MG 3243

Everything you need to know about the High Fens

Without any doubt, the High Fens are among the most primaeval landscapes in the Eifel and Ardennes and one of the best known tourist highlights in East Belgium.


The High Fens

The moor landscape of the High Fens has been a protected area since 1957. That means that this plateau, 5,000 hectares in size, is not only the oldest conservation area in Wallonia, but also probably the best known nature reserve in Belgium and the jewel of the German-Belgian High Fens – Eifel nature park. Year after year, tourist magnets such as the Signal du Botrange, the highest point or 'roof' of Belgium, and the Baraque Michel with all the stories that surround it, attract the young and the not so young to the High Fens.

But in fact, there's a lot more to be discovered! 67,000 hectares of woodland and moor characterise the High Fens - Eifel region, in which less known attractions from primaeval times and small conservation areas often steal the show from their more famous siblings when it comes to natural beauty, the fascination of their legends or their ecological value.

Prehistory in the hills

There are still some authentic wilderness areas left in the High Fens. And they're right in the middle of the rectangle formed by the towns of Eupen, Monschau, Malmedy and Spa. In the core zone, the slate mountain ridge, reaching heights of up to 694m, stretches skyward. This is where the highest point of the Benelux countries is, too. Some 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age, high moors formed on this barren ground which holds water so well. And these moors still characterise parts of the immense plateau of the Fens today, exuding a rare, primaeval flair.

The plateau is framed by small fenland villages and towns with centuries of history. But the remaining, ancient wilderness areas of the moor are more or less unadulterated, original and wild, and the traces of human settlement they bear have been but minor to this very day. No wonder, as vastness and barrenness predominate in this centuries-old primaeval landscape. Especially in winter, the fens seem inaccessible and, in some unreal way, as if they had come from another age. And that's exactly what increases their charm for hikers and nature-lovers, who feel as if they had been transported back into a dim and distant past for a while.

The soil is low in nutrients, the climate has features which are almost arctic. Here, the clock seems to tick more slowly than elsewhere. Growth proceeds at snail's pace. But how could it be any different in a region which is ruled by winter for eight months of the year and where only four months remain for the seasons of spring, summer and autumn?


 

Nature centres and information points

Naturparkzentrum Botrange 

Nature centre Haus Ternell

Route de Botrange 131
4950 Waimes
T +32 80 44 03 00

www.botrange.be

Ternell 2/3
4700 Eupen
T +32 87 55 23 13

www.ternell.be

One of the most important visitor centres in the High Fens, just a stone's throw from the Signal de Botrange (on the right side when you go from Botrange towards Sourbrodt and Robertville) and near Mont Rigi and Baraque Michel. There are sufficient parking facilities. There's a tourist office, a shop, a museum and a bistro too.

The nature centre Haus Ternell is an acknowledged regional centre of environmental education. The visitor centre is on the N67 between Eupen and Mützenich / Monschau. It constitutes an ideal starting point for a visit to the northern fens (Brackvenn, Allgemeines Venn, Steinley Venn and Kutenhart) and the valleys of the Hill, the Getzbach and the Weser and their tributaries. There are sufficient parking facilities available. There's also a tourist office, a museum and a bistro too.

 

 

Tourist information Signal de Botrange

Tourist information in Mont Rigi
(VoE Haute Ardenne)

Route de Botrange 133 B
4950 Robertville-Waimes
T +32 80 44 73 00

Route de Botrange 167
4950 Waimes
T +32 80 88 17 46 / T +32 80 44 72 73

www.hauteardenne.be

Small tourist information at the Signal de Botrange.

Small tourist information at the entrance to the educational nature trail, including a micro-museum and a boutique.

 


 

Climate and landscape

Wild weather indeed! With 230 days of precipitation and 178 foggy days per year, the mood in the High Fens is predominantly mystical. Often, dense bundles of cloud block out the sky and wafts of mist make it difficult to see the ground. Both these phenomena give the observer the feeling of being in another world, a world full of secrets and myths come alive.

Even the summer is cooler and wetter than average, whilst the winters are long and hard, not infrequently enveloping the landscape with a Siberian chill. Frosts down to -20°C are no exception, with an annual average of 113 days of frost per year. Yet that's not all the winter has to offer! 78 days of snow also speak a very clear language.

