Tank Engine stories, and an old signal tour marked the beginning of our walk.

The landscape of wooded hills and small fields gives way to sparse moorland, which like other moors I have visited (Dartmoor and Exmoor in England), has an eerie air to it, a sense of secrets buried in the swamps. It’s also very cold, with patches of snow still on the ground, and the weather is wildly unpredictable: we set off in gentle sunshine, but made it back to our car just as a lively snowstorm was getting underway. This is Belgium’s highest point, where the moist winds coming off the North Sea meet their first major land obstacle, and so it’s often cold, snowy or damp.

Near the highest point of the Hautes Fagnes (High Fens) national park
Here fields give way to the dun-coloured marshes

So it was surprising in the midst of this melancholic landscape to suddenly stumble upon a cheerful cluster of daffodils growing right out of the marshy land. I cannot imagine who planted them, or why, but they have since multiplied and spread, unshackled and free to do as they please.

Not much further on, a striking contrast: the old site of a prisoner of war camp, known as Bôsfagne. Erected in March 1943, it held a group of Russians who had been brought to Sourbroedt by train from the eastern front, and put to work in the fens, cutting wood, clearing snow, working the fields and so on. Not a trace remains of the camp itself, except perhaps a whisper, and a cross in the Russian Orthodox style, which marks the spot. I found the old photographs of the prisoners, displayed on a modest board nearby, haunting.

Life at the prison camp
A cross marks the spot

As the war drew to its conclusion, allied troops approached this part of eastern Belgium, and the prisoners here were transferred to another camp, at Elsenborn, and then deep into Germany. Their fate is unknown, though two died during their internment, both of poisoning: one from eating wild mushrooms, another from indulging in wild game that had clearly past its best.

As we walked on, we came across another reminder of the tragic losses of war, at the site commemorating where an RAF pilot was shot down en route to Cologne.

There’s much older history too, like the medieval castle of Reinhardstein, tucked away on a rocky outcrop in a narrow, wooded valley. As we approached it, the snow started falling, and we were surprised to hear the sound of bagpipes coming from within the castle (I suspect this was for a group of visitors, not a ghostly musician).

Reinhardstein castle

The wet conditions in the woods encourage the damp-loving plants to make their home here. There’s lots and lots of moss, many ferns, and also waterfalls lined with what I now know to be opposite-leaved golden saxifrage, Chrysosplenium oppositifolium. What a lovely feature this European native would make in a garden water cascade.

There were also large colonies of butterbur, Petasites hybridus, in shallow woodland streams. Also known as pestilence wort, or even Devil’s hat, this strange plant with pale pink inflorescences was used in traditional medicine as a treatment for infections and fever.

Among the thickets of woodland, bucolic scenes unfold, adding to the peaceful feeling of the place. Peace perhaps somewhat disturbed by Formula One racing cars, as the Spa-Francorchamps racing circuit is incongruously nestled among the hills. As is often the way in Belgium, it is a place of contradictions.

A country dwelling, looking out across the valley

The only way to choose a tree

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Harry’

For a long time now, I’ve been umming and ahhing and being generally indecisive about getting a new tree for the garden. Regulars will know that I don’t have a big garden, it’s a medium-sized town garden but with a woodland/country feel to it. We live in an area known affectionately as ‘la campagne en ville’ – the countryside in town – and we are lucky to have a whole forest of trees nearby, and lots of trees in the neighbourhood.

Magnolia ‘lolanthe’ buds

I’m still aching for another tree though. One option swimming around my head is a witch hazel. I saw several of them in full flowering splendour at Kreftenbroeck arboretum, a privately owned garden in the Belgian province of Flemish Brabant, which I visited one Sunday in early March. The trees were stunning against a bright blue sky, and I’m enjoying thinking about that right now as today has been grey and cold.

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Moonlight’

The arboretum had a wonderful collection of witch hazels, mainly Hamamelis intermedia, which were grouped together along a secluded pathway that straddled the valley site. I would have missed them entirely, if I hadn’t caught a flash of colour and made my way up the hill to investigate.

A woodland pathway edged with Hamamelis at Kreftenbroeck

One thing that struck me about these trees is that while they are not large or tall, they are wide and spreading. Look how the branches expand outwards and even arch over the pathway. Although they are known to be slow growers, it is clear that they need space to expand and not be crowded out by others.

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘August Lamken’

At their most pretty against a blue sky, they need that backdrop for their flowers to stand out. This made me realise, that stunning as they are, they weren’t going to be right for my garden. The site I have in mind is enclosed on two sides by a wall, covered in climbers, and has the neighbour’s mature trees overhanging it. The space wouldn’t be wide enough, nor the sky expansive enough.

Sharp yet curvaceous beech hedging

This didn’t mean that there weren’t plenty of other ideas from Kreftenbroeck that could be applied even on a small scale. Look at the wonderful structure this curved beech hedge adds, enhancing the natural contours of the hill. Sharp hedging is a big thing in Belgian gardens, and it adds so much structure and interest when designed imaginatively.

Yew clipped to perfection to make an intriguing arch, softened by more organic shapes at ground level

The usefulness and practicality of wood, as well as its beauty, were nicely demonstrated in this unusual bench.

And finally, here’s an idea to hide an ugly or dead patch in a hedge. Clever, isn’t it?

