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Look what's growing here

The little River Holzwarche in East Belgium is the focal point of a beautiful nature reserve, a perfect place for walks for young and old alike. And it’s especially rewarding in the company of a guide from the local nature conservation association.

Text: Thomas Zwicker Picture: Jochen Tack 

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Spot the difference: the Holzwarche Valley is home to numerous rare grasses.

From high up on the hiking trail everything in the valley below comes into clear view. Down by the little River Holzwarche, a small herd of water buffaloes has settled. One of these mighty animals is clearly enjoying a roll on the muddy riverbank. "The water buffaloes are here to help maintain the landscape,” says Alexander Rauw, from the East Belgian nature conservation organisation Natagora/RNOB. “They eat away the bushes that would otherwise get out of hand."

Alexander, who studied landscape architecture, is a nature guide. Today he’s leading a walk through the Holzwache Valley with two young girls, Claire and Olivia, and their father, Jörg. They start at the Enkelberger mill in Büllingen. From there, the five-kilometre circular trail leads via Rocherath to Mürringen. The route largely follows the course of the river, but it is not always easy to see it, as trees and bushes often block the view. But that’s not a problem with Alexander at hand, and there’s always plenty of flora and fauna to identify and explain. The children and their father listen closely.

Many rare plants are growing right beside the path

The River Holzwarche, whose entire course has been preserved in a relatively natural state, rises at an altitude of 660 metres in the small village of Losheimergraben, on the German-Belgian border, then flows in a north-westerly direction and flows into the Bütgenbach reservoir. Since 1978, a protected area has been created here, which today covers around 80 hectares – the showpiece of the Natagora/RNOB (Réserves naturelles ornithologiques de Belgique).

It's astounding what can be found growing right beside the path. Aromatic, fennel-related spignel, for example, or great burnet, with flowerheads that look a bit like raspberries and which can grow a metre tall (a favourite plant of Alexander's); the narrow-leaved willowherb (with its pink flowers) and the heart-shape-leaved harebell (with blue flowers). Meadowsweet, black knapweed, bistort, pheasant’s eye and plentiful other species explode into blooms at different times of the year.

The upper reaches of the Holzwarche serves as a kind of natural water tank; even in midsummer it remains constantly moist on account of the many springs here. The boggy soil functions like a sponge, storing large amounts of water. Wet heaths and meadows, moor birch forests, fens with cotton-grasses, matgrass and bog asphodel thrive magnificently. On some valley slopes, the biological diversity is exceptionally high; for example, more than 190 plant species have been identified in less than two hectares of meadow, including several endangered species.

In addition, many rare bird species live here, including the spotted nutcracker, red crossbill and boreal owl. Grey wagtails search for insects along the river; kingfishers go hunting for small fish. The children's eyes widen as their gaze falls on a butterfly that Alexander has caught for them in a net.

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The rich diversity of its plants makes the Holzwarche Valley a true butterfly paradise.

Every year in April, a festival of daffodils

Our little group has a rest at the refuge located at the lowest point of the valley. There’s a bridge over the narrow river where fish can be spotted making ripples in the water below. Now it’s time to head back, up a gravel path that leads to a ridge with views across the valley, over old, gnarled trees and pasture. The final section passes through the understorey of woodland and crosses the Holzwarche Valley for the last time before returning to the departure point. The father and the children are a bit tired, but happy. Why does Alexander Rauw love his job so much? “It’s a huge pleasure to be able to enjoy the peace and the landscape, in all the seasons, which are each so different here.” During the summer you can find cool spaces in the valley. Autumn offers a bright blaze of colour, and in winter it is not uncommon for a 50-centimetre layer of snow to cover the landscape. "But spring is particularly spectacular," says Alexander. Then daffodils light up the banks of the Holzwarche near Rocherath, and whole meadows are carpeted in bright yellow.

Every year in mid-April a daffodil festival takes place at the Enkelberger mill, organised by Natagora. After that, peace returns again to the Holzwarche Valley. The only sounds to be heard then are those of nature – and the occasional footsteps of hikers.

Nature trails & pleasure tours

All nature-lovers in search of hands-on, outdoor experience will love these short, informative nature trails, and there are plenty of different themes to choose from. Most of the tours are suitable for the whole family. The longer “pleasure tours” are designed to take hikers through the most impressive landscapes of East Belgium.