Pilot site Vallei van de Zwarte Beek: state of play

The ‘Vallei van de Zwarte Beek’ in the eastern part of Belgium (province Limburg) is internationally known as a hotspot for biodiversity with large contiguous natural units with high natural value. It is the largest nature reserve managed by Natuurpunt. 

The most valuable aspect, however, is what lies beneath, the soil. It consists of dead plant material that has been accumulated for thousands of years which resulted in a thick peat bog that in some areas reaches up to 7 meters deep. This is not only the substrate of all that biodiversity but the peat is also of great importance for water retention, storage of greenhouse gasses and it has a great water purifying ability. Due to global warming, land use and fragmentation, the area has a lot of negative influences that threaten it’s buffering capacity. 

With Interreg Care-Peat, Natuurpunt wants to counter this by restoring 250ha of degraded peat with a subsequently sustainable adaptive management. Restoring a natural water balance is a crucial first step, small drainage watercourses and ditches are releveled or dampened in order to keep the peat wet. This prevents the further release of the stored greenhouse gasses. 

Stake-holder involvement is necessary to accomplish the goal of the Care-Peat project and create a long-term engagement to preserve the peat-bog. Several consultations with private land-owners, governmental organisations, local municipalities and watercourse managers will be organised during the project.

The rewetting process starts with a field inventory wherein GIS-data is collected to map the actual situation (e.g. vegetations surveys, peat-depth, land use, changes/fluctuations of water tables, digital height profile). 

The area for measures is approx. 450ha, this is a perimeter zone wherein we can implement larger scale hydrological measures in collaboration with the waterboard managers. These adaptations and measures will have a direct or indirect (long-term) impact on the Care-Peat Target Zone. The latter is the actual 250ha peat of the Pilot area in the Nature Reserve. In the target zone itself we will define small-scale measures like removal of scrub, restoration of the topography of the surface, closing ditches etc. Main focus is restoration of the hydrology system.

The pilot site is divided into 7 areas where detailed measures are defined to restore the peat. The main area is in the midstream part of the Valley where the peat body is approximately 1500m wide and 1,5-2m deep. This is also the area which has the strongest degradation of the peat due to land-use and active drainage., 

In addition to restoring the peat area, we also develop sustainable techniques for the adaptive management of these biotopes, e.g. track-machines and swamp mowers equipped with the most modern techniques and strictest emission standards. 

Managing peat areas also requires a lot of terrain knowledge and adaptive management (responding to terrain situations, climate change, etc.). Therefore Natuurpunt works together with Natuur- en Landschapszorg vzw, to develop more know-how in the management of peatlands in a sustainable way. They will use a mix of technology and manual labour to be able to fill the needs of the pilot site to the maximum. 

By restoring, managing and protecting this contiguous peat area, the ecological richness will be restored as well. Rare bird species such as snipe, black-tailed godwit and spotted crake and common crane are eligible to come back as a regular breeding bird in the restored areas. Increasing the water level is also an important condition to develop healthy populations of dragonflies.

State of Play

The first step to rehabilitating this degraded peatland is to restore the water table and rewet the surface area. For the moment the peatland is literally draining. In the past ditches were installed in the valley to transform the typical peat bogs into productive grasslands that were mowed by conventional agricultural machinery.

So, Natuurpunt started the restoration works by closing up all local ditches. At this stage only on their own property. These works are carried out by their partner Natuur- en Landschapszorg vzw. It is estimated that approximately 15 km of ditches will be closed in the upcoming months. Where superficial drainage still has to be provided (e.g. for a neighbouring private owner), ditches will merely be made less deep. It can already be noticed that the seepage water remains present, which is beneficial for the peat itself but also for peat-bound plant species and vegetations. Also, Natuur- en Landschapszorg is cleaning up remnants of fences and illegal cottages in the valley.

At the moment, Natuurpunt is working on a sustainable management plan. They will be able to manage the rewet area with adapted machines such as tractors with low-pressure tyres.

In the upcoming months another 10 ha of habitat restoration will be carried out. This consists of the removal of forest and scrub, restoration of hydrology and also the remediation of an old pond. These works will be carried out by a contractor. End is foreseen in April 2021. These repaired plots will contribute to a better protection of the peat layer, it will prevent further drying of the peat and will realise an open peat valley.

In the meantime, a stakeholder consultation has also been started with the Flemish Land Agency in order to look into the possibility to relocate private landowners that are now based in the middle of the pilot site.

Unfortunately, due to the imposed COVID-19 measures, site visits with local residents, landowners and farmers are not possible. For the time being, these activities will be postponed to the beginning of 2021.

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