The Mechelse Heide: magnificent nature with a rich past

The Mechelse Heide is famous among nature lovers from Limburg and far beyond. Hikers frequently visit this beautiful area, where heathland, lakes and woods exist next to each other and the strongly rolling landscape offers vast panorama’s. But what is it that makes the Mechelse Heide so unique?

There are not that many places in Flanders where you can find an area of heathland of 700 ha. At the Mechelse Heide, you can still find plenty of space to truly enjoy peace and quiet. On top of that, it is connected to the other areas of the Hoge Kempen National Park, which makes it part of a green oasis of no less than 5,750 ha.

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Because of its location at the eastern edge of the Campine Plateau, there are some intense differences in height and unique panorama’s until beyond the country’s borders. It is the only Flemish heathland area where you can enjoy those kinds of height differences.

In 1967, the Mechelse Heide was recognised as nature reserve and today, it’s even under European patronage. This partly because rare fauna and flora like red heath, the smooth snake and the European nightjar can be found there.

Inhabited since the Stone Age

The vast heathland in Maasmechelen is not natural. Once, there mainly grew broad-leaved forests. From even before the Christian Era, man started to burn down woods to replace them by fields. This also happened in Maasmechelen and the surrounding areas. Finds from the Stone Age and the Roman period indicate early inhabitants, who quickly started to grub up the birch and oak woods growing there.

When one plot of land was exhausted, people burnt a new plot. After a while, heath started to grow on the wasteland. Thanks to grazing sheep and people cutting off the upper layer of soil for stable straw, the heathland was preserved and expanded for centuries.

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 (foto : Yvette Wasiak)

The rough grounds

The parts of vast heathland, which separated the towns’ centres, were called the ‘rough grounds’. Those were barren, desolate and even dangerous, because highwaymen and other unsavoury characters roamed around. The Maasmechelen formerly independent municipality Eisden is a nice example of a typical village in the Campine surrounded by wilderness.

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This changed in the 19th century. The government wanted to make the barren grounds profitable again by converting them into agricultural land or forests for wood production. In Maasmechelen, mostly Scots pine was planted. The current Mechels Bos (‘Mechelen Forest’) originated from this period. When at the beginning of the 20th century people found coal in the Limburg Kempen, the coal mine of Eisden and its Garden District were constructed in the middle of the heathland. The demand for pit-props accelerated afforestation as well. Still, quite a large area of heathland was maintained. Today, this part is still managed together with a shepherd and his sheep.

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Next to that, in Maasmechelen you can find former sand and stone quarries which now serve nature, for example the Kikbeekbron. In this wetland, half-wild Konik horses graze between clear blue ponds and rough heathland.

In short: this area has a rich history. Therefore, the Mechelse Heide, together with the other areas of the National Park and the surrounding mine relics, is presently in the running to be designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Rare animals

The fact that the landscape was created by man takes nothing away from its ecological value. ‘Heathland’ in fact is a collective term which includes different kinds of plants and small shrubs. Thereby, biologists distinguish between dry and wet heath, which are each home to their own specific fauna and flora. In Maasmechelen, wet and dry heath both occur. Here, you not only find common heather and cross-leaved heath, but also rare bell heather. Kinds of broom and purple moor-grass thrive, just like the colourful carpets of moss and lichen.

Hares, rabbits and roe deer feel at home in Maasmechelen. The Mechelse Heide is a varied biotope for lots of rare summer birds, like the European stonechat, the tree pipit, the woodlark and the nightjar. Next to those, you can obviously also find plenty of common species of birds who love nothing more than to treat you to a singing concert.

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(foto : Patrick Keirsebilch)

The warm sand and the sun attract lots of reptiles, like the harmless, non-poisonous smooth snake. The moor frog, natterjack toad and other amphibians gratefully make use of the ponds. A lot of species of dragonflies and water birds, among which grebes, geese, swans, ducks, herons and cormorants, enjoy those as well.

Birds of prey like buzzards, sparrowhawks, goshawks and even the rare hen harrier hunt from above. On the ground, there’s plenty of life as well, with lots of ants, beetles, spiders, grasshoppers and wild bees, often rare kinds. Numerous butterflies, among which the grayling, the orange tip and the swallowtail butterfly, flutter past the edge of the woods.

Ecotron

(foto : Liesbeth Driessen)

 Since heath is such a specific biotope, it is used at the Ecotron, a unique research centre next to Connecterra, the other entrance to the National Park in Maasmechelen. Here, for a couple of years now, researchers have been measuring the effect of imitated climate scenarios on the heathland vegetation.

Charming in every season

The Mechelse Heide is a quiet area where you can fully calm down with nature’s sounds. Especially during the winter, it’s wonderfully quiet on the heathland and in the surrounding woods. Would you like to be the first to leave your footprints in a fresh layer of snow on a cold winter morning? The Mechelse Heide is the place to be.

 

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As soon as the sun shows itself and warms the sand, the temperature climbs a couple of degrees higher here than elsewhere. The open country is perfect to enjoy the first rays of sunshine during spring or to make the most of the last late summer days.

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 Obviously, it’s also lovely to be on the heath in summer! As from July, the bell heather shows its delicate, pink flowers. This rare plant is only found in some places in Flanders, of which the Mechelse Heide is one. Is the blazing sun too hot for you? No problem! You can just retreat to the woods and enjoy the cooling shade. 

At the end of the summer, common heather is blooming and the heath turns into a sea of purple. Right after the heath has finished flowering, the first fungi appear. Especially in the surrounding woods at the Mechelse Heide, there’s a wealth of fungi. This way, each season offers a different experience…

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Already in the 19th century, the unspoilt character of the Mechelse Heide attracted lots of artists and writers. Follow in their footsteps and get inspired by this unique bit of ‘rough’ nature.

Practical information

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At the entrance at Joseph Smeetslaan 280, 3630 Maasmechelen, you will find a large car park, hotel and catering facilities, and the point of departure of several walks, among which the paved Zandloper path, an interactive path for people in wheelchairs. You can also join a walk at Eisden Station and campsite Kikmolen.

During the National Heath Days at the end of August you can experience the Mechelse Heide even more intensely.

‘Entrance’ linken naar https://www.nationaalparkhogekempen.be/nl/toegangspoorten/mechelse-heide

‘National Heath Days’ linken naar https://www.visitmaasmechelen.com/nationale-heidedagen