Making the most of a gap in the hedge

So the lesson I learnt from those beautiful witch hazels was to always see a tree growing at its best, in maturity, before making that all important decision. Perhaps a crab apple then…

Birds in the Big Freeze

The large lake at the medieval priory of Rouge Cloitre has completely frozen over, as temperatures here have plummeted to -10 degrees C, and so I take an early morning walk, imagining what it’s like to live in Siberia. As I take the photo, my hands already start to tingle with the cold; too long framing the shot and they start hurting. But what about the birds who live by the lake, like the blue heron who you might be able to spot in these photos? How are they coping with the cold?

Here, the heron finds a sunny vantage point, though there’s not much fishing to be had.

Well, I think life is tough right now for our feathered friends. Take a look at these little black balls with a dusting of frost. These are poor little coots, all huddled together in a small patch of water, heads tucked deeply in, together with a couple of Egyptian geese. Brrrr…

I have never seen so many ducks gathered by one small puddle of water.

As I was wandering around, I passed a man walking his dog, who greeted me and remarked how the place had become féerique, which means fairy-like, or magical, in French. It was indeed quite special, something I could appreciate when I wasn’t slipping all over the icy path (they don’t treat the paths in this reserve).

Slipping off this path would mean sliding down the steep bank and onto the solid surface of the lake. Ice skating, anyone?

The birds out of the water looked somewhat more comfortable, like this cormorant looking out onto the lake from a treetop.

The robin had puffed out his feathers, and was staying in the sun.

At the priory, the central heating was on, and at the stables a dung heap was steaming away. Warmth! Nobody was sitting out on the benches though. Cold! I was starting to feel it, and at a brisk pace, made my way back, wondering how cold the birds must feel.

On the boardwalk

“Under the boardwalk”, as the song goes. But can you spot anyone on the boardwalk?

It’s an Egyptian Goose, perhaps a little surprised – it could be the visual effect of the brown circle around his eyes, or it could be genuine astonishment at the snow, of which there is very little in Egypt! Egyptian Geese are two a penny here – we have got used to them, and apparently they have got used to the weather.

Then we came across another exotic visitor, which I have seen along the banks of the Nile, but never before in Belgium. It’s an egret. What’s the difference between a heron and an egret? Nobody is sure, it seems. The name egret comes from the French Aigrette, which means ‘silver heron’ and also ‘brush’. Though snowy white rather than silver is more accurate.

Their feathers were highly prized by European and American hat-makers in the 19th century, which sadly meant these beautiful birds were killed in large numbers. Senselessly cruel as this seems, we still kill animals for fashion – the Covid-19 outbreaks in mink farms in the Netherlands, Denmark and elsewhere recently highlighted the scale of mink farming in Europe. This article from Politico makes a solid case for banning mink farming in Europe, and I can’t imagine why that hasn’t happened yet.

A world away from such horrors, the snow draped everything with a gentle frosty coating.

Everything was quiet and still. Even the ducks dived quietly, and the Canada goose (more used to snow, this one) glided gently away.

The medieval priory of Rouge Cloitre in the background. Lakes were stocked with fish for the monks.

Belgian Garden Birdwatch: 06-07 Feb 2021

While we wait with great anticipation for spring, the birds seem to be a step ahead, and are singing away as if they can already feel the soft rays of sunshine and the surge of new growth. These photos were taken before today’s snow. I did try to take some snowy pics but they turned out grainy – too much noise due to a high ISO to make up for poor light. Still got a lot to learn.

This weekend is Belgium’s annual garden birdwatch, which we have participated in for a few years now. Organised by the wildlife charity Natagora, anyone in Belgium can take part: there’s more info on their website. Here are a few of our regular avian visitors:

1 Blue tits: little colonies scamper energetically around the feeders, flitting in and out at great speed. Catching them on camera can be tricky!

Blue tit
Blue tit

2 Robin: as lovely for the red breast (or orange breast really?) as for his piercing and melodic song. These fellows have a reputation for aggressively guarding their territory.

Robin

3 Starling: hanging around in boistrous, noisy groups of four to six, these remind me of a pack of adolescent youths, sauntering around like they own the place, yet awkward and definitely spotty too. We have a pair that usually nest in the eves.

Starling

4 Blackbird: the female here looks a bit like a song thrush, but has more indistinct spots on the breast. There are a couple of males around too, possibly vying for her attention, though in this photo she doesn’t look too happy about it. It’s good to see them around, given that their numbers were in serious decline due to the Usutu virus.

Female blackbird

5 Wood pigeon: their cooing in the trees around here is a frequent and soothing background sound. I think they have a lovely plummage.

Wood pigeon

6 Rose-ringed parakeet: they are back and up to their usual tricks! Looks like this one dropped his sunflower seed in the water. The legend goes that a zoo-keeper in Brussels set them free to make this sometimes grey city more colourful. They have bred very successfully, and there are several garrulous flocks of them around the place. I have a sneaking suspicion that they are responsible for eating the buds on my apple tree.

Parakeet

7 Greater spotted Woodpecker. A tap-tap-tapping usually alerts me to his presence up in the mature trees that overhang the garden. It’s always a real treat to see him.

Apart from the above, we had flocks of chaffinches, greenfinches and a dunnock today. All in all, a good year for birds, with higher numbers than the previous two.