The first frost usually comes as early as the end of October. Statistically, the first snow falls shortly after that, on November 10th. Frost and snow often stay until the end of May. It's not until then that more agreeable temperatures follow. An average annual temperature of just 6.5° C – only June, July and August count as frost-free months – leaves just four months for the seasons of spring, summer and autumn.

 

Unique in the northern latitudes

The High Fens have a moor and heath landscape which is otherwise only found in much more northerly latitudes – or much more elevated locations. The cold climate, the high precipitation at a continuously high humidity, and the special composition of the soils have given rise to a flora and fauna which are quite untypical of our climatic region.

There are two natural phenomena that explain the presence of this special ecosystem in Belgium. The plateau of the High Fens is the first obstacle the clouds encounter on their way in off the Atlantic. This results in an above-average precipitation of over 1,400 mm of rain per year and m2. The other phenomenon is the impermeability of the rock, which prevents that precipitation from finding its way down to lower levels. These conditions are conducive to the establishment of wetlands such as moors and swamps.

 

A landscape formed by human hand

A thousand years ago, deciduous forest (beech, alder, birch, oak and others) covered a large part of the plateau. There were only a few moorland areas here and there which were not covered by forest.

Human exploitation of the area began in the Middle Ages. This upset the balance of the habitat completely. Deforestation, grazing, agriculture and peat-cutting gradually transformed the deciduous forest into an expansive heath landscape. In the 19th century, the introduction of the spruce caused fresh upheaval because of the intensive dehydration it required. In the 20th century, it was tourism that led to a different kind of exploitation of the plateau.


 

Streams, rivers, dams

What hapens to the water in the rainy fens? All the rainwater that falls on the noble head of Belgium, but can no longer be held by the mosses or emerges later through the peaty soil, gathers in rivulets. Small systems of streams gradually merge and form torrents. These then thunder blithely through the valleys of the region, some of which have cut their way into the rock forming deep ravines. Rivers such as the Hill, the Schwalm, the Rur, the Warche, the Soor, the Our or Olef, the Trôs Marêts, the Holzwarche, the Warche, the Gileppe, the Getzbach, the Weser, the Eschbach, the Steinbach and dozens of small streams all have their origin in the High Fens and make their way, sometimes quietly and gracefully, but in most cases impetuously and wildly, through swampland, past rock walls and through old forests, before gushing out at the foot of the fens in dams or larger rivers. What wonderful pieces from Nature's inexhaustible jigsaw puzzle!

On their way, they pass five large dams, four of which are on Belgian territory. The oldest and probably the best known reservoir dam in the High Fens is the Gileppe dam. Construction of this dam, adorned by an impressive stone lion, 13.5 m tall and 300 tonnes in weight, was completed in 1875. The purpose at that time was to regulate the quantities of process water for the textile industry on the Weser. Apart from the Gileppe dam, the Weser (in Eupen) and Warche (in Bütgenbach and Robertville) have dams of their own. Together, they now supply more than a million people with drinking water and help to generate green electricity.

Rare lithalsas

No less exciting are the remnants of circular lithalsas, which can be found sporadically in the High Fens. A lithalsa is an oval or circular mound with a diameter ranging from a few metres to several hundred metres. The lithalsas formed in areas gripped by permafrost, when cores of frozen peat rich in ice or ice lenses were able to form in the ground. These are miracles of nature. Traces of such lithalsas are extremely rare in Central Europe. Apart from those in the High Fens, they can only be admired in very few other places, for example Wales.


 

The flora

Rare species of moorland and wetland plant can be found here, such as bog asphodel, cotton grass, heather, bog rosemary, chickweed wintergreen, cranberry...

The moor

Moors are peat-forming ecosystems. Peat is an organic sediment, which forms from the gathering of plant substances that have decomposed incompletely or not decomposed at all. A moor can only come into being if the quantity of water received (precipitation, snow, ground-water) exceeds the water losses (surface outflow, evaporation, plant transpiration) on a permanent basis. The soil needs permanent water saturation. And there is another major prerequisite: if peat is to form, there must be stagnant or slow-flowing water.

The giant sponge

The moor areas of the High Fens are dotted with velvety moss cushions and clumps. These consist of peat moss, a small, primitive sporophyte, which loves these moist conditions that are so low in nutrients. Over time, a thick layer of dead plant material forms which, entrapped in standing water and without air, is compressed over the centuries to become peat. The areas also feature heather and cross-leaved heath, cyperaceae, rushes and some species of sedge.

The fact that nature takes a whole year to form one millimetre of peat explains the moor's prodigal handling of the resource of time. Just like kitchen paper, mosses absorb large amounts of water. With their countless moss clumps, the High Fens are a giant sponge. Moss can absorb several times its own dry weight in ground-water and rainwater. Peat moss can hold three times its dry weight in water! That's a pretty good achievement! It enables sphagnum, as peat moss is also known as, to survive in dry periods too. Not only the living peat mosses are excellent holders of water; the dead peat layer beneath them can also hold a large amount and only releases it very slowly indeed. One thing is certain: The High Fens won't turn into another Sahara all that quickly.

Plants typical of the High Fens

Although the aura of the moor sometimes alternates between gloomy and mystical, there are plants which ensure a joyous, colourful, fresh display at times. For example, common cottongrass and hare's-tail cottongrass. When spring comes to an end, they give the moor a fairylike character with their little white curly heads. On their featherweight strands, the white cotton balls let the wind carry the filigree seeds out over the moor. At the beginning of July, the flowering bog asphodel lays a yellow garland around the expanses of open water. And there's common sundew too. The leaves of the sundew are equipped with tentacles which, with the sticky droplets they hold, lure inquisitive insects and are able to digest them thanks to enzymes that the plant itself produces. The proteins from these luckless insects are a welcome change in the menu of the moor landscape, which is otherwise rather dull.

In the drier wood and heath landscape, hikers will also find cranberry, bilberry and bog bilberry, which produce little dots of colour that give the moor a new coat of paint here and there. Other botanical eyecatchers are pieris, marsh gentian, crowberry and chickweed-wintergreen.

 

The narcissi in bloom – a spectacle of nature

In April, hikers and nature enthusiasts can witness one of the most spectacular natural miracles of the region on the hillsides of the High Fens. In the valleys of the Holzwarche, the Jansbach, the Olef, the Perlbach and the Hohnbach, millions of wild narcissi transform the landscape into an orgy of yellow for a few weeks. Every year, thousands of hikers are captivated by this paradise of perfumed floral magnificence with its yellow shimmer. Then, they peregrinate to the High Fens on both sides of the German-Belgian border to see the narcissus in bloom and experience this spectacle of nature at close quarters.

> Information on the narcissus in bloom


 

The animal world

The black grouse – an endangered bird species

The High Fens are home to some genuine survival artists from the world of animals and plants. They love the heavenly tranquillity of the fens, yet they appreciate the tough living conditions and sophisticated equilibrium of a functioning ecosystem. And there's one particularly endangered species of bird among them: the black grouse. Lyrurus tetrix is a member of the grouse subfamily and has found a habitat in the High Fens. In the spring, the cocks gather for their spectacular courtship display. They attempt to win the favour of the lady of their choice with a spectacular performance, while putting their male competitors in their place with the ritualised fighting display. Sadly, things don't look good for the black grouse. The situation only needs to deteriorate just a little bit further, and the High Fens will have lost one of its treasures for ever.

Resettlement

However, in collaboration with German and Dutch specialists, a team from the University of Liège is aiming to bring the black grouse population in the High Fens back up to a better level. Ten specimens were released in the High Fens in 2017 and another 18 animals from Sweden in the spring of 2018. According to the organisers of the project, there is hope that the black grouse will succeed in settling again and breeding in the High Fens.

> More info www.wwf.be

 

Birds that breed in the High Fens are the pygmy owl, Tengmalm's owl, goshawk, red kite, middle spotted woodpecker, grasshopper warbler, meadow pipit, red-backed shrike, raven and black stork. During spring and in autumn, hikers can also observe large flocks of vociferous, trumpeting cranes, which stop off in the moor to take a rest. The established winter guests include marsh hawks, shrikes, crossbills, bullfinches and redpolls. With a pair of binoculars, many a feathered inhabitant can be admired here.

Butterflies in the High Fens

Large wild animals such as red deer, roe deer and wild pigs frequent the fens, together with wild cats, badgers and foxes. But the High Fens with their moorland areas, woods and river valleys are also home to various different kinds of butterfly. Blue and red coppers, the bog fritillary, the lesser marbled fritillary, the moorland fritillary and the silver shark moth are rare gems of nature among these graceful artists of the air. Bound to certain habitats and specific host plants, they populate the roof of Belgium. Hovering above the moor landscape, 37 different kinds of dragonfly which hunt smaller insects are known to exist. Being the rarest, the subarctic peat-moor hawker can be considered the most spectacular among them.


 

High Fens – Eifel nature park

Since it came into being in 1971, the nature park has been a cross-border park: 70,000 hectares in Belgium and 170,000 hectares in Germany. The nature park has its own administration in each country, but there is a joint German-Belgian commission which lays down the common landscape and development plan. In North Rhine - Westphalia the nature park administration is headquartered in Nettersheim. In the Rhineland-Palatinate, it is in Prüm.

Measures implemented by the nature park

The aim of this institution is to promote nature and the environment in harmony with the socio-economic needs of the population. The current administration team at the nature park thus carries out concrete projects: in conciliation with the proprietors – private owners, communities, non-profit church associations – restoration measures are implemented in cross-border projects for the protection and care of threatened habitats and species.

A few examples:

  • thinning out the spruce population to re-establish the natural flora and fauna in valley wetlands along meandering watercourses;
  • protection of the banks of streams and rivers in pastureland – because the hooves of grazing animals destroy typical bank profiles and water fauna;
  • a project designed to protect the freshwater pearl mussel in the Our valley.

Alongside these conservation projects, the nature park also draws up expert reports for all building applications made inside the nature park, with particular heed being paid to risks to nature and the environment. On the plateau of the High Fens, in collaboration with the forestry administration department, the nature park tries to control and channel the high numbers of tourists who flock in when snow has fallen.


On January 18th, 1971, on the initiative of the Province of Liège, the GoE Naturpark High Fens – Eifel was set up with the aim of promoting the establishment of a nature park in the east of the province. In 1984, the first stone was laid for the erection of the Naturparkzentrum Botrange – Haus des Naturparks, on the edge of the large conservation area of the High Fens. Since it was built, the nature park centre has received several thousand visitors per year. It is the easternmost institution in the Province of Liège.


Nature park – conservation area

The nature park was a precursor project. It wasn't until July 16th, 1985 that the nature park achieved legal recognition thanks to the Walloon Decree on Nature Parks. Since then, it has been administered by a commission. It is important in this context to remind the reader of the difference between a nature park and a conservation area:

  • In a conservation area, only measures for the protection and preservation of the natural flora and fauna are tolerated. There are no residential areas.
  • In a nature park, by contrast, there are villages or even towns to be found. Attempts are being made to promote nature and the environment while taking into account the socio-economic needs of the human population.

The conservation area of the High Fens extends to cover approximately 5,000 hectares and is strictly protected. It is administered by the owner, i.e. the Walloon Region – Department of Nature and Forestry. The High Fens – Eifel Nature Park, by contrast, covers an area of 70,000 hectares, from Eupen to Ouren on the Luxembourg border. The conservation area of the High Fens is located in the nature park.


 

GO Nature – magazine & information map

A window to primaeval times

On 28 pages, the special edition 'GO Nature' provides comprehensive information on the history, geology, fauna, flora and the special features of what is now the nature reserve and the influence it has had on the surrounding landscape. The new magazine invests in high-quality pictorial material and the expert knowledge of recognised authors. The things you can learn from it include the mystery surrounding its genesis more than 10,000 years ago, facts from cultural history, an explanation of why the black grouses do their ritual mating dance, and the mysteries of the bog mummies that have occasionally been found over the centuries.

> order GO Nature magazine & map free (only available in german, french &dutch)

Info map of the High Fens

A folding map with the most important information for hikers and nature enthusiasts who wish to experience the moor right close up. The map is supplied along with the 'GO Nature' magazine, but it is also available for free on its own.

> order the High Fens info map (german version) free